Volunteering at a Buddhist Monastery

Cleaning, Gardening and Sangha at Empty Cloud Monastery

It was time to slow down.

I had registered for a volunteer morning at the Empty Cloud Buddhist Monastery in West Orange, New Jersey.

Self-described as a “haven of peace and wisdom” open to the public, this non-sectarian Monastery hosted a variety of volunteer opportunities and public/community events, teachings, discussions, and prayer sessions.

Arriving by 8 a.m., I had brought two vegetarian desserts I’d made the night before, to offer to the Sangha (the Buddhist community) for the community meal at 11.

My liaison, Linda, was from Oregon. She was a long-time practitioner looking to move deeper into her practice (a lay person) and was part-way through a 6 month stay at the retreat where her role was the primary household support person (cooking, laundry, cleaning, coordination of volunteers and visitors, etc.).

The day I was there was during a weekend of retreat and there were 4 monks on site, as well as 3 novitiates.

The Monastery offers online and in person meditation and teaching sessions throughout the week, as well as community events on weekends.

The schedule for the monks the day I was there included:

  • The monks and novitiates waking by 5:30 a.m. for morning Puja (offering/gift) where light, incense, flowers, self-reflection, and chant mantras are offered to the Buddha.
  • Breakfast was at 7 and meditation at 8, followed by lunch at 11, then more meditation.
  • Later in the afternoon there would be a Dharma Talk – where the monks would give educational lessons to the community who had come to the Monastery for lunch.
  • More meditation and a tea in the very late afternoon brought the end of the day for the public.
  • The monks had one more set of prayers – evening prayers, before retreating to their rooms for rest.

The Monastery is a place to immerse yourself in the Dhamma (the cosmic law and order shared in the teachings of Buddha) for a period of time. I had not studied Buddhism but over the past few years I had been attending semi-regular educational sessions at the Kadampa Buddhist Learning Center in New York City. So I was very interested in learning about the practices of this non-sectarian, gender-inclusive Monastery.

After starting my day with a brief personal meditation, my volunteer activities that morning included assisting Linda in cleaning the kitchen and serving rooms and then doing some spring gardening cleaning around one of the giant outdoor statues that lined the meditation pathways.

For some of the morning I worked alongside Linda, who was happy to answer all my questions.

While working outside I was alone and so focused mindfully on the work and in quiet contemplation.

The Monastery has many books in their library to read, and many free books and literature to take home.

These lines from one of the booklets on the dining room table stuck with me that morning as I worked:

“A stone on the road that happens to meet our glance will have a claim in our attention only if it obstructs our progress or is of interest to us for some reason. Yet if we neglect these casual impressions too often, we may stumble over many stones lying on our road and also overlook many gems.”(1)

I was there for service and so focused on helping make the kitchen and serving rooms spotless. I learned the monks are not allowed to garden, to pull up weeds or dead plants, or to dig in the dirt, so the Monastery relied on volunteers to handle all of that.

The Monastery is 100% free-will donation-funded, including the land and the building, all the food, furniture, electricity… everything. There are no fees to participate in anything offered by the Monastery, including the classes (online and in person), retreats, overnight stays, and longer residences (which you can apply for as they can only take in a limited number of residences at a time).

At 11:00 it was time to clean up from my gardening and help get ready for the community meal. By this time approximately15 people from the community had arrived, each bringing with them prepared vegetarian food to share with everyone at the meal. It seemed most of the attendees regularly participated.

The food was divided into sections for organic and non-organic items and desserts were stationed together.

The monks are not allowed to take food – they can only receive what food is given to them. That meant that at the start of the meal, each visitor/participant was given a large bowl with a bit of white rice in it.

We lined up around the walls of the dining room and, as the 4 monks walked along the entire line, each of us put a scoop of rice into their bowls.

The monks then went into the serving room to be served the rest of the offered/donated foods and drinks while we made our way to the prayer room and waited for prayer.

When their bowls were full of the foods brought for the meal, the monks came to sit at the front of the prayer room on their floor mats and shared blessing and prayer chants with us.

Everyone in the room then participated in a prayer to bless the meal. Then it was time to eat!

My coconut pistachio oat cookies

The monks remained in the prayer room enjoying their meals from their floor mats in silence.

The rest of us moved to the dining room and could choose what we wanted to eat from the buffet of food brought to share.

