Feng shui shapes a beautiful Buddhist retreat

By Robert Campbell, Boston Globe Correspondent, April 17, 2005

BARRE, Massachusetts (USA) -- A magical place called Forest Refuge is a cluster of cedar cottages and pavilions tucked among the rocks and woods of this central Massachusetts town.

Forest Refuge is one of the gems of recent architecture in rural New England. It's also a rare local example of architecture designed according to the principles of feng shui, the Chinese belief in positioning rooms, buildings, and even cities according to what are thought to be positive patterns of energy.

Forest Refuge is a retreat for Buddhists. They come from all over the country and the world to spend time here in meditation. They stay for as little as two weeks or as much as two years. They sleep in modest bedroom cells, and they meditate in silence, sometimes while kneeling on cushions facing the Buddha in the beautiful shrine hall, sometimes while pacing up and down Forest Refuge's corridors and pathways.

''We practice Insight Meditation," says Joseph Goldstein, who founded the community and lives nearby. ''We seek what we call Mindfulness, the practice of undistracted awareness. It's very difficult to do, because the mind wanders."

Goldstein learned Buddhist meditation when he was in the Peace Corps in Southeast Asia, and now teaches it widely. He practices a form of the creed called Theravada Buddhism, which flourishes in Thailand and other regions of Southeast Asia, where it is usually practiced in a forest setting. ''We have about 30 retreatants -- yogis --here at any one time," he says. ''Many of them come more than once. There are also cottages for some of the teachers and staff."

The architects are the firm of O'Neil Pennoyer, in Groton. They've achieved an extraordinary sense of connectedness at Forest Refuge. Man-made buildings and natural surroundings seem all of a piece. The buildings are linked by wood walkways that are built like docks and raised a few inches off the ground. When you see a yogi moving on one, he seems, in his robes, to not quite be touching the earth, but floating just above it.

Simple materials relate the architecture to the natural world. The green-shingled roofs of the walkways are supported by so-called ''lodge pole pine," meaning posts that have been cut from standing dead timber and left unfinished. These rough posts, lining the walkways in rows, suggest a kind of measured pacing even when no one is present.

Other materials are equally natural. Walls are made of vertical cedar planks, and floors are recycled fir. Everywhere you look, the rooms and passageways open to views of trees, rocks, moss, or pastureland. Especially fine is the high, spacious, multiwindowed shrine hall, which evokes a Shaker simplicity and sense of craft. Here meditators face a statue of the Buddha, which stands above a natural rock outcropping that pokes up through the floor.

O'Neil Pennoyer was chosen for the job only after Goldstein tried other architects. Michael Rotondi, a well known avant-garde Californian, made an almost complete design before it was decided that his ideas were too expensive. ''It looked like something from outer space," says one staff member. Goldstein then decided to do something very different and, he felt, more closely attuned to New England.

The most fascinating element in the design of the Forest Refuge is the feng shui (pronounced, more or less, ''fung shway"). Hank Reisen is a consultant in Cambridge who specializes in that discipline. Goldstein hired him early on as an adviser on site planning, well before taking on O'Neil Pennoyer.

On the telephone, Reisen attempts to give a hopelessly Western writer a short course on his subject.

''It's about the flow of energy, which we call ch'i," he says (pronouncing it ''chee"). ''It's the flow and pooling of ch'i in the physical environment. You want a balance between flow and pooling. A river would be all flow, a swamp would be no flow and all pool. You can have too much flow or too much pooling."

The linearity, the straight hallways and walks at Forest Refuge, are examples of flow. Nooks that branch off them, he says, ''are like eddies in the stream, so you don't get too much flow." His explanation does, in fact, illuminate some of the beauty and variety of Forest Refuge. The shrine hall, for example, can be thought of as a still lake at the end of a river of motion.

He talks, too, about larger siting issues. ''A site should be like a seat," he says, ''with maybe a little ridge behind, to the north, and a bright open space in front, to the south. The ridge can be a land form, or you can make it out of architecture. It is the tortoise with its hard back. To the east is the dragon, to the west is the tiger, balanced. Beyond the open area in front is the red bird," by which he means some accent in the southern distance, which at Forest Refuge takes the form of trees atop small hills.

I'm not sure how all this plays out at Forest Refuge. But the linked buildings do frame the outdoor spaces, much like the arms of an armchair.

I'm not suggesting that anyone but O'Neil Pennoyer is the architect of Forest Refuge. Architects, however, work with consultants of all kinds. Why not feng shui? What matters is that the result, here in Barre, is a work of beauty and serenity.