Lake Santa Fe Buddhist center mostly draws praise, excitement

By AMY REININK, The Gainesville Sun, June 26. 2007

EARLETON, Florida (USA) -- Amid fields of organic blueberries and acres of lakefront cypress groves, a group of Gainesville Buddhists is building its future.

Long-term plans call for a monastery, cultural center, nature preserve and retreat for one of the highest ranking Buddhists in the world to be built on a 143-acre waterfront lot on Lake Santa Fe off County Road 1469. Florida Dharma Retreat Center Inc. purchased the property for $1.275 million in 2005, according to Alachua County Property Appraiser records.

The conceptual plan is years away from being actualized, but has already drawn praise, criticism and curiosity from environmentalists and neighbors in the tiny communities surrounding the lake.

At Chiappini's, a convenience store in nearby Melrose that doubles as a bar, most members of the crowd on a recent Wednesday night said they were thrilled to welcome the Buddhists to town.

"A lot of us think it's a great thing," said Frances Johnson, who has lived in the Melrose area for 41 years. "I'd like to visit when they have it open. They're supposed to be loving, caring people, and their philosophy is to take care of the land, so there are a lot worse people the land could have gone to."

Tom Dorn, owner of Dorn's Liquors, first bought the property more than 20 years ago, and fell in love with the peace of the shoreline and the fields of organic blueberries he planted.

"I harvested them there for four or five years and sold them," Dorn said. "I got absolutely nowhere, but had fun doing it. It was a labor of love."

Dorn said he'd considered selling the property for years, but hadn't found a buyer he felt would preserve the property as he had until he found the Buddhists.

"I just thought this was a really neat piece of old Florida that should be saved," Dorn said. "It's really gorgeous. I'm not a Buddhist, but I'm really excited to see the property in their hands."

Planning for the Florida Tibetan Buddhist Center started several years ago, when His Holiness Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the 17th Karmapa, said he had a vision of a part-time residence and meditation center near Gainesville. Many believe that the Karmapa is the second-ranking Tibetan Buddhist to the Dalai Lama.

The invasion and occupation of Tibet by China in 1959 helped spread the practice of Tibetan Buddhism throughout the world, and sent both the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa to Dharamsala, India, in exile.

The Karmapa has one major monastery and retreat in Woodstock, N.Y., which would make the one planned for Lake Santa Fe the only other center of that magnitude in North America, said Gainesville Lama David Bole.

This means it would attract Buddhist teachers from all over the world, possibly even the Dalai Lama himself, said Bole, who helped spearhead the project.

Bole said a group of Gainesville-area Buddhists is working to raise funds to pay off the land purchase. Then, the group will start raising the tens of millions of dollars it thinks it will need to build the monastery and other facilities, meaning even the early stages of the center's construction are still years away, Bole said.

In accordance with the Karmapa's wishes, the center would be open to the community, with meditation gardens, walking paths and facilities that could offer everything from painting classes to Tibetan music lessons to Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike.

The land comprises roughly 2,000 feet of shoreline, and Bole said he envisions meditation pavilions near the waterfront and wooden walkways for guests to spy osprey, hawks, turtles and other wildlife.

"I hope people understand that we intend to keep most of the land as a nature preserve," Bole said. "In our tradition, the idea is to protect all life. We want to preserve the integrity of the lake for people, but also for turtles, alligators and other sentient beings. We place a very big emphasis on maintaining harmony between man and nature, and it seems like this is a good meeting point between the two."

Veterinarian Stephen Shores, who lives just north of the Buddhist property, said he has concerns about the site's effect on his property values and on traffic on rural County Road 1469.

"I honestly am not at all concerned about having Buddhists in the vicinity - that doesn't affect me one way or the other," Shores said. "My question is whether the establishment of a Buddhist enclave negatively affects property values around it, and that's a question I don't know if anybody has an answer to."

Others say they're worried that any development on the site, which does not have access to a central sewer system, would pollute Lake Santa Fe.

"This is a delicate area, and any serious increase in human activity will lead to increased eutrophication of the lake," said former Gainesville Mayor-Commissioner Mark Goldstein, who owns a home near the Buddhist property. "That's true whether the folks are Tibetan Buddhists or South Florida developers; the lake and the fish can't tell the difference."

The lake is already home to an RV campground and a condominium complex. Goldstein said while he has concerns about the Buddhist site, he was happy to see the land go to the Buddhists rather than someone planning a more intensive use.

Alison Blakeslee, a board member of the Santa Fe Lake Dwellers Association, said a meeting with the Buddhists about their plans left her and other board members optimistic about the project.

"We are hopeful that they will continue the Buddhist tradition of land stewardship," Blakeslee said. "Other parcels have been sold to developers, which helps to put this in perspective. The plans are still conceptual, so it's hard to know for sure, but I think it's safe to say that we're hopeful that positive things will happen here."

Attorney Alan Parlapiano, who has lived on Lake Santa Fe since about 2000, said he's glad to share the lake with a group that will appreciate it as much as he does.

"Among my friends and acquaintances, who are all pretty conservation-minded, there seems to be a welcoming or tolerant feeling that this is maybe a good use for the land," Parlapiano said. "I haven't encountered any real negativity. Lake Santa Fe is a jewel for this area. It's our identity. If someone comes in talking about how important it is to them to respect this great resource, that's very encouraging. And if they feel that it enhances their spirituality to be out here, then I think that's great."

As Bole walked through thickets of wild blackberries and groves of huge oak trees on the property on a recent afternoon, he said finding spirituality there shouldn't be difficult.

"This land has a stillness that changes your perspective," Bole said. "We want this to be a place of refuge where people can come to find balance and harmony for many generations to come."