Buddhist Temple Relocates to Accommodate Growing Number of Followers



Statues of Buddha in different forms at the Kadampa Meditation Center New York City. Photo by Julian Covin

After almost 20 years, the Kadampa Meditation Center New York City has purchased its own place on West 24th Street in Chelsea to accommodate the growing number of followers attending its Monday General Program class, which provides basic introduction to the Buddhist teachings for beginners.

“We have been saving for a very long time to afford our own space,” said France Roy, a member of the center’s administrative team. “Our biggest class on Monday, which has about 100 people, didn’t fit in the old space. This new space also has two meditation rooms so we can offer more classes.”

Kadampa Buddhism is a school founded by the Indian Buddhist master, Atisha in AD 982-1054. The New Kadampa Tradition – International Kadampa Buddhist Union (NKT-IKBU) is an international association of Buddhist study and meditation centers that follow the Kadampa Buddhist tradition. Buddhism teacher Geshe Kelsang Gyatso founded the NKT-IKBU in 1991, which asks New Kadampas “to present Dharma in a way appropriate to their own culture and society without the need to adopt Tibetan language and customs.”

The NKT has been criticized by some who argue that the organization is not part of the ancient Kadampa Tradition. NKT practitioners do not recite prayers in Tibetan, practice reliance on oracles, recognize Tulkus (reincarnated teachers) or use prayer wheels or prayer flags, all of which come from the Tibetan culture.

Utterly silent in a city filled with noise, the new Chelsea center is on the ground floor, with a meditation space and class room lined with six ornate statues of Buddha in various forms, presented with milk, oil, incense and other traditional tokens of appreciation. In addition, the center has a bookstore with literature on Buddhism, ritual items, accessories, audio CDs, and Buddhist art. It opens officially on Oct. 26 but has already begun its daily and weekly classes. “We are on the street and so anyone who passes by, can see us,” said Julian Covin, KMC-NYC assistant education program coordinator. “We grew organically. We are not involved in preaching or converting people. It is a service.”

According to a 2007 Pew Research Center survey, Buddhism was the fourth largest religion in the U.S. after Christianity, atheism, and Judaism. The study said that in sharp contrast to Islam and Hinduism, Buddhism in the U.S. is made up of a mix of converts and native-born adherents. Only one in three American Buddhists describe their race as Asian, while nearly three in four Buddhists say they are converts.

“At the Kadampa Center, we have a diversity of people coming in. We do not ask them what race they represent or whether they are converts,” said Covin.

There were four students on a Sunday, in what part-time teacher Irena Shtemler, 53, called a usually crowded class of 15 to 20 students; she spoke about karma and peace in a very soft and compassionate voice.  Reciting the peace prayer from the book, Shtemler said, “Learning to cherish others is the best method for establishing world peace.”

Shtemler teaches one Teacher Training Program class a month. Born a Jew, she moved from what was then-Soviet Russia in 1979. She started practicing Buddhism 22 years ago because she likes the idea that there is no higher being in this religion, that anyone can become a buddha, a person who has become enlightened. “In other religions, you look up to the higher being for the answers, Buddhism raises you to a level that you can answer your own questions,” said Shtemler.

The center has three different levels of programs, the General Program introducing basic Buddhist view and meditation for beginners, the Foundation Program to study Buddhism systematically, and the Teacher Training Program, for those wanting to become Buddhist meditation teachers.