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#AndrewSingerChina Newsletter Vol. 2, Issue 27

Today’s Encounters with Asia in the Hudson River Valley (Part 2) visits a Buddhist Maitreya Center near where I reconnected with Asia at Vassar College in Part 1.


Encounters with Asia in the Hudson River Valley (Part 2)

I had a free afternoon before my college reunion weekend was to begin. A Google search pinged a Buddhist temple, the Maitreya Center at the Palpung Thubtan Choling Monastery, in nearby Wappingers Falls. This Tibetan Buddhist community is only seven miles south of campus.

After driving up a long, weathered driveway, I crested a hill overlooking the Hudson River down in the distance. The bright sun (the thermometer had pushed past ninety degrees) beat down on this quiet Buddhist retreat in the Hudson Valley. The water sparkled. A large white and yellow stupa shimmered. The red brick monastery building sat stoic.

The Monastery belongs to the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism and is a branch monastery of the Palpung Institution. The Center contains Tibetan-style Vajrayana and Chinese-style Mahayana shrine halls and promotes the study and practice of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism. I personally have always felt more of an affinity for Mahayana Buddhism than Tibetan.

Prayer flags flapped in the hot breeze. Birds chattered in the surrounding woods. Crunchy grass crackled underfoot as I walked down to the river overlook and the sacred stupa. The golden Buddha within was locked behind cheery red doors. A host of pesky, flying insects hovered close as I sweltered.

The stupa is a sight to behold. It is a symbol of the Buddha’s enlightened mind. The Buddha statue inside a stupa is filled with precious Buddhist relics. This holy structure “…is a field of enormous merit which benefits all beings by preventing disease and obstacles, and by promoting harmony and prosperity. Making any connection with the stupa is a particular blessing for those who are sick, dying, or experiencing obstacles.

Moving back up hill, I removed my shoes and entered the hushed presence of the main Monastery building.

The Maitreya Center is meant to inspire compassion and peace, which is especially important in these difficult times. Maitreya, the next buddha, is renowned for his loving compassion towards all beings. In fact, the name Maitreya means loving-kindness—impartial, great compassion for all. Similarly, when we cultivate love and compassion within our own hearts and minds, it will bring peace to the country and create the stability for the Dharma to flourish.

This day was dedicated to fasting, chanting, and no talking (so said the schedule written on a small dry erase board). Several worshippers sat on pillows in the middle of the large, open main shrine room chanting responses to the leader’s deep, sonorous voice. Two drummers beat an accompanying cadence. The head of this room is graced with a towering statue of Maitreya Buddha, who is flanked by more modest statues of White Tara and Guru Rinpoche.

I moved silently away from the devoted and began walking down the side hallway. In the far corner at the end of the hallway where the main building comes closest to the stupa outside, Skanda (aka Wei Tuo) guards the teachings of the Buddha.

The Founder, Lama Norlha Rinpoche (Rinpoche is an honorific for respected religious teacher) arrived from Tibet in America in 1976. This site was founded in 1978 and took shape over the following four decades (stupa early 2000’s, temple building 2007, and Maitreya Center 2016). Lama Norlha Rinpoche “retired” in 2017 after he was discovered to have had sexual relationships with numerous female students over the years. He passed away in 2018 with the debate about his human legacy still fresh.

Across from Skanda is the doorway into the Mahayana Hall. This room overlooking the Hudson River was empty. Shrines to Sakyamuni (Amitabha Buddha), the Medicine Buddha, and the Bodhisattva Dizang line the three walls that are not glass. Pillows for the faithful to meditate wait on the floor.

I have a complicated relationship with Buddhism. A general non-follower of organized religion, I nonetheless find comfort in Buddhist temples. What draws my eyes is the architecture, what tickles my nose is the incense, and maybe what calls my spirit is the culture. Yet, the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path do resonate. This being said, actually being able to empty my mind and meditate in the attempt to release desire as the means to eliminate suffering constantly elude me.

The leader of the Karma Kagyu sect of Buddhism is called the Karmapa. The Karmapa is “the embodiment of all the activities of the buddhas, or the one who carries out buddha-activity. In the Tibetan tradition, great enlightened teachers are said to be able to consciously control their rebirth in order to continue their activity for the benefit of all sentient beings.” The story of the present Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, attests to this.

After the 16th Karmapa died in the United States in 1981, Apo Gaga (“Happy Brother”) was born to a nomad family in Eastern Tibet in 1985. It is said that in “the months prior to his birth, his mother had wonderful dreams. On the day of his birth, a cuckoo landed on the tent in which he was born, and many people in the neighborhood heard a mysterious conch-like sound, resounding throughout the valley. In Tibet, such events are considered auspicious portents of the birth of an enlightened teacher….In the late spring of 1992, the now seven-year-old announced to his parents that they should move their encampment to a different valley, and told them to expect a visit from traveling monks. They did as he said and, shortly after setting up home in the new location, a group of Karma Kagyu lamas arrived.” This Karmapa has visited the Maitreya Center here in Wappingers Falls three times (2008, 2011, and 2015).

I find the following teaching of interest because I have often responded (somewhat lightly) to the question why I have such a passion for the topic of China that I must have been Chinese in an earlier life.

In order to practice the Dharma taught by the Buddha it is necessary, at the outset, to establish confidence in its validity. First we must understand that we have had countless lives in the past and will continue to have countless lives until we attain the level of a Buddha or Bodhisattva. Belief in the existence of previous and future lives gives rise to confidence in the truth of karma, the effects of actions. This confidence is based on understanding that unvirtuous actions lead to suffering and virtuous actions lead to happiness. Without this conviction, we will not abandon unvirtuous actions or perform virtuous ones.

“Understanding the Need for Spiritual Practice: A Teaching by Kyabje Dorje Chang Kalu Rinpoche” (Kagyu Thubten Chöling Monastery, 1986).


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