Chinese Immigrant Shares Buddha’s Teachings at New York’s Largest Temple

Credit: Lilou Margueron

Credit: Lilou Margueron

In Chinatown, where Canal Street meets the Manhattan Bridge, beside a two-story-tall sign advertising the Lucky Star Bus Co. and beneath a billboard for Honda cars, stands the Mahayana Buddhist Temple.

The beige brick building houses New York City’s largest place of worship for followers of the teachings of the Buddha and the oldest Chinese Buddhist sanctuary on the East Coast, according to the site. The religious center is managed by Xue Jun, 58, who also found his life’s purpose in the temple.

Nine years ago, Xue, who goes by Bill for English speakers, lived in Shanghai. Back then, he didn’t believe in Buddhism.

“I went to the temple every year during the New Year and prayed for happiness and health,” Xue said. “But I didn’t believe it. You just pray and give some money. That’s the Chinese tradition.”

Little did he know that, by a twist of fate, he would move to a city on the other side of the world with a few words of English in his pocket and a single objective in mind: taking care of the Canal Street sanctuary.

“When I came here, I think I realized I was wrong,” Xue said. “Buddhism is totally different from what I understood or knew before. It’s all about wisdom, how to handle life.”

Today, many Chinese immigrants still come to the site to pray, all of them carrying different wishes: health, fortune, good marriage, money. But Xue hopes they could learn more about the Dharma, the Buddha’s teachings.

“It’s not the right way because they always think about themselves,” Xue said. “But no matter if their wishes come true or not, at least, we can still give them hope.”

I first met Xue on the last day of November. I had scheduled an appointment with him to learn about the temple’s history and Mahayana Buddhism. From the busy street, I made my way to the first floor of the house of worship, walked past two laughing statues of Maitreya, and entered the reception, where I waited for Wang Jiayi, the site’s public relations representative, to pick me up.

Behind a glass counter, a middle-aged Chinese man named Chen Ting was selling a variety of items: golden and glossy white statues of Buddhist and Chinese religious deities, jade-colored jewels, wooden beaded bracelets, stone necklaces, a red paper fan with painted flowers and two porcelain teapots. Incense perfumed the air. I could hear distant chanting from the main hall, which houses a six-foot-tall golden Buddha holding red lotus-shaped lamps in his hand.

A few minutes later, Wang appeared, wearing large glasses and a Buddhist beaded bracelet on his wrist. We walked outside and he led me to the adjacent building and a series of stairs. Finally, we reached Xue’s office, a room crowded with statues of bodhisattvas, Chinese folk religion deities, Buddhas, Tibetan Tanghkas, delicate vases and other objects gifted to the temple. For two and a half hours, the three of us talked.

Xue doesn’t like to talk about himself. To him, the only story that matters is about the Dharma. But he did share something with me: a conversation he had with a monk in 2017 at a retreat the Mahayana temple owns in South Cairo, a village 125 miles north of New York City. At the time, Xue had just taken over as manager of the sanctuary.

“We were discussing the management of the temple and what I should do,” he said. “And the monk told me, `You should make a bigger wish.’”

According to Xue, this bit of advice changed his life. The wish he made, and the life goal he gained at that moment, was a lifetime endeavor he set himself to achieve — spreading the Dharma and its Four Noble Truths: suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the Noble Eightfold Path leading to the cessation of suffering.

From that moment on, Xue’s life goal found itself in alignment with the wishes of the temple’s founders, Ying Xingjiu and Jin Yutang, a married couple who immigrated from Taiwan in the 1950s. They are remembered in the U.S. as James and Annie Ying.

This wasn’t the first time Xue’s life had intersected with the Ying family. He knew them years earlier as a relative – Xue declined to say how they were related. “They were very kind,” he said.

But like him, the two founders didn’t like to share much about their lives or achievements, despite a relatively high profile within the Chinatown community.

James Ying, a businessman, was president of the Sino-American Chamber of Commerce in Chinatown and a supporter of the Nixon administration’s normalizing U.S.- China relations. In Xue’s office, walls are covered with pictures in which he appears with public figures such as New York Governor George E. Pataki and First Lady Rosalynn Carter at the White House, and often with prominent Chinese businessmen. Annie Ying came from a devout Buddhist family in Wuxi, China. In 1962, she established the first Chinese Buddhist religious center on the U.S. East Coast — the Eastern States Buddhist Temple — one of three sites in the city owned by the Mahayana Buddhist Temple.

This year, Xue has been preparing the sanctuary for a newly crafted strategy to attract more visitors. He’s hoping to make Dharma talks accessible to the public. The temple just began meditation classes. In the fall, he assigned Wang a mission: recruiting English-speaking volunteers to promote the place of worship, especially on social media. “Hopefully we can attract more young people,” Xue said. “It’s good if we post as much as we can!”

Scrolling down on the Mahayana Buddhist Temple’s Instagram account, users will see different images of the Buddha, accompanied by short texts explaining the core principles of Buddhism. Wang, who crafts posts for the religious center’s Instagram feed and his personal WeChat page, told me he got into Buddhism after he left his birth country, China, to attend high school in the U.S. “I felt homesick, and I was looking for a support system,” he said. “That’s when I got interested in Buddhism.”

I asked Wang how he usually practices. Here’s what he told me:

  • First – Read some sutras, the scriptures that contain the teachings of the Buddha.
  • Second – Realize that you don’t understand anything of what’s written in the sutras. Try to find some explanations on YouTube, from famous masters.
  • Third – Apply the teachings of the Buddha, the Dharma, to your daily life. If you have time, go meet the master monk of a temple. Do some meditation. Wash your mind. When you feel a specific emotion, try to identify it, and why you feel this way.

At that point in the conversation, Xue, whose approach to Buddhism and peace of mind is quite different, intervened.

“The purpose of meditation is to calm down and to focus,” he said. “If you want to achieve that goal, you don’t need to do meditation. Because your mind can do that immediately.”

Wang said meditating to reach peace of mind is like going to the gym. “If I go to the gym every day, I will be used to it,” he said. “But if I don’t do it, I will maybe watch some TikTok, watch some videos, I will do something else. I cannot focus! My mind is like, in Chinese we say, a crazy monkey!”

Xue does not usually advise people on their practice. But this time, for some reason, it was different. He mentioned a saying that he remembered from a famous monk.

“Your heart, your mind, is like a pond,” Xue said. “You throw a stone into the pond. If you don’t touch it, if you don’t disturb it, you calm down naturally. You don’t need to do anything. If you try to achieve a goal, that is suffering. You can let it go.”

Xue continued. “You don’t need to have a practice at 7 p.m. after dinner, sit on some cushions to do meditation, cell phone off, light off,” he said. “You can leave the light on. You can leave the cell phone on. Do the meditation now. Because your mind is so peaceful. Because the life is just the life.”

Wang nodded in agreement. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he said.

I asked Xue what the Canal Street sanctuary meant to his family. “It’s our treasure,” he said.

Now, Xue hopes to make a difference for those who visit the Mahayana Buddhist Temple by helping them to learn more about the Dharma. But there’s one more thing he believes in: everyone should have a goal in life. “Like Elon Musk!”

About the author(s)

Lilou Margueron is an international journalist, born in China and raised in France. She’s a student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.