AMSTERDAM — The World Peace and Health Organization came to Amsterdam nearly a decade ago with a message of prosperity and a plan to turn the city into a booming tourist location.
Years later, there are still empty storefronts and shuttered homes in the heart of the city.
“It looks like a ghost city,” said holy master Ziguang Shang Shi, leader of the nonprofit, speaking through translator and WPHO spokeswoman Jennie Wong. Yet Shi said he and the WPHO remain determined to beautify and build up the city.
On May 22, WPHO will host its annual Bathing the Buddha event in honor of the birthday of the Shakyamuni Buddha. The group is inviting the community to the event, which will begin at the Peace Hall with what Wong calls a pilgrim journey to the WPHO temple.
Shi hopes the event will bring the community together, something he’s been trying to do for several years, though those hopes haven’t always come to fruition.
He brought the nonprofit WPHO to the Capital Region in 2006, after Shi said he received a message from Jesus Christ to settle in the area.
Shi, who founded Guang Huan Mi Zong Buddhism, and his students renovated the Western Supreme Buddha Temple in Auriesville and began to develop plans to turn the city of Amsterdam into a “health city.” According to Wong, through meditation and Shi’s teachings, which focus on Buddhism but accept all faiths, people can improve their health and sometimes be cured of chronic illnesses.
Shortly after arriving in Amsterdam, the organization tried to fulfill its mission at a brisk pace. It bought several churches around the city, and in 2010 Shi purchased 48 buildings at a city auction.
“They were very deteriorated. They were just like trash,” Shi said.
Shi said when he bought the properties that there was an investor who promised to provide him $10 million to renovate them. That fell through when several of the buildings were burglarized.
Shi said he also expected tax breaks from the city of Amsterdam, which never materialized. At one point, he was thinking of giving up, and was prepared to leave the city.
“But after that, so many good people came out. They showed up with supporting words and encouragement,” Shi said. “They said they [wanted] us to stay.”
One of those people was Ina Stone. She owns the Rockwood General Store in Johnstown and has been attending WPHO events since 2010.
Stone got in touch with the organization after she learned that its properties were burglarized. Since her store was broken into many times, she said she knew what they were going through. “You move to this area and you expect a good life, and you don’t get one,” Stone said.
The group decided to stay, though Shi and the WPHO changed direction after the episode.
Shi said he sold 37 of the buildings for $1 each to Sunlight Recycling Co., a limited liability company for which the contact listed was one of the vacant homes. Shi said he had little to no contact with the company and that he gave the buildings to Sunlight as a gift.
The transactions evoked suspicion in the city. There was back and forth between then-Mayor Ann Thane, who called Sunlight a “dummy corporation” and said the WPHO was a “disingenuous” organization, and Shi, who called Thane a “liar.” In 2015, The Gazette reported that Sunlight owed $230,000 in taxes.
According to Montgomery County records, those 37 buildings were foreclosed by the city sometime between 2016 and 2017. Several had to be demolished and many were sold. The rest will be sold at auction this summer, according to Amsterdam Mayor Michael Villa. Since taking office, he hasn’t had frequent contact with Shi or the WPHO.
“We’ve met a few times,” Villa said. “No issues have arisen. When we came in, we just wanted to open a dialogue.”
For the city, the buildings previously owned by Sunlight are a drop in the bucket. According to Villa, the city has been playing catch-up on foreclosures for the past year or two. At the foreclosure auction last year, 640 properties were auctioned, and this summer the number will be closer to 300, according to Villa.
For Shi, the auction points to why he wanted to invest in the city: dilapidated homes and a “ghost-town” atmosphere.
Shi said he’s still moving ahead with his vision for the city, just at a more manageable pace.
The WPHO is focused on remodeling the Western Shrine and the temple in Auriesville and its health building in Amsterdam, which opened earlier this year. The group hosts weekly One Day Zen classes and teacher-training programs, and it hopes to add other community programs.
Although he lost previous investors, Shi said he’s bringing back a few others to visit this week. There’s no guarantee that the potential investors will actually invest, though Shi is hopeful.
Part of his hope stems from the support of people like Stone.
“I can’t thank them enough for their kindness,” said Stone. Since 2010, she’s attended temple and as many WPHO events as she can. She’s also decided to leave an inheritance to the organization.
“I don’t have any living relatives, so I figured I would give it to them,” Stone said.
It’s not clear whether the WPHO will accept it or not, but Shi appreciated the gesture. To him, it’s proof that what the organization does makes a difference.
With the Bathing of the Buddha celebration, the WPHO hopes to draw Amsterdam residents and people from across the region. According to Stone, it’s one of the larger events the group organizes.
The event begins at roughly 1:30 p.m. with the journey from the Peace Hall (17 Liberty St.) to the temple.
“They will walk to the Holy Mountain Arch, which [symbolizes] the holy entrance toward the Buddhist heavenly world on this earth. Then they will walk along 1,250 stairs uphill, which symbolizes the reincarnated 1,250 disciples of Shakyamuni Buddha,” Wong said. The attendees will gather at the Western Supreme Buddha Temple for the Bathing of the Buddha ceremony, in which fragrant water is poured over a Buddha statue, representing the purification of the mind and spirit.
WPHO members will also perform lion and dragon dances (traditional Chinese dances) at the event. According to Wong, attendees can learn more about Guang Huan Mi Zong Buddhism and meditation at the event.
“It’s a wonderful event,” Stone said, though she’s quick to add that not as many locals as she would like attend the event.
“People think they’re drumming up Buddhism. But it’s more than that,” Stone said.
“We hope this city can be more open-minded and open their hearts,” Shi said.
For information on the Bathing of the Buddha event, visit guanghuanmizong.info