Dharma Classes Focus on Ecumenical Buddhism at Chuang Yen Monastery

Statue near the entrance to the Monastery

“The goal is not just to learn the texts, but how to live your life.”

By Alison Rooney

With twenty-five hundred or so years of history behind its practice, it makes sense that it takes a reasonable commitment of time for those new to Buddhism to come to understand even the fundamentals. At the Dharma Training Buddhist studies classes offered at the Chuang Yen Monastery in Kent, that commitment is a three- to four-year one. The curriculum is cyclical, with no overlap of years, and those interested may join in any of the first three years, and study, for example, the year two program, followed twelve months later by year three with year one coming at the conclusion. The fourth year, which always comes following the completion of the previous three, is optional, and it is for those students who (by invitation of the teacher) wish to become lay Dharma teachers themselves. Most participants have found out about the course through simple word of mouth, website research, or through visits to the monastery.

The course is ecumenical and covers the three major Buddhist traditions, Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana. The first year of the program provides a broad overview of Buddhism. The second year, which the teachers call the most difficult, focuses on Buddhist sutras, which are texts traditionally regarded as groups of words, usually moral or inspirational, said by the Buddha. The third year focuses on Buddhist philosophy and its applications in fields such as science, psychology, and psychotherapy. Throughout, the teachers help the students with the assigned readings. The classes meet every other Saturday for a full year, and culminate in a three-day mindfulness retreat at the end of the year (this began on Jan. 1, 2012 this year).  Participants are expected to come to all classes. They do not have to currently be Buddhists, nor do they necessarily have to plan on becoming Buddhists. Maeve Eng-Wong, a teacher and co-coordinator of the class said, “We have had students who have used the class and the teachings of Buddhism to enrich their own religious beliefs … While remaining true to Buddha’s teachings, class members explore Buddhism in the United States. Students are encouraged to share and explore ways that Buddhism influences their lives and expresses itself in American culture.”  Some students are complete beginners and others have been practicing for over 30 years.  Class members have become involved with Buddhist Global Relief, a large charity, and also have created a Prison Ministry, becoming mentors to prisoners to help them to learn more about Buddhism.

Woo Ju Library, where classes are held.

On a recent Saturday morning, more than 20 students and teachers gathered, having removed their shoes outside of the large room in the Woo Ju Library where the classes meet.  A three-hour session, which Philipstown.info was allowed to observe, began with a meditation. Participants, most of whom sat cross-legged on cushions on the floor (chairs were provided for those for whom this was difficult), quietly reflected on readings aloud from The Heart of Prajnaparamita, a sutra, and from the Five Wonderful Precepts.  The Precepts are a moral and ethical foundation for the happiness for the individual, the family, and society. The period of meditation was initiated and brought to a conclusion by the ringing of a small bell. This bell ringing, by a participant serving as bell master, punctuated all of the morning’s proceedings. After the meditation ended, everyone moved to an ‘open table’ grouping, for a presentation by a student, followed by a discussion. Each student, as part of their education, is required to present to the group at least once over the course of the year, and to come up with discussion questions designed to allow participants to “share the way,” or, in the words of one of the lay teachers, “How do we have the Dharma come alive in our busy Western lives in a way meaningful to us but also true to the teachings of the Buddhists?” Mentors provide help to beginners presenting topics that may be new or unfamiliar.

The 225-acre grounds of the monastery were leased by the Buddhist Association of the United States (BAUS) in 1975 from a private owner, Dr. C.T. Shen, in 1975, and construction began in 1981. In 1989 Dr. Shen, a shipping company owner raised in China who started studying Buddhism seriously upon moving to the United States, donated the land to BAUS. The name Chuang Yen means “Majestically Adorned.” The adornment refers to the adornment of the Buddha’s teachings. The monastery includes the Great Buddha Hall which houses a 37-foot statue of Buddha Vairocana – the largest Buddha statue in the Western hemisphere; Kuan-Yin Hall; Thousand Lotus Memorial Terrace; the library; statues of Kuan-Yin and Amitabha, and a landscape designed with the theme “Pure Land” in mind. According to the Monastery’s website, “Traditionally, Buddhist monasteries not only served as a focus for religious services and festivals, they were also community centers of learning and activities — both religious and secular. Carrying on that tradition, Chuang Yen Monastery extends an invitation to the public to view the religious services and festivals held here, and be the place to cultivate awareness to develop wisdom.” According to lay teacher and dharma teaching program co-coordinator Fernando Camacho, the monastery was “founded to bring all sects of Buddhism together in an ecumenical temple, geared towards practitioners of Chinese descent, but also intended to spread the Dharma locally.”

Meditation takes place on the floor near this shrine

The monastery practices Pure Land, a form of Mahayana Buddhism extremely popular in China and Japan, but within that context they wanted to reach out to Westerners, and one way is through these classes. The classes were begun by The Ven. Dr. Thich Tri Hoang, founder and guiding teacher of the Dharma Teacher Order, which he created to support the spread of Buddhism in the West. Primarily geared toward Westerners, the course, according to Camacho, “blends the intellectual aspects with trying to learn meditation, and, with meditation, to put the teachings into real life and inspire teachers who are then willing to go out into the ‘real world.’ The goal is not just to learn the texts, but how to live your life.”

At the Open Table discussion, Eduardo (last names were not used), a first-year student, opened his talk, relating to a chapter in the text used, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way.  Describing the text as “words of dedication and inspiration to all who suffer fear and anxiety” the speaker invited participants to “let each of us make an aspiration that this will bring the light of trust to dark places within or without.”  He went on to distill some of the teachings: “Wisdom is at once simple and profound. At the heart of the teaching is the philosophy of emptiness, which is enlivening and paradoxical. It challenges our comfort zone — it’s a guide and a riddle; it is life itself. It requires openness of heart and mind, humor and gentleness.”

