Shrine is a slice of nirvana in Norwich

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Norwich - posted Fri., Feb. 25, 2011
A figure of Buddha is adorned with an elaborate ceremonial headdress. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.
A figure of Buddha is adorned with an elaborate ceremonial headdress. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.

Open one of the elaborately carved and painted red and gold doors next to Kong Foo Restaurant on Main Street, and you’re in for a surprise.

It won’t be the aroma of Chinese food that wafts through the air. Instead, it will be the sweet smoky fragrance of burning sticks of incense.

A Buddhist shrine occupies the formerly empty gallery space next door to the restaurant, drawing members of the local Chinese community for prayer, counseling and healing.

Henry Shen, who supervises the space, said that it’s a smaller-scale version of the temple he operates in conjunction with his New York City restaurant. About 20 to 30 people drop in each day, including occasional restaurant patrons.

“Sometimes people who are eating next door come in to check it out,” he said. “This is for people to see and understand.”

The shrine is a feast for the senses. Smoldering sticks of incense stuck into large urns of rice send their fragrance through the air. Vivid red and gold paper lantern shapes, intricately folded, dangle from the ceiling. Shen explained that the lanterns represent the lotus flower, and in some temples are burned as an offering, a practice that doesn’t occur in the Norwich shrine.

Rows of statues of Buddhist deities stand on long tables. Before them are set plates of cookies, fresh fruits and cups of water. “The food is like a gift, to ask for help, good health and a smooth year,” Shen said. Devotees leave the food before the image of the deity, and then take it home to eat themselves, he said.

One table displays rows of fierce-looking gods that Shen described as warrior figures, wielding weapons and grimacing. Other statues depict more serene deities. The central figure represents Quan Yi, which is one of the names for the Buddha, said Shen. This figure wears an elaborate ornamental headpiece.

Buddhism, which originated in India, dates back to about 500 BCE, according to “Religions in North America” by Thoman and Santos. It was established based on the teachings of the Buddha, Siddhartha Guatama, who spent years in searching and self-denial before he achieved enlightenment and began instructing followers.

There are many permutations of Buddhism, which has adapted over the centuries to embrace many different cultures. While some forms of Buddhism reject the concept of a god, others have incorporated local deities into Buddhist practice.

Along one wall in the Norwich shrine hangs row upon row of tiny electric lights, each in a small gold-colored compartment. Some of the lights are burning and are accompanied by a slip of paper with writing in Chinese. These are lit by the faithful, said Chen, similar to the way candles are sometimes lit in a Christian church.

These lights serve as a petition for good luck, said Shen. Since this is the Year of the Rabbit in the Chinese calendar, those who were also born in a year of the rabbit are considered to be especially prone to bad luck. “Each year is different,” he said. “The rabbit, horse, chicken and mouse all have bad luck this year.”

Several musical instruments also rest on the shrine’s tables. A wood drum called a mu yi is ornamented with elaborate carving. Nearby is a “singing bowl,” or ching, with its striker. During religious ceremonies, the ching is struck and resounds like a bell.

The shrine also contains a sizeable brass bell imported from Taiwan. Shen said that he hopes to have the bell hung eventually so that it can be rung. For now, it rests on the floor.

At a table in an adjoining room, a woman named Ling Chu sat painting calligraphic shapes in red on small squares of paper. Nearby sat another woman, whom Shen said had been suffering from headaches. Ling Chu, who Shen described as a counselor and healer, poured wine on the woman’s head, then gave her a few vigorous pats on her head and back.

The wine is intended to kill germs, Shen said. So is the red paint. He said that the papers would be put in bath water to create the desired effect. Similar papers are sometimes used to drive away pests and create a barrier against them, he said. 

Shen said that plans are underway to obtain a larger figure of Buddha and to fill the shrine’s illuminated niche with a mural of a dragon. The mural is to be painted by Carolyn McNeil, who painted decorative scenes of mountains and lotus on the walls of the neighboring restaurant, he said.  

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