Buddhist Temple

People pray as Rev. Thich Hang Dat, a Buddhist monk conducts a service in the Egg Harbor Township home of Billy Bui and Phuong Nguyn.

Anthony Smedile

Local Buddhists hope to build a temple soon to serve as their center for spiritual and religious growth.

Atlantic County has seen an increase in its Asian community in recent years and now Buddhists — particularly members of Vietnamese and Chinese communities — hope to construct a new facility so they can establish a closer community and spread their teachings to fellow residents, instead of traveling more than hour to a place where they can worship.

Rev. T. Hich Hang Dat recently came to the area and is hoping to launch the “Buddhist Mind Organization.” He and his congregants hope to build a new Buddhist temple that would also double as a social center.

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A Vietnam native, Dat practices Mahayana Buddhism, which is practiced in several South East Asian countries including China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam. Mahayana Buddhism, which started in India and is also known as “the Great Vehicle,” teaches that compassion is the key to enlightenment and people must spread the message as well.

Dat has been in the United States since 1984 and has opened two centers in Corydon, Ind. and Louisville, Ky. While in Corydon, in 2009, he met township residents Billy Bui and Phuong Nguyen. Since then he started visiting this area sporadically to perform services — and a few weeks ago decided to move into their home on Eagle Drive to help launch a new center.

“The people here need it,” he said. “We need the support of local community financially and spiritually. We need all kinds of support.”

Bui said they do not have any detailed plans but are working with local officials and realtors to find a building or piece of land in the area that would work for the project.

The Asian community in Atlantic County is growing. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the county’s Asian population increased by 63 percent between 2000 and 2010.

The Asian community includes 19,721 people — or about 8 percent of the population of Atlantic County. Of that number, 3,267, or about 1 percent of the county’s population, are Vietnamese.

A center would be open to anyone in the area and have regular services and social events. The center could also be used to teach Chinese and Vietnamese language and other aspects of the Asian and Buddhist culture.

Bui said there is a demand for a Buddhist temple and local worshippers asked for a permanent place.

He and his wife have hosted daily services and a special service for children on Saturday afternoons at their home. Dozens of people have attended — mostly people of Vietnamese and Chinese descent who work together at the casinos, he said. But Bui believes they are just scratching the surface for the local Buddhist community.

“The Vietnamese and Chinese communities here are so strong,” he said. “Once we get established, more and more people will show up.”

The plan is not just about finding a new place to pray. It’s also about creating a center for the local Buddhist community and teaching the culture to their children and neighbors.

Tinh Vo said he would travel to Philadelphia or Pennsauken for the nearest Buddhist temples.

“We are very happy to have something local for people to come. A lot of people work on the weekends and can’t go,” the Egg Harbor Township resident said. “We’ve been so happy we can do this every day.”

Ventnor resident Vivian Vo said having a local place of worship is imperative for these residents.

“You can’t just live for money. You have to live for your mind and spirituality,” she said. “Every week we bring children to learn English and Vietnamese. We can teach them about their culture.”

Vivian Vo said the religion teaches people to be peaceful and have respect for the elderly.

Egg Harbor Township resident Nicole Quach brings her two daughters. Pheona Lam, 7, and Leona Lam, 9. Both are of Chinese and Vietnamese descent and Quach wanted her girls to meet more people who share their background.

“I was afraid they may not know anything about our tradition or religion,” she said. “Now I am less concerned.”

Bui and Nguyen converted their living room into a temple draped with bright colors. The family removed its television and couches and replaced it with a statue of Buddha, flowers and bowls of fruit.

During a recent service the Buddhists sat on floor and recited mantras led by Dat. They later stood and circled the room. The residents removed their shoes and covered themselves in robes during the service, which was in Vietnamese.

They hold these events daily and plan to continue the services when they get their own temple.

Ocean City resident Bill Lees started learning about Buddhism from his coworkers at the casinos.

“It made sense to me,” the Ocean City resident said. “It’s very easy to be nice to other people.”

Lees met Dat a year ago and looks forward to learning from him.

“We have thousands of years of tradition and you need someone to teach it to you,” he said.

Lees, who was one of a few participants not of Asian descent at the service, said people have noticed a change in him and say he seems more peaceful.

“Most of them say I’ve changed a lot the last year,” he said. “They ask why and I say ‘I became a Buddhist.’ They laugh and I laugh with them. Why should I be upset? Maybe they’ll find it and have peace too.”

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