Saturday, October 30, 2010

Buddhists Promise a Renaissance for Amsterdam, New York

 Author with Ziguang Shang Shi and his congregation


The World Peace and Health Organization has promised to invest a billion dollars in Amsterdam, New York and local people have had a mixed reaction. 

After residing very quietly for several years at an old Jesuit retreat house in nearby Auriesville, the Chinese Buddhists have moved into town in a big way. Since June, Ziguang Shang Shi and his congregation have paid over $3.5 million dollars in cash for two closed Catholic churches, a former elementary school, over 40 foreclosed homes and a large summer camp in Ephratah.

 Amsterdam voters narrowly approved a referendum to sell 
the Clara S. Bacon School to the WPHO

On September 21, local news reported that one of the purchased churches had been burglarized and eight Buddha statues, as well as some copper piping, were missing. Two local men, said by police to be suspects in other burglaries, were soon arrested. 

 Five Buddhas Temple, 
formerly St. Casimir's Catholic Church


On October 17, the Albany Times Union carried a front page article entitled, “Utopia Along the Mohawk?” which brought regional attention to the WPHO.

The group’s leader, Ziguang Shang Shi, also known as Lucas Wang, says that he was told  in a dream by Jesus to transform Amsterdam into a great spiritual and economic center. "Our purpose is to spread the message of world peace, our message of all humans being healthy. To spread the message that all religions are the same God, the same family. There is no conflict."

The article described the group’s self-proclaimed mission:
  
“Calling themselves the World Peace and Health Organization, Wang and his followers tout an ambitious plan to transform this old mill city along the Mohawk River into a booming monument to health and wealth. They said they can invest $1 billion to make it happen. Through investments and donations from China, the Buddhists envision Amsterdam as home to a solar energy plant, an elaborate cemetery, a cultural exchange center and a theme park. The Buddhists' investments so far are impressive -- the community has purchased properties totaling about $1 million.”

One of the many abandoned factories in Amsterdam

In a city strewn with abandoned factories, where population has fallen from a peak of  nearly 40,000 to less than 18,000 today, such a huge investment has been welcomed by community leaders. After the Buddhists purchased two dozen foreclosed homes for prices ranging from $700 to $65,000 at an auction on August 11, Mayor Ann Thane  told the Amsterdam Recorder: "Their vision is to bring people to reside here and work here, so hopefully this is wonderful for the city of Amsterdam.”

But many local people are skeptical about the Chinese-speaking newcomers. “Why are they buying all those houses?” asked a waitress at Emmy Lou’s Diner on Chuctnundra Street.  “My husband says they’re trying to take over the whole town,. And I don’t want to see what they’ve done to St. Casimirs.  I loved that church.”

Other residents are quite happy with the newcomers. Joe Pavlacka who lives near St. Michael's Church, welcomed WHPO investment in the city, although he did wonder if the group was actually the Falun Gong, a sect that has been persecuted by the Chinese government.  A man from Mayfield has attended two WPHO meetings and is quite interested in possible health benefits. And a professional pet sitter who brought her disabled sister to a meeting was also curious  about promises of improved health and well-being.. 

Several people commented on what good neighbors the WPHO people are, and how pleasant and unthreatening they are. “They are not out there committing crimes,”  said a man attending the temple dedication ceremony on October 27.

Personally, I received a warm welcome in my first visit to the Five Buddhas Temple, as St. Casimir’s is now known, on October 21.  After expressing my curiosity, I was invited to sit in on a lecture being given by Ziguang Shang Shi.  He was speaking in Chinese to a group of  33 people, who  were sitting cross-legged and giving him their full attention.   

 Ziguang Shang Shi speaking to his congregation

Ziguang soon brought me into the discussion, with WPHO spokesperson Jenny Wang as interpreter, and I was able to pose to him a series of questions which local people were asking:

1-  How many people will be coming from China to live in Amsterdam?

