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The Zen of Braintree

Local, quiet make town a center for followers of Eastern religions

BRAINTREE -- From the road, it's just a momentary blip in the suburban monotone -- a yellow temple with a red tile roof and ornate, upturned eaves nestled among modest homes, a strip mall, and the high school on Granite Street.

Walk inside, and suburbia dissolves. The faint smell of incense wafts through the chilly air. Monks in loose yellow robes wander the halls in thick socks or furry leopard-print slippers. Rows of gray-robed worshipers kneel and bow to a massive golden Buddha holding a lotus flower. The air vibrates with chanting.

The Bode Buddhist Meditation Center may seem like a lone, unlikely Buddhist outpost in the midst of Braintree's anything-but-Zen traffic snarls, thriving office parks, and predominantly white population. But it's not as much of an aberraton as one might think. Just a few minutes away are two other temples. Chinese Taoists gather at the Tian Ann Temple on Hayward Street, and chanting fills the Samantabhadra Buddhist Center on Quincy Avenue.

The three temples -- which attract immigrant worshippers from Boston and from communities north, south, and west of the city -- make Braintree something of an Eastern religion hotspot. Few people know the temples' names, but they have quietly turned into recognizable landmarks; residents refer to them as the one near the Burlington Coat Factory, the one that used to be an old nursing home, and the one in an old church.

Each one is a window into how immigrants rebuild a spiritual life from scratch in their new country.

Over the past few decades, many Asians moved out of crowded, expensive Chinatown to Quincy, where about a fifth of the population is Asian. As that city has been built out and prices have risen, the Asian population -- like other immigrant communities -- has sought houses, businesses, and places of worship in nearby suburban areas with lower real estate costs, said John Brothers, executive director of Quincy Asian Resources, a nonprofit organization that helps link the Asian community with other services. For Quincy, that place is neighboring Braintree.

In the 2000 Census, Braintree counted 3.1 percent of its residents as Asian. Although Braintree does not count race or nationality in its annual town census, over the last school year, 6.1 percent of school students in Braintree Public Schools were Asian, according to statistics kept by the state Department of Education.

The temples also reflect the struggles of immigrant communities to balance religious needs with economic realities.

Venerable Thich Thien Hue, the monk who founded the Samantabhadra Center for Vietnamese Buddhism five years ago, said he looked at buying real estate in Boston, where the Vietnamese community was strong, but found the area too expensive and crowded.

''We chose this location because [it's] near public transportation . . . easy access to get here, and near colleges if they need to do research on Zen," Master Thich Tue Tinh of the Bode Center said, speaking through a translator.

On a recent Sunday, two dozen people were at the Bode Center for the 9 a.m. chanting service. More trickled in as the morning went on, to meditate, learn about Buddha, eat lunch, do more chanting, and participate in a question-and-answer session that lasted late into the afternoon.

''Most people are not from Braintree," said Hien Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant who has lived in Brockton since 1990. People tend to come from Randolph, Dorchester, New Hampshire, Quincy, and beyond, for the convenience and the quiet, he said.

It's not uncommon for immigrants to drive long distances to reach their spiritual community, said Grove Harris, managing director of the Pluralism Project, a Harvard University research project that examines religious diversity in the United States. Braintree, which sits at the end of the Red Line and at the nexus of several major highways, seems an obvious choice to draw from a large geographic area.

But Braintree has unexpected advantages, too.

''I picked east Braintree because this area is a very quiet area, very natural for our meditation style," said Thich Thien Hue, who compared the spacious former nursing home of his current temple to a converted triple-decker temple he has visited in Dorchester.

The suburban temples have also attracted a growing nonimmigrant following. David Berkeley of Plymouth is the only American who regularly attends the Bode Center, which practices Zen Buddhism, with services entirely in Vietnamese, but monks said many Americans have expressed interest in attending.

The Buddha, ''the awakened one," was a prince named Siddhartha Gautama who lived six centuries before Jesus Christ, in India. After witnessing old age, sickness, and death, he left his position in society and became a monk, beginning a spiritual journey to reach enlightenment. The Buddha's teachings -- that it is possible to quiet the mind and overcome human suffering with moral living and meditation -- spread across Asia and appeals to a growing number of Americans today.

At the Samantabhadra Center, Thich Thien Hue has embraced what he calls ''Buddhism in America," with a large number of Americans coming from Hingham to worship.

''The United States is our second country, so we had to create a new tradition and a new way to practice, to make with American tradition and culture and education," he said.

Harris said it was difficult to find a single cause for the apparent growth in suburban temples: More Americans are becoming interested in Eastern religions, and Asians are certainly moving into suburbia -- but people are also just noticing such temples for the first time.

Many temples have humble beginnings in homes or, as at the Bode Center, in a garage, and easily slip under the radar. The Pluralism Project lists more than 2,000 Buddhist temples nationwide but listed none of the Braintree temples; only one of the Quincy temples were listed, even though they all have been around for several years.

But the temples also fold unobtrusively into the landscape.

At the Tian Ann Temple, worshipers follow a combination of Buddhism and the teachings of Confucius, according to Frank Poon, a member of Quincy Asian Resources.

A plaque on the foundation of the temple -- a former church -- reads, ''For the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ" not far from the current sign: ''Dedicated to truth (Tao)."

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com.

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