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LI’s oldest Buddhist temple celebrates 40th anniversary

Monks pray in front of the Buddha shrine

Monks pray in front of the Buddha shrine inside the Vajiradhammapadip Temple in Centereach on Friday, Sept. 2, 2016. The temple is having a weekend celebration in observance of its 40th anniversary. Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

The oldest Buddhist temple on Long Island is celebrating its 40th anniversary and expects as many as 150 monks from within and outside the United States to attend ceremonies this weekend.

The two-day celebration at the Vajiradhammapadip Temple in Centereach starts Saturday. It also will include leaders of the Long Island Multi-Faith Forum.

The center features a striking Buddhist temple where monks live and spend hours in meditation each day. Leaders hope the weekend’s events draw attention to the recently built temple, which they said is little-known to most Long Islanders but is open to visitors and those who want to learn more about Buddhism.

“Here everyone can come in. You don’t have to be Buddhist,” said Sky Hughes, the temple’s director, who is a native of Thailand. That is the home country of the half-dozen Buddhist monks who live at the temple.

Hughes said she had lived in nearby Stony Brook for two years with her husband, James Hughes, before she learned about the temple. The couple met while he was working in Thailand in the 1990s.

“Most people do not know about it,” James Hughes said, adding that “when you go to events there it’s like being in Thailand.”

The temple has 1,200 members who travel from as far as Queens, the Bronx and Connecticut, Sky Hughes said. It is tucked into the back of a 5-acre parcel off Rustic Road in a residential neighborhood, on the property of a former church the Buddhists bought several decades ago.

“People drive past and don’t even know a temple is here,” she said.

Buddhist leaders said there are few Buddhist temples on Long Island. Another small one operates out of a house in Port Jefferson Station and is run by a monk from Sri Lanka who also spends part of the week at a Queens temple.

Other small groups of people interested in Buddhism meet in the buildings of other religions, such as a group that gathers at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Stony Brook, said Sheila Sussman, one of the participants.

Interest in Buddhism in the United States is growing, said Janet Gyatso, a professor at Harvard Divinity School who specializes in Buddhism. Part of the religion’s appeal is its ability to give people a sense of serenity in their often-stressed lives, she said.

The United States is home to an estimated 3.8 million Buddhists, making it the third-largest religion after Christianity and Judaism and accounting for 1.1 percent of the population, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center.

The number of Buddhists across the nation is projected to grow to 6 million by 2050, according to Pew, and the numbers of Muslims and Hindus are expected to climb as well.

The Centereach temple, as an organization, was born in the Bronx in the mid-1970s when Buddhist monks from Thailand formed a center there, Sky Hughes said. By 1981 the group had bought the Centereach property because they needed more room. Two years later, they also bought a property in Mount Vernon in Westchester County, though the Centereach location became the temple’s focal point.

They operated for years out of the original church on the property. Five years ago, the group opened a Thai-style temple and residence constructed toward the rear of the parcel.

The monks’ needs are provided by the religion’s adherents, who supply them with food, clothing and other necessities.

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