Peace Pagoda Grounds a Buddhist Group in New England

By ERIC GOLDSCHEIDER, New York Times, October 1, 2005

LEVERETT, Mass. (USA) -- On a bright Thursday under a stunningly blue sky, Brian McCue and Phil Dowling spent six hours last week in the bucket of a cherry picker, one spraying and the other rolling white paint onto a large concrete dome atop a mountain.

Mr. McCue and his crew were sprucing up what is widely known in this section of the Connecticut River Valley as the Peace Pagoda, in preparation for the 20th anniversary of its dedication.

The structure, built under the guidance of Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhist monks, has twin staircases leading to a walkway circling the dome, which itself has four elevated alcoves, each depicting a stage of Buddha's life. On top there is a gold-colored aluminum pinnacle.

Mr. McCue, who has been a painting contractor in the area for 35 years, is not a Buddhist. "I always thought God is too big for one religion," he said. When a friend asked him to donate time and energy during his busiest period of the year to paint the 103-foot-high hemisphere, he accepted.

"It's a good thing to do; how am I going to say no?" he said, adding that it would be like telling Jesus, "I'd like to hang out with you, but I don't have the time."

Buddhism has a long tradition of monastic orders that, as a matter of principle, live off the generosity of the surrounding community, said Jay L. Garfield, a professor of Buddhist philosophy at nearby Smith College. And so it is with the Peace Pagoda here, in a town known for its liberal politics and populated by a mix of aging back-to-the-land hipsters, former urban professionals and multigenerational New Englanders.

Relying on friends and strangers for sustenance, both for basic survival and for the human resources needed to accomplish projects like this, is also a matter of strategy for the monks. It integrates them into the community while exposing new people to their worldview.

The monks in Leverett do not even grow vegetables in their flower gardens, said Sister Clare Carter, 55, who was born a Roman Catholic in Boston and ordained as a Nipponzan Myohoji nun in 1981. "The idea is not to be self-sufficient," Sister Clare said.

Grounded in the Nichiren tradition of Buddhism, which dates to the 13th century, this order was founded by Nichidatsu Fujii, who was deeply affected by the bombing of Hiroshima, which coincided with his 60th birthday.

Called Fujii Guruji by Gandhi, with whom he lived on an ashram in the mid-1930's, Fujii devoted the last four decades of his life to world peace by building pagodas and taking political action in the form of well-publicized walks, some thousands of miles long.

He died seven months shy of his 100th birthday, in 1985.

Construction on the order's first pagoda began in 1946 in Fujii's home country, Japan. It was inaugurated in 1954, said Sister Clare, who keeps her head shaved and wears simple white and saffron cotton clothing.

Today, she said, more than 80 such pagodas exist, mostly in Japan, India and Sri Lanka. There are a few in Europe, one in Zambia and one in Grafton, N.Y., and one is being built in eastern Tennessee. The order has about 150 monks and nuns, most of whom are Japanese.

Elaine Kenseth, 62, a volunteer who was erecting a series of 20 panels to display memorabilia from each year of the Leverett pagoda's existence for the Oct. 2 anniversary celebration, said she took her young children to the construction site in 1984.

Ms. Kenseth's father was the pastor of the South Congregational Church in neighboring Amherst, and she has helped settle Cambodian refugees in the area. The pagoda was a "place my children could learn peaceful ways," Ms. Kenseth said. "That was a comfort to me as a mother."

She was not looking for a new spiritual direction when the Nipponzan Myohoji order established itself here. "But I can't imagine my life without it right now," she said.

Nipponzan Myohoji is unusual among Buddhist orders, Professor Garfield said, because it takes overtly political stands. "Their actions are deliberately public," he said.

Ms. Kenseth, who volunteered as the home base liaison for a 1998-99 peace walk (with some airline travel) from Leverett to Cape Town, said the order was "open to everybody, and they feel that most of what they have has to be donated."

"When you give, it opens your heart," she said, "and when you are thankful, it opens your heart."

Brother Gyoway Kato, a monk from Japan who was an energizing force behind this pagoda, said the order identified this area as a promising site after the United Nations special session on disarmament in 1982. At the time, the order organized separate walks from San Francisco, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Bangor, Me., and Montreal to converge on New York City. The group walking from Canada passed through Amherst.

Having lived a third of his life in America, Brother Kato, 65, says he has been affected by the "openness" in the United States. "People don't hold back; they put everything out there, which is different from our culture," he said. This is a good thing, he said, but "it sometimes creates some weakness."

Peter N. Gregory, a scholar of Buddhism in the United States and the head of the religion department at Smith College, said that there was a lot of hostility toward the pagoda when construction was first proposed, but that Brother Kato's "ability to absorb their anger really changed people's hearts."

Now, Professor Gregory said, the order is part of the fabric of the community, and people refer to the structure as "our Peace Pagoda."

Sister Clare said the order existed to do two things: build pagodas and walk. She likens the practice of walking and chanting for world peace to being a "river running through the countryside, towns, villages and urban areas."

She helps organize several shorter walks each year in addition to the occasional continental or intercontinental treks.

"It's a beautiful feeling," Sister Clare said. "You have your feet on the ground; you move through communities; people look at you and you look at people."