Tag Archives: Kalmyk

Unassuming Buddhist Temples

Note: This is another travel post. This will be the last. I am leaving New Jersey and will be arriving back in Changzhou on the 5th of July. 

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Chongfa Temple in Renmin Park, Downtown Changzhou

Spotting a Buddhist temple in Changzhou is fairly easy. The traditional architecture is the basically the same. The four points of every roof curve upwards. The buildings themselves all are yellow. In some cases, some of the windows in the walls or in the doors all possess ornate woodwork of intersecting lines and right angles. Never, ever do you see a temple with a white paint job. However, not all these places look the same — from the outside — once you leave Changzhou or China in general.

Just as the religion can be interpreted differently around the world, so can the look of a place of worship. This is extremely evident in Howell, New Jersey. The Garden State is perhaps more well known for have a high per capita amount of Catholic and Jews. Once a person gets closer to the northern end near New York City, there are also dense neighborhoods of Muslims, too. People do not often mention Jersey and Buddhism in the same breath. However, there is one notable community of Mongolians that has lived in the Garden State since the end of World War Two, and they have called Howell home for many decades now.

These are Kalmyks — otherwise known as Western Mongolians. These are people far outside the reach of Mongolia or the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia. Historically, they settled around Central Asia and areas of that could be described geographically that now fall into Russian or Ukrainian territory. The history of resisting Russian power goes back centuries, but in early Twentieth Century, they chose to oppose to Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War. Since the Red Army and communism won, the Kalmyks eventually had to flee. Some of them ended up setting up a community in southern Monmouth County, New Jersey.

As to be expected, casual American racism often lead this group to me misidentified by locals as ethnic Chinese or Japanese. Never mind that they landed in the USA able to speak their native language, Russian, and a few other tongues. They worked hard to embrace the very flawed, but inherently multicultural society that New Jersey essentially is. Many have married outside their ethnicity, and over the decades the small Kalmyk-American population has been shrinking. Their assimilation into American culture has also left their presence in Howell sometimes hard to spot. They own bungalows or two floor homes just like everybody else in the area.

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Fifth Street, Howell, New Jersey

Their three Buddhist temples, however, still remain. And these places look nothing like the places of worship you would find in Changzhou and other Chinese cities. These look decidedly suburban, and all three of them are located in residential neighborhoods. They are also small, and unassuming — easy to miss if you are not looking for them. Two of them look like your standard family dwelling with aluminum siding. Only one has a look of anything like the traditional architecture one might expect.

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Kalmuck Road, Howell, New Jersey

Religious difference might also fuel the differences in look between Changzhou’s and Howell’s temples. Many of Changzhou’s temples are Chan / Zen orientated, but with an ample influence of Chinese folk religion and Taoism. The Kalmyk’s Buddhism is more Tibetan in nature, and this can be seen in one temples ample amount of colorful prayer flags fluttering in the breeze.

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Prayer flags

I never had a chance to see the interior of the temples on Kalmuck Road or Sixth and Fifth Streets in Howell. I am sure if I called in advance and explained my purpose, I would have been given a tour. Essentially, I had just showed up and wandered around. I talked to two monks at two of the three places. They were extremely friendly, and chatted for a bit. Most were intently curious about what life was like in China — especially in how I described how the Buddhist temples in Changzhou were different from the from the small, quiet places they called their spiritual homes.

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Sixth Street, Howell, New Jersey

Once I parted ways and started on my way back to my father’s house, I passed by a few Russian Orthodox churches. Place, there were a few other Christian places, too. And then, I got stuck in traffic in Lakewood, which is filled with Hasidic Jewish synagogues and yashiva schools for Torah study.  The sidewalks there are often filled with orthodox Jews in their black pants, black jackets, black fedora hats, and neatly ironed white shirts. All of this, within just a few miles of each other, reminded of how much more multicultural New Jersey is than many other parts of America.