Vietnamese Buddhist group set to establish monastery in central Pennsylvania

The Associated Press, July 17, 2006

Local area residents have mixed reaction

Mifflin County, Pennsylvania (USA) -- A Buddhist group founded by Vietnamese immigrants is planning to turn a central Pennsylvania school building into its first monastery in the area.

After a series of zoning hearings this spring, the United Buddhist Church of America is set to buy the 1930s-era school building in Mifflin County this month. The group is a federation of temples, most of them in California and Virginia.

Thich Van Dam, a Buddhist monk, said he found the building while searching the eBay online auction site on his computer in suburban Washington, D.C., and loved it at once.

''This location is very natural. Close to mountains. Just like my temple in Vietnam,'' said Van Dam, admiring the school's views of meadows and forested hills during a visit last week, local newspaper The Patriot-News reported. ''It recalls me back 40 years ago, when I first start my Buddhist manhood.'' The monastery, which Van Dam said cost more than $300,000 and will take an additional $700,000 to renovate, will welcome Buddhists and non-Buddhists who want to study the religion.

As many as 45 people -- monks, nuns and others -- will be able to live at the planned 25,000-square-foot (2,250-square-meter) monastery. Van Dam expects to start with four students and grow to 15 within five years.

While some area residents have expressed hostility, others have been very open to the diversity the monastery will add to the community.

Lou Ann Yoder, a clerk at nearby Friendship Bookstore, opposed the monastery at first.

''But then I thought about the freedom issue, and I feel strongly about that,'' she said. ''I'm Mennonite. We came here because of religious freedom.'' The temple will not be the first outpost of an Eastern religion in rural Pennsylvania, either. There is a Buddhist temple in Lancaster County, a Hare Krishna farm in Juniata County and a pink stone Hindu pilgrimage site in Schuylkill County.

Some of the attraction to such areas revolves around cheap land and the privacy that is afforded by remote locations, said Allen Richardson, a religion professor at Cedar Crest College, who studies the phenomenon.