2-  Will the people from China settle and raise families here like previous immigrants?  Is it their goal to become American citizens?

3-  Why is the group buying so many properties? And, in particular, why do they need large properties like the Clara Bacon School and the former Adirondack Center Camp in Ephratah?

Ziguang answered none of these questions but simply repeated much of what was in the Times Union article: Jesus told him in a dream to come here; he has come to bring health to the people of Amsterdam; he will bring prosperity by opening new factories and other businesses.

However, despite what I initially saw as evasiveness, he did make a more productive dialogue possible by asking the congregation to face me, while he stepped aside. Our conversation continued, with Jenny’s assistance, for nearly an hour, after which we visited the main hall of the beautiful old church and viewed the five Buddha statues which have recently been imported from China to replace the statues stolen in September.

Statues of the five Buddhas in former St, Casimir's Chruch,
prior to unveiling at temple dedication ceremony

 During my first visit, I was invited to return for the formal dedication of the Five Buddhas Temple on October 27, which I did. Prior to the ceremony I had the opportunity to speak one-on-one with several members of the WPHO. Most spoke no English at all, but two women had a bit of English and responded warmly to my few phrases in Mandarin. The first lady told me that she had met Ziguang seven months earlier in Hong Kong and followed him here. The second lady said that she had come to this country one month ago.  

Other than Jenny Wang, I met only one other newcomer who speaks fairly fluent English. Unlike most of the women, Regina has shaved her head, which is common among Buddhist monks and nuns. She told  me that she has been with Ziguang since meeting him five years ago in Hong Kong.

A Chinese-born woman with very little English, now living in Albany, told me that she had been confined to a wheelchair until a few months ago when he cured her. She is now able to walk without a problem. "He is a very nice man," she told me.


In the course of my conversations with the WPHO congregation over two days, I came to a number of conclusions:

They are native Chinese, and the overwhelming majority speak little to no English.  I am unable to determine the total number of people who have come from China and now  live in one of the WPHO-owned buildings, but I have met 36 members.


Two American citizens, Mark Tennyson and Dayan Arias, were present both days, and Mark said that he wanted to learn Chinese.  He also reported that following spiritual exercises with Ziguang had greatly improved his health.  


 Ziguang presiding at temple dedication  ceremony; 
Dayan and Mark serve as honor guards to his right

I did not ask  those from China about immigration status or visas, but Ziguang Shang Shi said that he was a citizen of the world and did not intend to become a U.S. citizen.

They do not see themselves as  necessarily settling here permanently and answered with blank stares when I asked if they sought to become American citizens.  At one point, when Ziguang said he might go to France if people here did not want him, I asked the group if they would stay in that case or if they would follow their master. They cried out in almost one voice that they would follow the master wherever he went.

Of the 36 people I met, 25 are female. They vary in age. None are adolescents and a few are middle-aged or elderly. There are evidently no children.  Those who have come with Zihuang from China do not have employment outside the WPHO. Four of the men whom I met, including Mark and Dayan, are either US or Canadian citizens and do not reside in WPHO-owned buildings.

Although they resist the label, they see themselves more as missionaries, or perhaps pilgrims, than  immigrants. They, like many Buddhists, say that their way of life is not a religion, and that people can share the master’s teaching while keeping their own religions. However, their goal is to bring other people to share their faith in the master and his teachings. I saw only two women wearing the saffron robes traditional for Buddhist monks and nuns.


WPHO spokesperson Jenny Wang translating 
for Ziguang at temple dedication ceremony

It is the congregation’s understanding that they are here to prepare the city for a huge influx of people who will come from across the US, and from other countries, to share in the master’s teachings about serenity and health.  They believe they will be working on the many properties the group has purchased in order to accommodate the anticipated thousands.

However, there are some very large questions that neither the master nor his congregation has answered:

Despite the large financial resources they apparently have, is there any evidence that the WPHO will invest in enterprises which bring significant employment to those outside the group?

