Chuang Yen Monastery — a giant Buddha in the Hudson Valley

betty ming liu Travel 6 Comments

With the older folks in my family dying off, I’m going to a lot of funerals. They’ve become affectionate occasions to catch up with relatives. The latest gathering surprised me because I found diversity in the most unexpected location.

When people from Chinatown and Queens choose cremation, their survivors make the 90-minute drive north to Chuang Yen Monastery in the town of Kent. It’s a beautiful place to take in a little piece of Asia, enjoy a vegetarian meal and shop for Chinese trinkets. There’s a towering Buddha in the temple, with Chinese-style buildings built around a central courtyard.

buddha

This 125-acre site, located 60 miles north of New York City, is in Putnam County. The population is mostly white. But every weekend, Chinese city folks converge on the monastery, which is also home to the Buddhist Association of the United States.

On a recent Sunday morning, we were among some 60 families that had come to inter the ashes of loved ones in their final resting place. Their remains were sealed in individual marble urns that looked like heavy stone cookie jars. Chanting monks in long brown robes led the way as we fell into line behind them.

monks

The urns were carried to two sweeping outdoor walls filled. The square openings in the walls reminded me of bank safety deposit boxes. Everyone watched as the urns were placed one-by-one into designated slots that were enclosed with brass name plates.

wall

A table of ceremonial food offerings included, of all things, bags of Cheetos and organic corn chips, along with packages of Chinese cookies. Apparently, the need to snack goes on forever.

offerings

At these Buddhist ceremonies, mourners often burn decorative paper versions of other supplies for the dead. We didn’t think anything extra was needed for the after-life. But other people burned pretend money and boxes containing little paper cutouts of stuff that could range from furniture to cars.

burn

Not being Buddhist, everything I saw was new to me. Well, almost everything. The gift shop had trinkets that reminded me of Chinatown. And the vegetarian meal, while not spectacular, was good enough. Plus, no one got sick on it — in May 2012, the monastery made headlines when 160 visitors were rushed to the hospital with food poisoning.

eat & shop

I enjoyed catching up with my relatives as we reminisced about our dearly departed auntie. The memories brought on a cozy wave of nostalgia. After a brutal winter, 70+ degree weather felt spectacular. Finding more diversity in the Hudson Valley delighted me. All in all, the experience reminded me to appreciate all that I have. Take nothing for granted!

If you ever want to visit the monastery, this map gives a sense of the layout. The grounds are well maintained, very clean. You can bring your own food too (no meat, please because Buddhists are vegetarian), and eat at picnic tables. Admission is free but donations are welcome.

map

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Comments 6

  1. What a beautiful place! I intend to be cremated when the time comes (hmmm…what a redundant statement – as if I might be cremated before the time comes! LOL) My ashes are to be scattered in the woods. I do however, specify in my will that there should be a stone in the old family plot. Back in the early 70’s I spent 3 amazing years traveling the county fair circuit through New England and the Midwest with Dr. Edison’s Medicine Show, purveyors of Dr. Edison’s Electric Elixer. My stone is to say my name and dates and then “one case, ladies and gentlemen, out of thousands of successes, where Dr. Edison’s Electric Elixer did not work.”

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    Author

    Toby, I love it! I plan to be cremated too. Like you, I want a green cremation that sends my ashes back into the earth. Where we belong. This monastery was a surprise and a treat. Worth visiting if you’re ever in the area.

  3. Wow! This is a great post. I’m fascinated to learn that there is a monastery just out of NYC and the pics are great. They have a mix of honor and celebration. It’s nice to see that possibility at times of mourning.
    It’s great that you had a chance to connect with culture and connect with your relatives.
    So glad nobody got sick from the meal!
    xo

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      Author

      Thanks, Skye! You’ve hit the nail on the head — honor and celebration is the exact description. Mourning is always bittersweet for me. Let’s be honest: Families are full of drama and mine has plenty of it. But mourning is easier when the deceased had a full, long life. Which was the case this time; my aunt was 94 years old. A century of memories!

  4. Having worked in a cemetery for five years, I’ve learned a lot about Asian culture when it comes to death. The cemetery where I worked faced the hills to the north. Many Hmong and Chinese are being buried here. Ironically though, they are not being cremated but buried in caskets. Columbariums are available (holds cremations only) but I’m thinking as long as there is land available, ground burials will continue. The traditions are respected at this cemetery. Their monument memorials are well thought out by the family and you know the person who passed would have liked to have seen it. Similar to our Memorial Day, families come to sweep the monuments of their loved ones and place both food and flowers. What I liked most was the time that was spent honoring the deceased. That’s a tradition that most people in the United States are getting away from.

    Thank you for sharing your photos and experience. I bet your aunt would have loved to be in attendance to see this.

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      Author

      Julia, my parents are both buried, so everything you mention is so familiar to me. Yes, the respect for the dead is huge among immigrant families. It sort of fades with the generations. I have to admit, I hardly visit my parents; too painful in many ways. But thank you for pointing out the beauty in these trips to the cemetery. Thanks for inspiring me. I might have to go visit them this summer. :)

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