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Buddhist Community Has Deep Roots in Howell

Temples help bring tight knit community together

Like many longtime Howell residents Bemba Balsirow can remember when Route 9 was a single lane highway and the township had a much more small town and rural feel. 

Balsirow grew up on the property of the Tashi Lhunpo Temple, one of a handful of Buddhist temples in the town which he currently serves as president. Located on Kalmuk Rd. just off of Aldrich Rd. Balsirow said the community of Kalmyk Mongolians first came to the town in 1951 with many of them settling in the Freewood Acres section. 

Much like his temple which is tucked away out of view another temple in town the Rashi Gempil Ling Temple blends into its surroundings on East Fifth Street but is visually striking as you get closer to the buildings and are simply stunning on the inside. 

A lot has changed in the 50 years Balsirow has been in the town and now his generation is looking to continue the traditions of the past. 

That older generation helped bring the Dalai Lama to Howell in the 1970's and helped to sponsor several other trips by the revered figure in recent years. Balsirow said He has met the Dalai Lama more than six times in his lifetime and each time it is a special experience.

Back when he came to Howell Balsirow said the only protection the Dalai Lama had was the members of the temple. Now, the Nobel Laureate has Secret Service protection everywhere he goes. "He's a spiritual Superman," Balsirow said. "Each time I've met his holiness it just broadened my love for him. It's almost like that spiritual connection and you just feel it." 

It is the message the Dalai Lama spreads that Balsirow said makes him such a special person. "It's very simple. It's not complicated," he said. "It makes it easier for the layman and every individual to feel for him."

With the simplicity of the message he delivers Balsirow said comes peace with his religion. "It's a religion where it's very relaxed and you do not have to have a church or a temple," he said. The prayers he does at home as well as in the temples bring what he called an "inner peace." 

The Buddhist community in Howell is well established but Balsirow said a recent infusion of Immigrants over the past 20 years has helped to keep them active and vibrant. "That kind of was the catalyst for the Americanized Kalmyks to affiliate with all of that," he said. 

That infusion, he said also brought an interest in soccer which has helped to bring the community together even more. Since that time a soccer team has become part of the culture and they have gone on to great success at the national level. "It has drawn all the Mongolian youths from my son who is going to be 18 soon to elders and collectively playing organized summer," he said.  

Soccer has helped to keep the community together and Balsirow said technology has helped as well while also presenting its own set of challenges. I think Facebook helps because we have Facebook and we have the vehicle to keep everybody informed culturally and religiously," he said. "Technology, it can help but it can hinder and I think that's true of any culture."

In addition to going to the Buddhist temple Balsirow also attends the local Russian Orthodox church with his family. The ability to practice both religions proves what makes the town so special to him. It is a town that also has a Coptic Church, a synagogue and many other religious denominations that all practice freely in the 62 square miles. "It's a cohabitation and it's wonderful because in Howell that's unique that you have so many diverse backgrounds."

Someday Balsirow said he would like to see the temple expand and grow but for now he is happy to be part of the community he has called home for more than five decades. "Its always been a sanctuary for all the Kalmyks throughout the Tri-State area," he said. 

More information about the Kalmyk community in Howell can be found on the township's website.

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