Although they say they want to attract thousands of visitors to their proposed healing and teaching center, what leads them to think this is at all likely?  

Who is funding the WPHO? The source of income is not clear, and this raises questions about the motivations for the extensive real estate purchases, and whether the Amsterdam community can count on them in the long term. 

And the fundamental question: What is the shared  belief system and is it as entirely centered on one man as it seems? 

It is traditional for a Buddhist sect to form itself around a single enlightened individual, and this has been true from the time of Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of the religion, down to the Dalai Lama today. Unlike, say, a pope or the prophet Mohammad, the enlightened one is seen as a  person with a powerful understanding of reality - but  not as a messenger or interpreter of a God outside the human mind. However, it is easy for those raised outside this tradition to become suspicious when so much wisdom or authority is attributed to a human being.

Ziguang gave me  his  self-published book, Holy Master Ziguang Shang Shi in USA; Miraculous Stories of Salvation, which is composed entirely of personal testimonies of what most Americans  would  call faith healing. Being a skeptic by nature, I found this to be immediately suspect. However, it is not unusual for physical healing to be associated with Buddhist religious practice, although it is certainly more central to them than to other Buddhist sects. (See "Buddhism and Healing", an essay by Alfred Bloom, professor emeritus at the University o,f Hawaii.)

As to the master personally, he certainly seems affable. However, he will speak  only Chinese and all communication goes through translation by his aide, Jenny, and this limited my ability to get direct answers to my questions.







WPHO members preparing for temple dedication ceremony



My greatest concern, after several hours over two days spent with the WPHO group, is with the isolation of  the members from China and their dependence on their leader.  They appear to be without families or children; they are in a completely alien culture; they cannot speak the language; and if they wished to leave, many would be unable to even ask directions to a bus station. I am not sure of their visa status but they do not have employment outside the group. 

In outward manner, they are very friendly and polite, and this has created a positive impression among many local residents. But only two or maybe three women I have met are able to communicate with English-speaking people and none, as far as I know, can communicate with the sizable Spanish-speaking population of the neighborhood. 

Therefore, they have to depend entirely on their leader and his two or three key aides for interpretation of the society around them. Jenny Wang consistently speaks for the group to the English-speaking world, and she evidently mediates all interaction with those outside the community. Zihuang is 67, and  I am sure his people hope he lives to be 120. But if he becomes incapacitated or passes away, it appears to me that they would be totally lost and the community would disintegrate - with it, all the promised hopes for a rejuvenated Amsterdam.

Imagine yourself placed in a similar situation in a remote city in China, and you will inevitably share my concern for these very engaging newcomers to our region.


Video of Ziguang Shang Shi, his followers and visitors from
Amsterdam community at Dedication of Five Buddhas Temple
October 26, 2010


video



Update November 3, 2010

Thinking about the plight of the Buddhists I describe in this post, I volunteered to share with them a simple team-based language learning strategy that I developed in an earlier career. It’s an easily replicated system in which pairs rehearse typical dialogues, then engage in conversation with native speakers, and then receive feedback from a second pair. The whole process requires only four people going out into the community. They could then model it for others in the group.

I spoke with with Ziguang’s chief aide Jenny and told her what I wanted to do, and asked how many people from China were in the Amsterdam area. She wouldn’t give me a definite number, or even a ballpark range. After some further questions on my part, she clarified by saying that people came and went from China.

This information suggests a very different perspective on the group. It seems possible that Ziguang only has a small staff here and that pilgrims arrive to meet with Ziguang  at the Western Shrine, as the Auriesville Retreat House is known to them – and then come to Amsterdam for only a limited time to  learn about how the proposed world city of peace and health is progressing. The building of this new city seems central to their developing mythology – and the stream of pilgrims from China, if that is  actually the case, may simply be comprised of small donors who are contributing to the real estate purchases. They could be compared with American Christian donors going to Africa, say, to see for themselves the results of missionary work they have supported.

