“EVERY DAY I work like this takes five days off my life,” grumbled the worker amid a cloud of fiberglass and marble dust as he scoured the bottom of a colossal head of Vairocana Buddha with a power sander. Later that day a large crane hoisted the enormous head onto the torso, completing the 45-foot sculpture. The monumental statue—the largest of its kind in Europe or North America—will form the centerpiece of a new five-million dollar Great Buddha Hall at Chuang Yen Monastery, a Chinese Pure Land Buddhist center located in a forested area of Putnam County in southern New York State. When completed, the Great Buddha Hall will reach an apex of over 70 feet, enclose nearly 24,000 square feet, and seat a capacity of 2,000 devotees. Eventually to be surrounded by a walkway and a moat with foot bridges, the temple must be built around the monumental sculpture of Vairocana. The statue itself will rest upon a platform replicating a lotus blossom in which will be carved 10,000 smaller statues of the Buddha.

 

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Images by Douglas Winiarski

With the Great Buddha Hall as its crown jewel, Chuang Yen is the vision of layman C.T. Shen, a retired Chinese businessman and founder of the Buddhist Association of the United States. In 1975 Shen donated 125 acres of his own property to start the monastery and he has funded much of its subsequent development. The center has grown to include Kuan-yin Hall, a temple housing a rare Chinese statue of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Woo Ju Memorial Library, which contains one of the largest collections of Asian religious materials in the country, a memorial burial terrace, refectory, and living quarters for resident monks—all built in traditional T’ang Dynasty architectural styles.

 

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Images by Douglas Winiarski

The center attracts busloads of Chinese Buddhists from New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, and beyond. Like Shen himself, the Chinese sangha is comprised of mostly first generation, well-educated middle-class laypeople. With its traditional art and architecture, the monastery, along with a sister center called the Temple of Enlightenment in New York City, seeks to provide a refuge for Chinese Buddhist emigrants to congregate with other Pure Land practitioners throughout the Northeast.

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