One of our guidebooks is called New York Off the Beaten Path, and we refer to it, and to other guidebooks, for ideas for local trips. One such suggestion in this book is a place that’s not far from our home, and yet, at the same time, is a world apart. It is the Chuang Yen Monastery in Carmel, NY. I decided to visit it in recent weeks, and went for a first visit on June 15th, and then back for a return visit earlier this week.

I should mention, before I describe this place, that I have had a bit of an interest in Buddhism and in eastern spirituality for some time. In college, I took a world religions course, and found various concepts from Buddhism and Taoism to be appealing. I can, for example, recall writing a short paper on Taoism after reading some of the writings of Lao Tzu, its founder, and contemplating the meaning of this image.

Everything flows into everything else, is more or less how I interpreted this.

As far as Buddhism, it has long struck me as being perhaps the most quintessential of (initially) non-western spiritualities (or religions, if you prefer; I’m still not entirely sure of what to call it). While I am far from an expert in it, my sense of it is that it stands for compassion, for non-violence, for an awareness of suffering, and for the act of meditation, as being among its principles. Buddhism is also not necessarily incompatible with other religious paths, as was demonstrated to me by the Jesuit Catholic priest and theology professor who introduced it to me, and who also happened to be a zen roshi. I think that it is also of note that the Buddha in India (as well as Confucius and Lao Tzu in China and Socrates in Athens – wise men all) proceeded both Jesus and Mohammed and other New Testament prophets by hundreds of years. I think that westerners ought to get to know these eastern traditions.

I have also had a bit an interest in Buddhism via the writings of the Beats, writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, who, among other achievements, also helped to lay the foundations for the counterculture of the 1960s. Kerouac once wrote.

The awakened Buddha to show the way, the
chosen Messiah to die in the degradation
of sentience, is the golden eternity. One that
is what is, the golden eternity, or God, or,
Tathagata—the name. The Named One.
The human God. Sentient Godhood.
Animate Divine. The Deified One.
The Verified One. The Free One.
The Liberator. The Still One.
The Settled One. The Established One.
Golden Eternity. All is Well.
The Empty One. The Ready One.
The Quitter. The Sitter.
The Justified One. The Happy One.

Interestingly, Kerouac was originally from a blue-collar Catholic family in Lowell, Massachusetts so there were both Christian and Buddhist elements to his thinking/writing, as shown in this perhaps uncertain meditation on the nature of divine being, in his attempting to juggle both points of view.  And as far as Ginsberg, much of what he wrote reflects the influences of both a Jewish background and a chosen Buddhist path.

So, I have had some interest in Buddhism, from a variety of different sources, for some time. I know that Jolie also finds it to be of much interest for herself as well.

In my first attempt to visit the monastery, I actually missed the entrance and drove right past it and wound up only getting to spend a short 30 minute visit there before it closed to visitors. This sign pointed the way to various buildings on the site.

Very helpful, actually. As I walked around a bit, one of the first things that caught my eye was the shimmer of water. I was thus drawn to a small lake, which is in the middle of  the Monastery, in back of the library, and is called Seven Jewels Lake.

It was beautiful. And, at the lake is a large statue of a Bodhisattva (which means, “an enlightened being,” which, presumably every committed Buddhist wants, ultimately, to be). If you look very closely, you’ll see a small Buddha sitting on the top of her head, as she releases water from her jar.

The lake is surrounded by walking paths, perennial flowers, various gazebos, and a bridge.

As I said, though, my first visit was very short.  I only got a quick glimpse of the location, and was not wanting to overstay my welcome  So I was determined to return and to see a bit more. On the return, taking place on this past Thursday, I wanted to start with the Great Buddha Hall, having read that it contains the largest indoor Buddha statue in the western hemisphere. So, that was my starting point. Here is the view I had as I approached the Hall.

