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(Photo by Rebecca Blackwell ©2003 Town Topics)

BUDDHISM IN PRINCETON: Gen Norden, a Buddhist nun who is opening a Buddhist center in Princeton, relaxes on the Princeton University campus. Though Ms. Norden is currently the only teacher for the Center, she plans upon having student teachers emerge from the group of participants who attend her classes.
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Buddhist Nun Plans to Open a New Center in Order to Teach Buddhism in Princeton

By Laura Goldblatt

Buddhism has come to Princeton and it may prove itself to be more mundane than expected, as Gen Norden, a Buddhist nun who is opening a Buddhist Center in Princeton hopes to prove.

"When I was a teenager [in Bath, England], I was just curious about life and philosophy and I stumbled upon a class on Buddhism in my hometown, and it just blew me away," Ms. Norden explained. "It was so practical and relevant and yet offered a big challenge to me intellectually and emotionally. I had thought of Buddhism before as some foreign thing, something very Eastern. And when I went to this class, the person teaching it was this lay, Western, young female, somebody not very different from me at all. And I thought, 'If this is Buddhism, then this is really intriguing.'"

Ms. Norden started the Menlha Buddhist Center (Menlha means medicine) in Philadelphia in 1997 when her teacher, Geshe Kelsang, asked her to move to America from England. Ms. Norden taught general Buddhist philosophy and meditation in Philadelphia, as well as at other locations, including a weekly class in Princeton for three years, before deciding to relocate the Center here.

"The nature of Princeton seemed really open and welcoming," she said. "I get a really friendly, warm response in Princeton. Walking around looking like a Buddhist nun is quite interesting in itself," Ms. Norden said, indicating her shaved head, and maroon and gold robe. "But people are so friendly here. I get a lot more stares and comments, but they're always very positive, and I feel very good being here."

Ms. Norden also noted that there seemed to be a greater degree of interest in Buddhism in Princeton than in other places, as well as a diverse range of people attending her classes, from students and professors to stay-at-home moms. The classes were initially held at Murray Dodge on the Princeton University campus before moving to the United Methodist Church on Nassau Street. They will begin again on September 4 in the Methodist Church.

On Witherspoon Street

After looking for eight months, Ms. Norden and a small group of people who had been regularly attending her classes found a site for a Buddhist center at 66 Witherspoon Street. It will open officially in late September. Ms. Norden will continue to teach a class once a week in Philadelphia, as well as in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and Wilmington, Delaware.

Chris Harford, one of Ms. Norden's students who helped to find the Witherspoon Street space, decided to first attend her classes after seeing a poster at the YMCA.

"She [Ms. Norden] just draws you in," he said. "Her classes were remarkable – she's an incredible teacher. I was searching for some kind of spirituality in the abstract sense. Somebody had given me the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, and the more that I read about it the more it seemed to make sense. And once you meet Norden, just forget about it."

After studying with Ms. Norden for approximately three years, Mr. Harford decided to become involved in the search for the space in Princeton.

"It was one of those things in life where you realize that if no one else does this, it might not get done," he explained. "I grew to have such a respect for her and such a desire to have her stay around, that it seemed to me that we might miss this opportunity to have her stay around if we don't get something happening quickly."

In addition to helping Ms. Norden to relocate, Mr. Harford and several other students have organized various fundraisers to benefit the Menlha Buddhist Center. For example, on Saturday, August 9 at 8 p.m. the Arts Council of Princeton will host a concert by Chris Conley, the lead singer of the band Saves the Day, a group that gained momentum in New Brunswick before being recognized nationally. Mr. Harford, a musician himself, knew Mr. Conley, and along with Events Coordinator Stephanie Sanders coordinated the benefit. All of the proceeds will go to the Menlha Buddhist Center. Mr. Harford hopes to make this concert the beginning of a series of fundraisers. Also, a garage sale was held last Saturday by Administrative Director Adrienne Shell to raise money for the Center.

Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gotama, a prince who lived in what is currently Nepal in 563 B.C.E. Observing that wealth and luxury did not necessarily lead to happiness, at the age of 29 he decided to search for the key to contentment. After six years, he found the "middle path" and reached enlightenment, becoming the first Buddha, or "enlightened one."

Buddhist philosophy centers itself around the four noble truths: Life is suffering, suffering is caused by craving and aversion, suffering can be overcome and happiness attained, and the Noble Eight-Fold path leads to the end of suffering. On its most basic level, the Eight-Fold Path is a series of steps including living a moral life, developing compassion for others, gaining wisdom, and becoming more patient. The collected Buddhist writings and commentary throughout the ages are known as the Sutras.

Though an end to suffering sounds very enticing, especially in light of recent violence, Ms. Norden is careful not to tout Buddhism as the sole panacea for the world's problems, nor as an instant fix. Yet, she emphasized the power that even the most seemingly unimportant Buddhist actions could have if they were applied.

"If we all just increased our kindness, just by a little amount and reduced our anger by a little amount, even with that the world would be a completely different place," Ms. Norden said. "Sometimes we forget that, or we don't notice that, and we're missing the point. If we could just be a little kinder, a little more patient, a little more tolerant, a little more generous, a little wiser, then we will have a completely different experience of our life, and we can all do that."

Expanded Offerings

At its new location, Ms. Norden will be able to offer more opportunities to those who choose to attend her classes, such as meditation retreats, study programs, poojas or chanted prayers, empowerment classes, and a greater diversity in meditative and spiritual offerings. Ms. Norden will continue to teach a weekly class on Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. at the United Methodist Church so that those who are interested in Buddhism, but who may not be comfortable coming to a Buddhist Center, can still explore in a more neutral space.

Ms. Shell believes that the Center will eventually gain in popularity.

"Once they [Princetonians] understand who we are and what we're doing, they'll warm to the Center," she said. "I think we could have a great, large center."

Ms. Shell hopes to see the Center become family oriented, with children's programs and day care facilities, such as one would find at a church.

Growing up in Bath, England, Ms. Norden converted to Buddhism when she was a teenager and decided to become a Buddhist nun at age 18. Now in her late twenties, Ms. Norden practices Kadampa Buddhism, a tradition that emphasizes integrating Buddhist philosophies and practices into daily life. Ms. Norden – who owns only one set of clothing, is a vegetarian, has shorn hair, and is celibate – explained that she lives a simple lifestyle in order to reduce distractions.

Ms. Norden said her parents were initially confused by her decision to convert to Buddhism and then to become a nun. But, they eventually saw that the changes that she was making had a good effect on her and that she was happier.

One of the things she likes about Buddhism is how clear it is: For each of the goals, such as a greater degree of compassion and patience, Buddhist philosophies delineate a distinct path. Furthermore, in some ways, according to Ms. Norden, Buddhism is primarily a spiritual path, and thus can be practiced by anyone, even if he or she has no intention of becoming a Buddhist. In fact, the word "Buddhist" literally means "in a being" and thus individuals, and the changes that individuals choose to make in themselves, are paramount.

There is at least one change that this Buddhist nun wants to make. Should she tear her robe she has no way to repair the damage.

"I need to learn how to sew," she said.

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