My Tour of Faith in NYC
By Marivir R. Montebon
New York City – The Big Apple is truly a world stage for everyone and everything, including religion. When in Chinatown, try and visit the Mahayana Buddhist Temple which is home to the largest Buddha statue in the US.
On a perfectly fine Saturday morning of May 6, my MA class at the UTS together with our teacher, Prof. Ronald Brown visited the Mahayana Buddhist Temple on 133 Canal Street and the smaller original one on historic Mott Street.
The Mahayana Buddhist Temple used to be an old movie house, the Rosemary Theater which featured adult films. It went into a stunning transformation, from being worldly to spiritual when it was bought and converted into a house of worship by Mrs. Annie Ying, a prominent Chinese businesswoman in New York. Her husband, James Ying, bought the property for her as a gift in 1996.
The temple is an eye-catching structure on the foot of the Manhattan Bridge with its red Chinese inscriptions and faux pagoda with gilded lions. It gives Chinatown the character signature of a Chinese temple, where business and faith meets.
A House of Worship for Chinese Immigrants
The first location of the Mahayana Buddhist Temple, officially called the Eastern States Buddhist Temple of America, Inc. is on 64 Mott Street that opened in 1962. It is still operational and has become a historic landmark in Chinatown.
Prior to the opening of this temple, Mr. and Mrs. Ying would conduct Buddhist services and prayers in a tiny space at the back of Mr. Ying’s store on 1544 Broadway.
Mrs. Ying chose 64 Mott Street for the Mahayana Temple because of its convenience and the great need to open a social club of aging Chinese men and women who wandered the whole day in Chinatown and drank coffee and chatted the day away.
Mrs. Ying found out that these Chinese people were laborers in China and thought of working temporarily in the US, save some money, and then would go back home to be with their families. But the communist revolution had cut communication ties with many of their family members. Hence, most Chinese elderly immigrants found it hard to return to China due to lost contact with families. They also needed to escape persecution.
They spend their days sitting and chatting, on the sidewalks of the Chinatown, drinking coffee, Mrs. Ying observed.
Upon realizing this, she opened a ‘social club’ for the elderly Chinese workers as well as temple. It became an instant hit in Chinatown. The old Chinese Buddhists finally had a sanctuary where they could socialize, drink coffee, and practice their faith.
Walking Into an Ancient Oriental Faith
A huge urn for burning incense is at the center of the front lobby and a statue of a Buddha is encased in a vestibule. The smell of incense reminds me that oriental culture has seeped into one’s lungs in New York.
For a dollar donation, one could pick up a rolled and rubber banded piece of paper which contains one’s fortune in a huge receptacle. I laughed at this signage reminding me on how truly business-minded the Chinese are.
Further into the building, I saw the largest Buddha in the city, a 16-foot high, 10-foot wide gold statue made of clay. The Buddha rests on a lotus flower and has a blue halo around its head. On the two sides of the wall, prints and paintings depict the major life events of Sidharta Gautama Buddha.
In front of the biggest Buddha is a well-lit square receptacle of a smaller Buddha standing amidst red lotuses in a pond. The receptacle has flowing water and its backdrop is a huge portrait of a Buddhist temple. Lotuses, flowing water, and incense are traditional Hindu and Buddhist symbols.
A huge rectangular table is on the middle of the temple where people can sit and celebrate Buddhist festivities.
At the left and right back corner of the main temple is a place designated for families to inscribe the names of their dear departed in order to honor them. There are plates of oranges and apples on the tables as offering to the dear departed.
A gigantic bronze bell is located on the right portion of the temple, close to the wall of inscriptions of Buddhists’ dear departed. This bell is struck several times during the day to begin worship.
The Landmark Temple on Mott Street
At the Mott Street temple, the main lobby stands the four-faced Buddha or Brahma with seated in lotus position. The bronze statue is in encased in glass, a real spectacle in that small historic place.
The many statues of the Goddess of Mercy is awesome, as well as the colossal, intricate sculpture of the many processes of Buddha attaining the Nirvana.
A Very Well Guided Tour
Molly, our guide had been very detailed in providing us information about the history of the temple and the Buddhist culture through the paintings, images, and statues. Mahayana Buddhism is one of the three major branches of Buddhism that takes roots from Hinduism. Molly drew a lot of parallelism in the life of the Buddha with that of Jesus Christ.
To my eyes, the Chinese culture will always be a stand-out because of its bright, bursting colors in temples or stores. Its presence is readily seen and felt, whether in wet markets or opulent hotels and grocery stores, the Chinese will usually make a distinctive mark.
In its ancient ancestry, the Chinese was a traditional influence of Filipinos, followed by the Spanish through Catholicism. Hence, coming to the Mahayana Buddhist temple was sort of a home coming to me.
The colossal Buddha in the temple was awesome. Had Molly not mention it, I would not notice that the Buddha had a puffy face, perhaps because it was created by an American student of the NYU and not by a native Chinese artist which could have made the face flat, like the typical Chinese. But Buddha got the big ears, she said, so the American artist got that artistic and cultural authenticity right. To worshippers, I am sure it would not matter much.
The way the Buddhists honor the dead by writing their names on a special wall and offering fruits, pastry, or coffee in the altar is an elaborate ritual that strikes me most. It has pagan and Hindu roots, and the Catholic Church has not eradicated such practice in the Philippines. To this day, we continue to honor our dead on All Saints and All Souls Day by preparing the favorite food of our dear departed and eating it later in the day in the celebration.
The influence of Buddhism and Catholicism is strong in my family. I am in harmony with the Chinese tradition of celebrating New Year in the onset of spring, which does not conform with the Gregorian calendar which opens the New Year in winter. For me, the Roman Catholic Church’s moving the New Year to January, the thick of winter, distracts our cosmic make-up of celebrating new life which is practically and naturally in the spring season.
I am amazed at the Chinese culture which abides by the phases of the moon and the seasons in trying to begin special projects or events in their lives. There is a perfect time for beginning projects, weddings, dating, etc., so that it conforms with the seasons, the sunrise, the full moon, etc. and become successful. This is still part of the pagan culture of abiding with natural laws.
Personally, some Buddhist practices such as welcoming the New Year in the spring, starting projects when the moon is rising, and venerating the dear departed will stay in me as a matter of heart-felt conviction and sensible tradition.
Also as a tradition, my friends and I went to a noodle house to eat our favorite Chinese dumplings and beef noodle soup after the amazing tour of faith at the Buddhist temples.