Producing a chart more commonly seen at optometrist’s offices, Eduardo announced that today “We’ll have an examination of self. How do you see yourself?  Many of us have ‘I’ trouble!”  Closer examination of the eye chart showed that it was instead an ‘I’ chart, the letters, rather than being random, instead offering a fundamental teaching of form and emptiness. The second page of the ‘I’ chart humorously introduced an ad for Trifocals, these special spectacles promising to “Bring the left eye, right eye and wisdom eye into focus; See relative and absolute truths more clearly and accurately; Enlarge your field of vision and engender greater compassion!”

Great Buddha Hall

Eduardo sprinkled humor throughout the talk, invoking the office of optometrist of Buddhism: “Welcome to the Middle Way.  Feel free to sit mindfully, or not.  Do both or do neither. Either way, the doctor will see you.”  He moved on to more serious themes, calling the notion of being a “solid, unmovable, unchanging self” holding fixed beliefs of “I am this leads to the judgment that you are this or that, which gives rise to isolation. The Dharma practice is not about right or wrong, it’s about questions.”  Also addressing the Buddhist concept of emptiness, he said the English word “implies a void, so it may not be the best word. It is rather an understanding of the unification of the mundane with the absolute … our practice is meditation.  The Middle Way practice is a balanced vision. In our meditation we walk the wire between this and that. We don’t do the practice simply for our own benefit — it’s so we can walk into the pain of the world with great compassion and no fear.”  Never losing the underpinnings of humor which illuminated all things conceptual, Eduardo concluded his talk by announcing that “I’m now going to give you a quote from one of my favorite yogis: ‘When you come to a fork in the road, take it. Yogi Berra.’”

Questions were then posed to all participants to consider:

  • Recall a time when you faced a blind spot in your life?  How did you become aware of this?  What did you come to understand?
  • Who is the “I” optometrist in your life?  Who helps you through your ‘I’ trouble?
  • Where do you meet opposites in your life?  Describe your Middle Way practice in these moments.
  • How would you explain the Dharma of emptiness to a third-grader?

The class then took a brief break, and before coming together again took a “walking meditation” circling the room in silence for 15 minutes. A discussion of the questions raised followed.  Here are edited and abbreviated responses from various participants:

~ My children are my teachers; they teach me about expectations, projections. There’s a lot of grasping, and beliefs that there is only one way for success.  We know that is not true — we know it intellectually, but it is difficult to guide for children.  So, as Buddhists, we read and also practice.  I had a mentor, 20 years ago.  She said that in the beginning of her meditation practice there were lots of gifts, and then the gifts stopped.  I have a distinct memory of her and this is what she means by ‘when the gifts stop.’  You become aware of the ways you have been judgmental and it doesn’t feel like a gift at the time. From my time working in a pediatric neo-natal unit as a social worker I remember meditation visions coming to me of parents sitting with children who were going to die.  In meditation I related to their sufferings. I loved and felt them; we are them.  In understanding we are each other I became filled with tremendous gratitude.  That’s the gift of meditation, if we do the lessons long enough. 

~ Crises are opportunities.  It is hard to see that when you’re in them.  Having a blind spot is a way of opening up your life.  I’m sure there’ll be more blind spots along the way and I hope to have a different perspective on how to use them. 

~ I think you have it reversed: I think that third-graders can teach us everything. 

~Wanting things to stay the same was my blind spot.  Everyone can be that optometrist. 

~The optometrists in my life come from the least-expected sources.  I’m always hoping to find them in the scripture.  But I find them from my 12-year-old son; he shows me duality.  My wife says, “If you’re so mindful, why did you do that?!” I have a not-well-educated patient, and he talks like crazy when he comes to see me.  Some things he tells me are so profound.  We need to look for these optometrists everywhere or we deny our chance of learning. 

~I’ve confronted all of these questions in one afternoon this week: in a trip — with my mother — to the Department of Motor Vehicles!  It brought home the mundane realities versus the other realities. 

~We forget our own internal wisdom.  We forget the quiet places.  The ultimate answer is the contemplation of all of our experiences.  We have to have the wisdom to move within that and not move away.  When I got quiet, I knew what I had to do.” 

Carved stone on the grounds

The class ended with another, shorter period of meditation following the conclusion of the discussion. Class participants are encouraged, but not required, to eat lunch together at the end of class at the vegetarian lunch, open to the public, provided by the monastery in the dining hall each Saturday (there is a $6 charge for the meal) from April through December. The monastery grounds are closed to the public from January through the end of March.

Those interested in the training should visit the Dharma classes website for more information, including class schedules, lists of books and much more.  Individual contact information is provided on the website.  Also,  the BAUS website has a great deal of information on the Chuang Yen Monastery itself. Included in the Dharma Training website are these points, among others:

As Dharma students and Dharma teachers, we strive to:

~follow the bodhisattva path, which is to work for the awakening of all beings, including ourselves.

~support our learning with practice. Without practice, knowledge is hollow.

~contribute time, energy, and material resources to bring the Dharma to those who are in need.

~meet anger with patience and a calm mind.

Photos by A.Rooney 

One thought on “Dharma Classes Focus on Ecumenical Buddhism at Chuang Yen Monastery

  1. Dear Alison – nice article and images. You will be glad to know that, while one can always take issue with a written piece, on the whole you have done an excellent job of presenting the group, the monastery, and the intent. Most importantly, from a reporters point of view, you got all the names right. Keep up the good work. Look forward to more of your writing.