U.S. Zen Institute

Information about this center is no longer updated. This data was last updated on 11 October 2009.

Phone: 301-353-9781
Email: contact@uszen.org
Website: http://uszen.org/
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In the fall of 1986, three young nuns from different temples in Taiwan got together to set out for Toronto, Canada. Filled with faith and conviction, they were determined to spread Chinese Buddhism in Canadian Chinese communities. They faced many difficulties including a language barrier, cultural differences, unfamiliar surroundings, and frigid weather. The Toronto congregation experienced limited growth in the years the nuns attempted to start a religious center. In 1988, on a trip to the Washington DC area, local devotees noted a church for sale in Germantown, Maryland, and invited the nuns to relocate to DC. With encouragement and financial support from the greater DC Taiwan and Hong Kong Chinese Buddhist community, the church was purchased for use as a Buddhist temple, and the US Zen Institute (USZI) was born in 1990.
Despite general repairs made by the community, no insurer would carry the 85-year-old temple property. In October 1992, an electrical fire ravaged the upper level of the building, and the old temple was a total loss. Miraculously, the large golden Buddha image stood firm in the ashes, untouched by flame. The Buddha image was relocated to the adjacent Abbot's dormitory, which has since served as temporary home to the US Zen Institute. Despite the catastrophe, the USZI congregation continued to grow. Small Sunday gatherings and Weekly Dharma meetings are still held on site in the Abbott's dormitory, where the three nuns of USZI continue to live. Festival gatherings are held at Stone Mill Elementary School in North Potomac, MD. The need for a new temple is clear and pressing. Thanks to the tireless planning and fundraising efforts of the USZI Temple Reconstruction Committee, donations from active members of the Chinese Buddhist community, and the work of Reverend Yong Hui, Abbott of the temple, and Reverend Guo Chun, nun in residence, construction of the new temple began in September 1999. Today, a new 10,300 sq. ft. temple under construction stands on the very site where the old temple burned, and will open in September 2000.

Activities and Schedule

The U.S. Zen Institute has weekly services on Sunday. The temple is currently closed during the week due to the small size of the congregation, single nun in residence (the Abbott), and limited facilities at the Abbott's quarters. The Sunday activities consist of a Dharma lecture by Guo Chun Shifu (Shifu is the same honorific as Reverend or Venerable), followed by reading of Amitabha Sutra, Kshitigarba Sutra or other sacred texts. This is followed by offerings of praises, and prostrations in homage to the Great Teacher Buddha. The congregation then proceeds downstairs to the dining room. Here they sing the Meal Offering, and have a vegetarian lunch with much amiable conversation and feeling of community. Following lunch, Guo Chun Shifu provides special instruction in the main hall upstairs for devotees interested in participating in leading the services. This typically includes deeper explanations of the sutras and instruction on use of the Buddhists instruments (bells, drum, wooden block, etc.), as well as talks on dharma topics and specific questions. These lay leaders will assist the nuns in the running of services and of special ceremonies. They will usually wear a black robe, which is traditionally available for all members of the community to wear, which allows them to take on a more solemn understanding of the service. The robes worn by the nuns are also intended to signify the level of contribution to the service. The nuns of the U.S. Zen lnstitute emphasize, however, their equality and lack of hierarchy. They feel that it is important to share everything, including responsibility, as a community. On Sundays, Shifu is available during and after lunch for private consultations with devotees in need of counseling on personal, family, or spiritual issues. This counseling happens frequently and is an important part of the nun's role within the community. Guo Chun Shifu also holds a similar service to the Sunday service at her house in Virginia on Saturday for Virginia devotees who cannot attend on Sundays

Vesak at USZI

The U.S. Zen Institute has many of its ceremonies that are attended by more congregants outside of the current center. On May 7, 2000, the community celebrated the Ceremony for Yu Fo (Vesak) and Setting Free Living Beings. This ceremony celebrates the birth, enlightenment, and death of Buddha. The service was held at a local State Park and the Buddha shrine was set up out in the open. The service began with a dharma talk from one of the nuns (see attached translated transcription). The community then joined the nuns in the chanting of sutras and other prayers in Chinese. Sacred mantras were also chanted but were left in their original Sanskrit form. While singing certain prayers, each member of the community (in pairs) comes to the front of the altar to bathe the Buddha (see attached photos of ceremony). Water is poured over the statue of the baby Buddha three times by each member, a donation is placed in the box, and the member receives great merit from Buddha on this holy day. The community then proceeded to eat lunch together. The members of the USZI greatly emphasize the importance of vegetarianism as being in line with Buddhist teachings of non-violence and compassion. The second half of the ceremony is dedicated to setting free living beings. The USZI works in conjunction with the Second Chance Wildlife Center to release some rescued birds as part of the ceremony. The wildlife center was able to bring creatures that were unable to be released for the community to see and pet, while they gave an explanation of their center's work (see attached brochure). The ceremony also included the offering of many gifts of fruit, food, water, flowers, and monetary donations to the altar. Members of the community were also able to take home with them small bottles of the blessed water used to bathe the Buddha shrine. The other major Buddhist festivals celebrated by the UXZI follow somewhat similar proceedings in terms of chanting, singing prayers, and making offerings of thanks. The USZI also participates in the International Vesak festival for all the Buddhist communities and centers in Washington DC. Despite their small size and present lack of facilities, the U.S. Zen Institute maintains an active community.

The Future at USZI

With the opening of the new temple this September, the congregation of USZI will probably double or triple. Other nuns will probably come over from the home temple of the present nuns in Taiwan, and weekday activities will begin. These expansions will also make room for activities for children. Due to the small size of the congregation and limited facilities, the USZI does not presently have children's activities. However, in Chinese culture children participate in all of the activities along with the adults. In fact, it is common for women in the congregation to bring their babies to the service. The quiet kids sit with their parents, and the more restless children usually sit in the side room where there are toys and picture books to keep the kids occupied during the service. The bigger temple will allow the USZI to structure some sort of educational program for the children of their community during this time. The Chinese Buddhist community of the greater Washington DC area greatly awaits the opening of the new temple in Germantown, Maryland, as they have worked so hard to fundraise the money to build it. The nuns think that the new temple will bring Buddhism and Chinese culture back into the lives of Chinese Buddhists in America. They also maintain that they will attempt to keep the running of the temple as close to the Taiwanese tradition as possible. They feel it is of great importance not to surrender strict adherence to tradition simply because it does not fit in with the mainstream American lifestyle.