SOUTH PLAINFIELD, N.J. — On Jan. 25, Buddha’s Light International Association (BLIA-NJ) celebrated Chinese New Year at the New Jersey Buddhist Culture Center, located at 1007 New Brunswick Avenue in South Plainfield.  Ancient tradition, vegetarian feasts, reverent services, celebration, and wishes of good luck in the new year filled the weekend.  The event featured an “Exhibition of Dolls in Traditional Clothing from around the World” with 90 dolls adorned in the elaborate dress of 50 countries.  

“What I love most about Buddhism is the compassion,” said Yiwen Chiang, Elder Advisor in charge of cultural programs for the 2020 and former BLIA-NJ President. “We not only care about people in the temple, we care about the whole community.  We welcome all to come join us on this journey and to celebrate the new year.”

Mayor Matthew Anesh, Council President Christine Faustini, Councilwoman Melanie Mott, Councilman Joseph Wolak and Councilman Rob Bengivenga attended the event to ring in the “Year of the Rat.”

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“The cultural center here has done a great job over the years,” said Anesh.  “When you think about Chinese New Year, Lunar New Year, the Year of the Rat, it’s all about good fortune, taking care of others.  That’s the message that they drive home here.  BLIA has been very active in helping the schools and the greater community with social needs.  We’re honored to be invited as a council and a governing body to celebrate the New Year here.”

The Rat (子) is one of the 12-year cycle of animals of the Chinese zodiac in the Chinese calendar.  Rats are considered a symbol of good luck and wealth in both China and Japan.  They are clever, have excellent taste, possess natural charm with a funny demeanor.

“There is an old folk story about the rat that asks, 'Why is it the first in the zodiac when it is so tiny?'” Chiang continued.  “It’s because the rat is very smart.  He took advantage of the cow by sitting on the cow’s back, and he jumped off the back and arrived at first place in the zodiac, so that’s why they say the rat is very smart and quick to respond.  And also they believe that the rat will bring money.”

A special Chinese New Year’s Eve Dharma Service and First Incense Offering were held at the temple on the eve of the new year, followed by several days of programs and services.  Also known as the Spring Festival in modern China, Chinese New Year is an important festival celebrated at the turn of the traditional lunisolar Chinese calendar. 

Each year, a theme is chosen and the temple is adorned with beautiful decorations.  This year’s theme is “Exhibition of Dolls in Traditional Clothing from around the World.”  In light of Fo Guang Shan’s principles of Culture, Education, Charity and Cultivation, BLIA chose the theme to provide the opportunity for others to enjoy and learn about cultures around the world.

“We are all the residents of the earth, so people from the world is our theme,” said Chiang. “All five continents are represented with a collection of over 90 dolls dressed in the traditional clothes of the country they represent.  One of our very talented volunteers handmade Year of the Rat ornaments to decorate the temple.”  

Several dolls were on loan to the temple by BLIA centers around the world while others were provided by members of BLIA-NJ.  Chiang’s personal collection of Russian nesting, or stacking, dolls was also on display.

“I got these from a trip to Russia and I have a total of sixteen,” Chiang said.  “Each has a different architectural structure in Russia handpainted on the front.”  

Games are also a part of the celebration, such as “Little Detective Contest,” where contestants must match hats, shoes and outfits to 29 photos of dolls while guessing the country of origin.  Everyone who participated won the prize of a rat lantern.  BLIA believes that exposure to different cultures around world is a fun way for children and adults to learn and feel united as residents of earth.

The new year is also a time for setting intentions for the coming year.  Participants could write their wishes to be hung in the temple.

“We have nine different wishes and you can choose whichever you like,” said Chien-Kuo Wei, BLIA Board member.  “Just write your name, and we give you a candle to light to go with your wish.  You make your wish, then put down your candle in front of the shrine.  You put your wishing card on the wall for the whole year.”

Saturday was the actual New Year and began with a chanting service presided over by Presiding Monk, Venerable Chueh Chan.  The temple’s altar was decorated for the new year.  Bowls of oranges were placed throughout the temple.  The vibrant bright color of the orange symbolizes good fortune.  The sound of the Chinese word for orange means luck.   Anesh was asked to say a few words before the service began.  

“It’s such an honor to be here,” Anesh said to the congregation.  “This is a special place.  One of the things you learn about either working in South Plainfield or living in South Plainfield or visiting South Plainfield, is that the organizations in town make our community much stronger than we would be without them.  BLIA provides essential services and kind donations over the years.  You have been great partners for many many years.  Just know that you are very special.  My best wishes for a happy, healthy new year.”

