An 18,000-pound solid marble Buddha stands serenely, anchoring a courtyard lush with vegetation on the city’s East Side.
Built in a former police station, the Chua Tu Hieu Buddhist Cultural Center pops out of the urban landscape at 647 Fillmore Ave. Cars slow to a crawl and pedestrians stop in their tracks, say neighbors, who welcomed the religious center for the positive influence that it has had on their struggling block.
“I see a lot of the young guys walking around. You know how they have their pants sagging and everything. It seems like when they get close to the temple, their walk changes. Their attitude changes,” said Phillip Jones, 59, who lives next door to the temple and its 18-foot Buddha.
“Yes, it does,” agreed his wife, Latasha Page, 48. “It’s respect. I’ve seen people actually take their phones out and take pictures. There’s not too many places in the city where you can just sense the peace.”
The force behind the temple is the Rev. Thich Tin Tam. Those who know the monk say they can’t help but smile at the unassuming man who moved from San Diego to lead a community of Vietnamese Buddhists.
The 42-year-old assumed the position of permanent abbot in 2010 after the temple for years was guided by a variety of monks. Today it serves a large portion of the 3,000 Vietnamese immigrants who make their homes in communities that include Buffalo, Depew, Cheektowaga and Lockport.
“Every year, we have a celebration on April 15 to honor Buddha’s birthday,” Tin Tam said. “Many monks volunteer to help with each event, but no one volunteered to stay here and be a leader and run the temple. I’m a monk. I try and help people in difficult situations. That’s why I volunteered to be here.
“It’s so opposite. Everyone is so surprised,” said Tin Tam. “They didn’t think I would move here. But they invited me here. I took time to think about it. The weather here – the conditions – are very difficult for me. If I stayed in California, I had time to go to school. I had a chance to go around preaching.”
The Buddhist Cultural Center was established in 1999 in the Police Department’s former Eighth Precinct. Built in 1915, the station was one of many that closed in the mid-1990s as part of a citywide police consolidation. Shortly after, then-Mayor Anthony M. Masiello turned the vacant brick structure over to Vietnamese immigrants for a cultural center, said David A. Franczyk, Common Council member from the Fillmore District. “I thought it was a great idea,” he said. “It’s a neighborhood with a constant infusion of people. It’s the United Nations. On the East Side, no one will turn you away.”
In the years since Tin Tam moved into the temple, a large and loyal group of volunteers has helped rehab the interior of the century-old structure. They have also created a Serenity Garden by planting trees, plants and flowers native to Vietnam.
“It’s taken two years to reach this stage,” Tin Tam said. “It’s not finished yet. We need a fence.”
Near the garden’s gateway, sticks of incense rising out of a large stone pot resemble a porcupine, but their purpose is to sweeten the air. A pathway around the perimeter of the garden is designed for meditative walks. A tall utility pole all but disappeared behind the Buddha, but Tin Tam would like the pole permanently removed – just like the abandoned home that was recently demolished.
“Where the Quan Am statue is was once a house where people bought and sold drugs, so I tried to buy it and knock it down to keep the neighborhood quiet,” he said.
“You wouldn’t figure you’d have abandoned houses next to the Broadway Market,” said Jones, the neighbor. “They were vacant, but people were going in there to party. Loud music, and throwing beer bottles over the fence.”
The garden, which backs onto Gibson Street, is a stone’s throw from the market, where Tin Tam shops for bananas and other fruit and vegetables that are staples of his vegetarian diet.
Several Buddhas are displayed throughout this urban temple. In front of each are offering bowls filled with apples. The offerings could be any kind of fruit, the monk explained. Inside the center, there are circular spinning lights on the walls behind some of the Buddhas – symbols of knowledge. Considerable renovations to the basement include overnight rooms for the carloads of tourists that frequently turn up at the center’s door. The many Vietnamese tourists who visit Niagara Falls often take a side trip to the temple, he explained.
“Every Sunday, up to 80 Buddhists come to worship,” Tin Tam said. “They come here and see their friends. They stay here, and it is very meaningful. I see the happiness on their faces and in their eyes. They are old people who had to leave their homeland in Vietnam for the good life. That is why I’m here.”
Each day he wakes at 5 a.m. to chant and meditate for 90 minutes. And then he reads. Much of his time is spent writing a Dharma Talk that Tin Tam delivers each Sunday.
Two youth dance groups – Lion Dance and Lotus – serve as ambassadors for the temple and have been invited to perform by the Seneca Niagara Casino, Buffalo History Museum and University at Buffalo. The groups also performed at the dedication in June of Quan Am, an event that attracted monks from throughout the Northeast.
“Every time they have a celebration, he reaches out to all the neighborhood residents,” said Beverly McLean, a retired UB research assistant professor who lives nearby in a renovated carriage house. “He talks to the neighbors. I know it’s a temple but they put so much time in the front of the building. They’re out there working, planting trees. It’s amazing to see what is there. I can’t imagine anybody being unhappy with them.”
Jones just started a job at the Buffalo Veterans Affairs Medical Center after volunteering there since 1980. He credits the hospital with saving his life, and he credits Tin Tam with reviving a neighborhood.
“He is an amazing person,” Jones said. “Regardless of what goes on, he has love in his heart and it radiates. I watch the cars as they go by, and all of them slow up just to get a glimpse of what’s there, and it’s a 100 percent improvement.
“I’m a disabled vet, and I’ve got a lot of stuff going on, and sometimes I can get a little crazy. I come outside and I’ll smoke a cigarette, and he’ll tell me: ‘There is a better way.’ He has such a calming effect on me. When I see him, I can’t help but smile.”
Two events will showcase the Buddhist Cultural Center:
• East Side Momentum Tour will be held from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Aug. 8. It will stop at eight locations, where project leaders will provide history and answer questions. The tour includes a stop at the cultural center. Visit gardenwalkbuffaloniagara.com
• The Moon of Mother fundraiser is set for Sept. 12 at the center and will feature a singer from California. Details are to be announced.