New Years' Day 2005
Peace Service
at the Chuan Yen Monastery

(click for larger images)

Interfaith gathering brings comfort

(Original publication: January 2, 2005)

KENT — Bhikkhu Bodhi spent more than two decades in Sri Lanka before returning to his homeland of the United States less than three years ago. So when the Buddhist monk, a New Jersey resident, awakened the day after Christmas to news of deadly tsunamis that had devastated the Indian Ocean coastline in half a dozen countries, he was struck to the core.

"Suddenly, in one day, everything they have built up in their entire lives was wiped out," he said yesterday morning of the farmers and workers who were most affected by the raging waves.

His remarks were part of an annual New Year's interfaith prayer program at the Chuang Yen Monastery's Great Buddha Hall to pray for world peace, although yesterday's speakers focused almost exclusively on the tsunamis and their victims.

With the horrifying aftermath of the disaster casting a shadow over the joy that normally accompanies New Year's Day, the mood inside the cavernous hall was one of somber reflection, as religious leaders from different faiths urged attendees to give from their hearts and their wallets to the survivors.

"I find it hard sometimes to see the hand of God in the events of the world," said the Rev. Ken Mast of the First Presbyterian Church in Mahopac Falls. "But in our response to tragedy, we can discover the heart of God."

When calamity strikes, particularly a natural disaster, some people's faith can be shaken by the seeming injustice of the catastrophe even as others hold more firmly to their religion as a means of emotional and spiritual support.

But yesterday, Buddhist monks, Christian clerics and a Muslim imam spoke fervently of the power of faith in times of adversity.

"Life and death, loss and gain, is but a test," said Malik Shabazz, an imam and the president of Muslims Who Care About Humanity, a Dutchess County-based organization.

The monastery's president, Jen-Chun, encouraged listeners to donate money to relief efforts, emphatically making his point by emptying his pockets onto the dais.

On the grounds of the monastery, which resides in an idyllic setting in the woods of Kent, with sunlight streaming through the leafless tree branches, it was difficult to fathom the destruction half a world away, where millions of survivors are at risk of disease and starvation, their homes destroyed.

"The scale is so overwhelming, it's hard to imagine," the Rev. Leo Lefebure of the King Church in Yonkers said after the event.

Deu Thapa, 31, a native of Nepal and a resident of New Haven, Conn., said he comes to the New Year's prayer every year.

"It was really sad," he said of last week's earthquake and ensuing tsunamis. "What can you say? We've been praying every day."

The theme of unity was sounded over and over throughout the morning yesterday, by both the speakers and those who listened to them.

"Their pain is like our pain," said Manhattan resident Sally Kao, 49, of the tsunami victims.

Mount Kisco resident Helen Caro, 64, a former Catholic nun who is now an Episcopalian, said that she and others have a responsibility to offer help to those in need in Asia.

"People of faith should show compassion and generosity," she said. "We don't know why these things happen, but they serve a purpose. Maybe part of that purpose is to tap into our generosity.

"I believe that there are lessons, even if we don't understand them immediately."

Reach Joseph Ax at or 914-694-5064. Reach Joseph Ax at or 914-694-5064.

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Wednesday, January 5, 2005