WEST ORANGE, NJ — People from all over the tri-state area braved Saturday’s rainy weather to descend upon the grounds of the newly purchased monastery at 29 Ridgeway Avenue in West Orange.
Many said they were curious and wanted to learn about the religion and meet the Buddhist monks who currently reside there: Bhante Suddhāso, who grew up in the United States and has been a monk for 10 years; Ayya Soma, who grew up in Italy and has been a monk for two years; and Ayya Sucitta, a visiting monk, who is originally from Korea and has been a monk for 25 years.
As guests poured into the stained-glass-laden building, they removed their shoes to participate in talks led by the monks and met Russian native Irina Radchenko, who is currently studying to become a monk while living at the monastery. Guests also toured the facility and enjoyed traditional teas and a vegetarian lunch prepared by the monks.
Bhante Suddhāso said one of the reasons for holding the event was to let the community know that he and his fellow monastics are easy to talk to. He shared that so far, they have experienced warm welcomes from their neighbors.
According to Bhante Suddhāso, Buddhist monasteries are traditionally community centers where members of the public can come together to learn to become better people. He said that guests often learn how to meditate, practice mindfulness and learn to be more present and aware with every single moment, developing wholesome qualities of mind. He also shared that Buddhism is a way of life and an approach to training the mind.
Ayya Soma explained that Buddhism is not something that replaces one’s beliefs or religion, but can rather coexist with whatever beliefs people have. She added that Buddhism is a way to take care of yourself.
Beginning in March, the monks plan to implement a regular schedule of free, donation-based programs, for the community. The programs will consist of talks on Buddhist practice, meditation classes and a weekly tea, where people can enjoy tea and chat with the monks about anything that comes to mind. Plans for a community garden and community meals are also in the works.
Prior to coming to West Orange, Bhante Suddhāso and Ayya Soma started "Buddhist Insights," a grassroots organization with a mission of connecting people with Buddhist monks and nuns of all Buddhist traditions. In 2016, they began running a monastery and retreat center called the Rockaway Summer House at Rockaway Beach in Queens, NY, where they held retreats nearly every weekend.
According to Bhante Suddhāso, Buddhist Insights was started after Ayya Soma pointed out that it was difficult for people who live in cities to encounter Buddhist monastics teaching traditional Buddhist teachings in English.
He explained that although there are many monasteries in the world, most aren’t easy to reach. Some are located in the woods or mountains, he said, and people often do not realize they exist or don't know how to become involved. He added that most monasteries allow guests to stay there for as long as they want, but that most people don’t know to ask.
Since the New York space was a rental—and they’d found that people were happy learning from monastics—the monks decided to find a spot to purchase. The goal was to find one that was close to New York but offered a more natural setting; and West Orange fit the bill, they said.
“We were looking for a place that would be easy for city people to get to but would have the peacefulness of a more remote location,” said Bhante Suddhāso. “This location fits that nicely.”
Ayya Soma added that the West Orange monastery "is the perfect spot" because it’s "very peaceful and beautiful" there.
Due to their vow not to handle money, the monks said they depend upon the kindness of others and welcome donations from the community. Since the monks are both vegan and vegetarian, they said that a community garden will help to feed them as well as visitors, volunteers, neighbors and those on retreats.
The monks also said they welcome members of the community to stop by to enjoy a meal with them, drop one off or to cook there and stay for a meal and conversation.
“If people want to come by and offer meals, that’s very welcome and is very traditional in Buddhist countries,” said Ayya Soma.
Bhante Suddhāso added that whatever food they don’t eat is donated back to the community.
Volunteers are also welcome, he said—especially members of the community who want to help the monks manage the community garden or help them indoors with electrical work, carpentry and general handyman tasks.
At Saturday’s event, the monks were met with much enthusiasm and welcoming attitudes from attendees.
“I’m glad they took over this historic building and gave it a good purpose so that it stays in the community forever,” said West Orange resident Sally Malanga. “I walked around. I experienced the stone. It’s very visceral; it makes you feel connected to the earth and to all of nature because stonework does that to you. The grounds are very peaceful and beautiful, and they plan on having a wonderful garden as well. It’s a terrific addition to the community.”
Fellow resident Hannah Attermann, who has an interest in Buddhism and meditation, said she is excited to have a meditation center in West Orange.
Cedar Grove resident Leslie Valavanis, who shares Attermann's interest in Buddhism and meditation, shared that she visits an old Ashram called the Kripalu Center in Massachusetts to meditate and do yoga and that she felt that same peaceful feeling at the West Orange monastery.
“When I walked in, it just felt like a spiritual place,” said Valavanis. “I felt like I just wanted to sit down, meditate and sit quietly.”
Savitra Kaur of West Orange said she attended the event for "community and spiritual awareness" and that she "loved it."
"I want to be part of the community, grow with them and offer whatever I can bring to them and share with them,” said Kaur.
Many of the guests said they plan to make future trips to the monastery.
West Caldwell resident Gerard Rudoshko, who has been practicing meditation for about 12 years and is currently studying to teach mindfulness and meditation, said he is looking forward to making some more trips over to the monastery.
Randy Elman, who lives right next door to the monastery and takes meditation classes at the local JCC, said that she loved the presentation and “will definitely come back.”
Tuli Patel of Short Hills, who practices Buddhism, echoed these sentiments, saying that her experience at the event was fantastic and that there is no question she will be back.
“It’s not usual to have practicing monks in your neighborhood, you usually have to go quite far away,” said Patel. “This is very big for us.”
Malanga expressed the belief that the monks came to West Orange "because they were needed in this area.” She concluded that it is wonderful to see West Orange "attracting an organization that sponsors peace and personal growth.”