By Amanda Wyatt; Photography by Michael Heller
It’s Friday evening and roughly 20 spiritual seekers have gathered in a dimly lit room, illuminated only by candles. Buddhist nun Gen Kelsang Norden, dressed in a gold and maroon robe, guides the group in soft prayers and meditations that reverberate through the space. As they chant and quietly contemplate, they call upon Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of compassion, for help in their inner quest for peace and enlightenment.
This was the scene last week at the Vajravarahi Meditation Center in Sag Harbor where practicing Buddhists and other seekers came to celebrate Buddha’s Enlightenment Day. And while the holiday may be one of the most significant in the Buddhist faith, such a gathering is far from an isolated occasion.
Since moving to its location on Hampton Street last year, people from as far as Montauk to Southold and even Port Jefferson have made their way to the center to learn how to mediate, delve into Buddhist philosophy or simply browse in its small bookstore.
“It seems to be quite naturally taking off,” says Norden. “I see people of all different backgrounds and jobs and walks of life equally interested in learning to meditate and using Buddhist philosophy in their daily lives, which I really like.”
Buddhism is a spiritual tradition based on the teachings of the historical Buddha — sometimes called Siddhartha Gautama — who probably lived in what is now modern-day Nepal over 2,500 years ago.
While the faith does appear to be growing, it is virtually impossible to determine how many Buddhists live on the East End. Even for those at Vajravarahi — the only center of its kind in the area — tracking the number of people who visit is tricky.
“It is really hard to say because Buddhism is such an open path; you don’t have to sign up to be a Buddhist. So there are many people who are practicing Catholics or what have you, and they drop in on meditation to de-stress from the work day,” says Norden, a nun and teacher for 20 years who believes that Buddhism is about helping change ourselves — and the world — for the better.
“One of the kindest things you can do for yourself is to increase your genuine love, consideration, respect and compassion for other people,” she says. “And if we were to do that to the ninth degree, we would become what we consider a Buddha, and that’s like the highest goal of attainment within Buddhism.”
And according to Norden, everyone, no matter how many mistakes they have made or what obstacles they must overcome, can become a Buddha.
“Everyone has the potential to overcome those difficulties and those negativities, and they have an indestructible ability to increase their good qualities — their wisdom, their inner peace, their compassion — and that indestructible potential for all good qualities is a person’s what we call ‘Buddha nature’ or ‘Buddha seed,’” she explains.
Norden was first drawn to the faith as a teenager growing up in England.
“I just stumbled upon a class on Buddhist philosophy and meditation. I was really bowled over by what the teacher had to say and how many questions it answered for me about life and meaning and so forth, and how many questions it asked me in return,” she says. “So I kept coming back to it, I couldn’t resist it.”
Today, Buddhism is also attracting a number of spiritual explorers on the East End.
Isabella Rupp, who lives in Southampton, has been studying Buddhism for the past two years. While she was raised Catholic, she began exploring nondenominational practices as an adult, and she eventually came to the meditation center.
“What I love about Norden and what I love about this practice is you’re not told you have to believe or not believe anything, it’s up to you,” she says. “I just want to keep learning and keep training my mind toward loving kindness and equanimity, and practicing to be a better person to help myself and help others.”
Rupp adds: “We’re often misdirected on what brings us happiness and fulfillment, and I think Buddhism for me is about not only the quality of this life, but future ones, for myself and others.”
Nina Ross, who lives in Sag Harbor, came to Buddhism less than a year ago after experiencing a particularly stressful time in her life.
“[Meditation] just calmed my mind down,” she explains. “I didn’t have to go anywhere. I didn’t need a spa day or go somewhere exotic. It was already there, it was free.”
This spiritual practice, she says, shows “how to bring out the good qualities in us that are already there. You know, Gandhi has the famous quote, ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world?’ Well, this is like a how-to for being that change.”
“I may not have all the answers that I want answered in life yet, but what I do know is that Sag Harbor is a very fortunate community to have this meditation center,” Ross added.