(I’m including my recipes below for Vegan Coconut Pistachio Oat Cookies and Vegan Almond Butter Cookies in case you’d like to try them. Both seemed a big hit at the meal! You can click on the photos to enlarge them…)

Community (Sangha) is a very important aspect of life at the Monastery and throughout the day I could easily feel the strong sense of bonding between everyone. Everyone was very, very nice and open to conversation – especially during the meal.

There was much talking and sharing of ideas and questions around practice and study of Buddhist wisdom during lunch. At one point in conversation at the table, one of the lay-person participants said Buddhism is not only a religion, it is a philosophy and a psychology. It represents a variety of techniques and teachings on how to live a meaningful, happy life. After all – that’s what we all want, all of humanity – no matter where you are in the world, right? To be happy. Thus, studying the teachings of Buddha can work in tandem with your religious beliefs. I thought that was an interesting idea and it tied back to teachings I’d experienced at the Kadampa Center.

The monks are forbidden from eating anything after 12:00 noon each day. Lunch is their primary meal of the day. While they may have a small early breakfast some days, other days they may only have lunch.

Everything at every meal is donated by the community so they must eat what has been shared with them.

Each day the monks walk fully around the Monastery clockwise in silence at least once. A sacred path. I learned this is an important ritual and aspect of spiritual life because it is a way to attain spiritual and mental enlightenment.

Meditation sessions happen throughout the day.

I was able to take a few photos before the day began, as phones must be turned off for the day.

When inside, you cannot wear shoes and the monks did not wear shoes outside that day either. You also greet the monks a certain way (giving a short bow as they enter or pass with your hands together as if in prayer, held up to your chin with thumbs tucked in towards your palms).

The day was busy and slow at the same time. While I did have responsibilities such as cleaning and gardening, it was also a time for reflection.

That passage from the booklet I mentioned earlier in this blog post – the one about the stone on the road that we don’t truly notice unless it’s an obstruction and how we may stumble over many stones in our path without realizing we are overlooking gems….

Another view of part of the Monastery

I think those words spoke to me because I identify with a mind that jumps around from idea to idea looking for the next fun/enticing/exciting thing, not stopping to focus until something becomes an obstacle. And I have missed important gems (moments/feelings) when my mind is scattered and unfocused.

I don’t know if that’s what the passage was supposed to mean, but that’s what I felt when I read it.

How often do we jump from thought to thought like fireflies dancing over the grasses, without landing on something long enough to really know if it is something important? Something that could lead to a closer connection with happiness or with a purposeful life?

Instead, we look around for quick fixes and things that peak our curiosity – we are easily diverted. There is a lack of concentration. Confusion. Turbulence. But then there are those special moments of clarity that break through and speak to our hearts, our souls. Fleeting moments that surprise us with emotion. Ones we take photos of and want to remember.

But we forget that those moments are always there, always available to us everywhere. We just have to tame our mind’s wanderlust and focus on not overlooking gems. Be aware, calm your mind.

I thought about that on my walk home after the event. It was such a beautifully sunny and warm spring day that I opted not to Uber back, but to walk the 2 ½ miles and enjoy the sun on my face, the cherry trees in blossom, the first bumble bees of the season…. and think about all the gems in my life.

It is amazing how your perspective changes when you let yourself slow down.

What is a favorite memory moment that brought you awe, joy, happiness? I would love to hear it so please share it with me in the comments below!

I hope you enjoyed the journey this week.



If you’d like to learn more about the Empty Cloud Monastery, including their free on-line and in person programs, check out their website at: https://buddhistinsights.org/#first


(1) The Power of Mindfulness (The Buddhist Association of the United States), July 2016

One comment

  • Hi Penny – Thank you for sharing this step in your journey! Buddhism & Taoism played an important part in my life during my late teens and early twenties. I remember being at the hospital to visit my sister (your mom) on the day that she died. A nun asked my faith and I said Buddhist. It was a strangely peaceful moment.

    Fast forward 30+ years and I have been enjoying watching re-runs of the television series Kung-Fu. It made a great impression on me during my high school years. I loved the wisdom of the Shaolin Monks shared during the episodes. One such gem in a recent episode was:

    “Know when to let go of those things that do not serve you, but force you to serve them.”

    Wishing you peace and much true joy!
    Uncle John

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