 The Western Shrine in Auriesville (formerly Jesuit Retreat House)
from WPHO Chinese-language promotional material

If he is as short-handed as Jenny Wang implies, this could explain why so little is being done with the properties already acquired. Ziguang may not have anywhere near the 30 or 40 settlers that I thought he did. On the other hand, a clerk told me that the group has shown up at the Home Depot with “suitcases of cash” to buy building materials.  

There is still no convincing explanation for the extensive and continuing purchase of  real estate in Amsterdam and environs.  But more transparency on the part of the WPHO people would do much to allay local misgivings. And the first step would be for his staff to acquire enough English to speak in a relaxed way with people in Amsterdam – and I hope I can encourage them in making that possible.

5 comments:

  1. Nicely written. I've been following this story and had also planned to go to the dedication ceremony, but had a conflict.

    Thanks.

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  2. I was baptised and married at St. Michael's and also attended Bacon school in it's inaugural year in 1967.

    To say that I'm skeptical about the Buddhist's intentions would be quite an understatement. The selling of a public school to a foreign interest that doesn't even pay taxes for a sum that won't even buy a house in some parts of our country is mind boggling to me.

    I left Amsterdam a little more than a decade ago largely because of hopeless leadership and direction. I have to believe that the Chinese recognized the leadership void and untapped potential of Amsterdam and are laundering suitcases full of cash to eventually obtain a large stake of the city.

    I do know that if an American citizen showed up with suitcases full of millions of dollars to buy public property there would be an investigation with the assumption that it was drug money. This shows that foreigners have more rights and freedoms in our own country than American citizens do.

    I hope that I'm wrong because it would be wonderful if Amsterdam could get back on it's feet again, but unfortunately I doubt that I am.

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  3. While I understand and share the concerns of "Anonymous," I do disagree with his/her statement that "This shows that foreigners have more rights and freedoms in our own country than American citizens do."

    The situation in Amsterdam does demonstrate the power of money in one of the many economically devasted cities in our region, but it is not accurate to say that newcomers from other countries have more rights than citizens. Migrant laborers, mostly from Latin American countries, keep many of our farms profitable but are an invisble minority without any political clout, and they are not making the kind of money that will enable them to buy their own farms.

    Also, in recent years Albany has provided a welcome to hundreds of political, ethnic and relgious refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, Burma and other countries. The State Department provides a small income for these refugees for only six months, after which they have been finding work and keeping a low profile. The assimilation process is being handled by a very dedicated,largely volunteer non-governmental group, The US Committee or Refugees and Immigrants. (USCRI)They are taught English by an entirely volunteer faculty, who have been trained by Literacy Volunteers.

    In the wake of decades of population loss caused by de-industrialization, such newcomers are a welcome addition. My largest concern with the WPHO group is that they quite explicitly state that they are not immigrants and have no intention of settling and raising families in the Mohawk Valley. If Master Ziguang says they should leave, they will leave.

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  4. Michael, it's as simple as this; If an American citizen showed up to buy a public school with a suitcase full of cash, he/she would have to show the IRS the paper trail of how said money was obtained.

    Apparently a foreigner doesn't have to do so. Therefore, foreigners have an unfair advantage towards purchasing United States real estate.

    This is the tip of the iceberg. Our lawmakers have made it conducive to do business abroad and and has hamstrung the American citizen from competing.

    Traditionally, when immigrants came to our country, they worked and became citizens. There is no reason for them to do that now with the relaxed laws for illegal aliens and for illegal labor.

    China isn't for sale but we are. Why fight us when you can buy us? I wouldn't be surprised if foreign banks and investors now hold the titles to over half of America. For example, my mortgage has recently been sold to a bank in India.

    Good, even handed article though.....

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  5. HFM BOCES hosts free English Language Classes in Amsterdam just down the road from St. Casmir's. (518) 736-4340

    ReplyDelete