“We thank the mayor and council for his kind words,” Chiang said.  “We are happy you could be here to celebrate the Chinese New Year with us.  We not only hope the Buddha will bless us and our families, but the people in need, especially with what’s happening in China now.  Thank you.”

After the service, everyone was treated to an authentic Chinese vegetarian feast of dumplings, soup, rice, sticky buns, vegetarian sauce and tea.  The dining area of the temple was also adorned with decor welcoming the new year.  A display with the words, “Every journey in this world is a path to happiness,” overlooked the room with rat figurines and stuffed animals, mock fireworks and flower arrangements surrounding the display in a red color scheme for good luck.

Buddhism teaches that ideas start the process of bringing what is desired in life to fruition.  Buddhists live by speaking beautiful words, doing good in the world and being mindful of their thoughts.  Meditation is a valuable tool in training the mind to concentrate.  In order to help those in the younger generation looking for spiritual support, BLIA-NJ also serves as a home away from home for college students studying in the United States.

“We invite the students to come to our temple, so they can have a good opportunity to experience Humanistic Buddhism,” Chiang said.  “A lot of them come to Rutgers University as students.  So they are away from home, and we want to make sure they feel at home here and comfortable.  We establish very good relationships and friendships with the youngsters, so we can put the Buddha’s seed in them.  They can do good deeds, speak good words and have a kind heart.”

Rutgers’ senior Zhi Gang Wu is the Rutgers University Buddhist Association (RUBA) president.

"The morning chanting was pretty amazing," Wu said.  "There’s not many opportunities for university students to practice that kind of way.  Students can connect with Buddhism through me.  I let them know about events, and we are just open to every piece of Buddhism.  This is a wonderful place for us to meet each other and practice divinity in Buddhism." 

"I believe in Buddhism and I found this place really nice and people are really nice here so there’s a lot of good activities," said Zhao Han Yan, Rutgers University student.  "Also, all the members welcome Rutgers University students here no matter whether they are Buddhists or not, they welcome us here.  For the new year's services, I signed up to teach people how to knock the bell because I really appreciate what the temple does for us as students, and I want to give back."

Various stations were set up within the temple.  Anesh and council members had the opportunity to offer blessings along with members of the temple.  People could knock the temple bell, participate in sutra writing and receive a forecast for 2020.  Several volunteers from Rutgers guided participants through each station.

"By knocking the bell, the sound of the bell can reach all the people and everyone can receive blessings from the sound," said Yan.  "You can hear the sound is very long and deep and can be heard very far away.  It’s like sutra, but the meaning is that we appreciate all the help from the Buddha, and we want to transfer the love to all people from all areas." 

"This station is sutra copying tradition," said Wu.  "In Chinese tradition, we say sutras in order to gain merit, and we believe that by doing sutra writing we can gain extra merit and make something happen in our lives.  We can also provide wisdom in our mind.  We not only cultivate wealth, but cultivate the wisdom too."  

"The forecast for 2020 is basically the word that you came looking for," said Ke Ke, Rutgers University student, as he explained how special software generates a message for the year.  "The word can follow you for the year of 2020.  You just have the word in your heart and it makes you feel better and forecasts 2020." 

As the day came to a close, everyone parted with feelings of love and excitement for the coming year in their heart.

"This was a great experience," Mott said.  "The people of the Buddhist Culture Center were unbelievably welcoming and shared with us cultures from around the world, words of wisdom, delicious food, and more importantly, reminded all to continue in the spirit of giving which is a focal point within the organization.  I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to celebrate Chinese New Year with such an amazing group, and I thank them for including us and for their hospitality." 

The New Jersey Buddhist Culture Center is a resource for people in the South Plainfield community and surrounding area to come and understand Buddha’s teachings while gaining the opportunity to practice Humanistic Buddhism in daily life.  South Plainfield’s New Jersey Buddhist Culture Center is a Buddhist Temple established in October 1995 under the delegation of Venerable Master Hsing Yun, the 48th patriarch of the Linchi (Rinzai) Ch'an School.

In 2020, the New Jersey Buddhist Culture Center (NJBCC) and Buddha’s Light International Association, New Jersey (BLIA-NJ), plan to offer the community several cultural classes, including Chinese brush painting, vegetarian cooking class, rhythmic dance group, how to master the cell phone and many more.  To participate in a survey and give input on classes and programs of interest, go to http://bit.ly/36X9Qdi.

BLIA-NJ “Exhibition of Dolls in Traditional Clothing from around the World” will be on display until Feb. 23.  Tours and school visits are available.  For more information, Contact BLIA at 908-822-8620 or email newjersey@ibps.org for more information.