Great Buddha Hall is in the background of this image. It is built in the architectural style of China’s Tang Dynasty (618 AD-907 AD), and was designed by the architect I.M. Pei. As I glanced up at it, I could see various groups of individuals walking around. One group, a young couple visiting from Boston, asked me to take a photo of them with their camera, which I gladly did, with this as the backdrop. As you can also see in this photo, this path (“Boddhi Path” – literally, the path of enlightenment) is lined with a series of statues of what are called “Arahants” (meaning close disciples of Buddha). I walked slowly and looked at these statues closely, and I was struck by how well the character, or essential nature, of these individuals were literally carved into being.

And as I got to the end of the path, I saw that among  the stone statues was a representation of an elephant, thus reflecting well on the northern Indian origins of Buddha, a land where elephants were certainly plentiful.

According to legend, before Prince Siddhartha – the  Buddha – was born, his mother, Queen Maya, had a dream in which a vision of a pure white elephant appeared to her as an omen of the impending birth of her son, which she took to be a sign of good things to come. She was then apparently filled with bliss, and her son was then born. I’ve also been reading that Buddhists have interpreted elephants as symbols of mental and physical strength. And also, to the extent that Buddhism and Hinduism have some overlap, the elephant faced deity Ganesh is perhaps thought to be an emanation of the bodhisattva  namedAvalokitesvara. Here is Ganesh.

The other striking element here, approaching the Great Buddha Hall, was the pair of wooden towers, built obviously to create ample sounds with the drum and the gong that each contains.

I’d love to get back again to hear the sound that this drum makes!

I then proceeded to approach the Great Buddha Hall, walking up a set of stairs, past a set of bright yellow flowers that a nun had just laid out at the foot of the stairs.

A sign on the door to the building asked that one remove one’s shoes and leave them outside, on a long wooden shelf, which I did. I then entered barefoot. And I immediately saw the very large, impressive, statue of the Buddha. As you can see, at its base were several smaller representations of the Buddha.

It was, indeed, a main focal point in the room, which was itself large and designed apparently for ceremonies involving a significant number of persons. However, while I was there, experiencing this space, the only others there was as Asian family, with two young kids who were sort of running around – at one point, the father was standing before the Buddha image, with his hands together in what appeared to be a moment of prayer. I then looked around. There were lots of impressive details, particularly the various scenes and figures drawn and painted on the walls.

I also spotted what appeared to be a prayer wheel and a wall of the same basic design.

I walked around inside this hall a few times and it definitely felt like a sacred space. I then went outside. Before I put my flip-flops back on, though, I thought it would be appropriate to sit, quietly for a moment, in the lotus position (I first sat this way, some time ago, in a meditation class I took in NYC) and tune into the sense of gratitude I was feeling toward the monastery for welcoming visitors like me.

As the Sutta Nipata, a Buddhist “Discourse on Good Will” suggests,

Then as you stand or walk,
Sit or lie down,
As long as you are awake,
Strive for this with a one-pointed mind;
Your life will bring heaven to earth.

It was now, as with the first visit, close to when the visiting period was over for the day and I wanted to be a good guest and to not overstay my welcome, so I decided that I would make my way back to my car. As I was leaving, I heard a strong percussion sound coming from one of the other buildings. I was very curious to go up to the door of this building so as to see if I could look in. However, I decided against it, out of respect for the possibility that it was a private ceremony. Two Buddhist nuns stood out on the porch of this building as this was happening.

As I walked back down the Bodhi Path, I decided to sit one last time and to take a photo of me doing so. So here I am with one of the Arahants.

And right before I left the grounds, I found a visitor’s center that had some brochures. One had various information about the Monastery and its buildings. I also grabbed a schedule of events; the monastery offers guided meditations and vegetarian meals on the weekends. I hope to return again, with Jolie, for both.

And one last link – writing this has also made me think of the song “Bodhisattva” about the Buddha, by Steely Dan. It’s a really joyous piece of music and a good way to end this.

Would you take me by the hand
Can you show me
The shine of your Japan
The sparkle of your China