Monday, June 17, 2013

Peace Pagodas and Soy Milk from Monks

Often, the most incredible moments of life are unplanned; they just arrive, unannounced, with captivating beauty. One of our goals on this journey has been to open space for such experiences through scheduling and planning as little as possible and just letting life happen. We were fortunate to stumble into such a moment in Grafton, New York, last week. 

We began seeing signs from Route 2 in New York for a peace pagoda. We didn't know exactly what this would be, but it caught both mine and Dave's attention, and we decided to go, even though we were trying to make it to Vermont by nightfall and were making an attempt not to make stops. 

Once we pulled off Route 2, signs led us several miles down curvy dirt roads and through lush green forest that was delightfully devoid of human noise except the rumbling of rocks under our tires at 15 miles per hour. We eventually came to a clearing and a parking spot with a sign for the peace pagoda. 

A magical, sun dappled trail led us into the woods and we followed several small arrows on the way to the peace pagoda. This path alone was worth the detour; it had a wonderful energy, and reminded us very much of entering the Hostel in the Forest, our inspiration for this trip. 

Along the path, we encountered many cairns, which are human-made stacks of stones. 

Cairns are sometimes used as path or trail markers across the world, but they are also popular in the Zen tradition and serve as a sort of natural meditation, both for the person stacking them and the person encountering them. 

Because we didn't know what the peace pagoda would look like, when we came upon this old growth tree surrounded by a circle of cairns, we assumed this was it. As we soaked in its beauty, we heard the clap of drums and gongs in the distance, and wondered if we could trust our senses. We took a few more steps through the woods, and came upon a clearing that offered this view: 

This was one of those speechless moments where Dave and I just looked at each other. From the lush New York woods appeared this grassy clearing with a giant temple structure rising to the sky. 

As we approached, the rhythmic drum beating continued to vibrate. 

What we had discovered in the woods was only a prelude; this was the peace pagoda. 

This 3 1/2 story tall marvel would have been right at home in Tibet. 

In front of the pagoda was this naturally landscaped area with a pond. Accompanying the drum beats was a cacophony of bullfrogs, the pond's inhabitants. 

One of the pond's frogs. They were wonderful to watch and listen to. 

There were also resident salamanders! 

After soaking in the peace pagoda for as long as we felt time allowed, we decided to take an alternate path back to the car since the wooded path was very muddy from the recent heavy rains. We assumed this was a community where monks were living and that the drumming and singing we were hearing was their evening prayers and chants. As we approached this building, however, we found out we had been wrong. A sign on the steps invited guests into the temple for prayer. We again slipped off our shoes and entered. What followed was a scene that felt straight out of a dream. 

The building was light and airy with open windows and the fragrance of incense. A single monk was inside, sitting to the left of the door, playing a giant drum and chanting. We entered silently and sat down on the floor to meditate, and he noticed our presence, stopping his prayer to bow and greet us with a very thick accent, a shining shaved head, and red and gold robes. He offered us both a meditation cushion and a drum if we wanted to play along. The monk was incredibly kind, and told us to stay as long as we like, but not to stay longer than we could. We sat in meditation for a while, captivated by the gorgeous symphony he was producing. Opening our eyes occasionally, we were treated to the luxurious view of red and gold cloth and statuary lining the front wall. 

When we decided it was time to go and stood up, the monk stopped his prayer to smile and honored us by repeatedly bowing, sometimes so deeply that his head touched the ground.  He insisted we wait just a moment and ran off, pattering barefoot across the wooden floor and through a blue curtain hung from a bamboo pole across a wooden doorframe. When he came back, he presented us with a gift: 2 cans of soy milk and a bag of white beans with a black center. They were having a special event, he said, and these were gifts for visitors. It was an incredibly kind gesture, and certainly brought tears to my eyes. 

We're still not sure what the black and white beans are, but we plan to use them at our wedding for guests to shower us with in lieu of rice. The gentleness, humility, and kindness of the monk were touching to us and we decided these beans would represent these traits in our marriage.  

Getting back in the car, both Dave and I were at a loss for words. The entire experience was so magical, it did not seem like it could be real. The only thing we could do was read the leaflet of information we picked up on our way back to the van. Here, we learned more about the purpose and intent of the peace pagoda. 

"In 1978, Native Americans organized “The Longest Walk," wherein participants walked cross-country from San Francisco, California to Washington, DC. Accompanying them on their walk was a Japanese Buddhist Nun from the Nipponzan Myohoji order. Since then, Jun Yasuda has crossed the country four more times on foot and logged in several thousand additional miles for the cause of peace. She walks beating her drum while chanting a prayer for peace Na-Mu-Myo-Ho-Ren-Ge-Kyo. Many times she has spent days fasting on the steps of the NY State Capitol in Albany for support of freedom for a Native American activist Dennis Banks. In 1983, during one of her fasts, she was approached by Hank Hazelton, a long time activist for Native Americans. Hank had heard of her work and offered her a parcel of land in Grafton, New York, for the purpose of building a “Monument for Peace." In October 1985, work began on the structure soon to be called the Grafton Peace Pagoda. After 8 years of toil and struggle, the Pagoda was completed and dedicated in the fall of 1993." 

In a world full of nuclear bombs, constant states of war, people killing other people, and a pervasive atmosphere of anything but peace, the Grafton Peace Pagoda exists as a space to bring peace into the world. There are only two peace pagodas in the entire United States (a third in under construction in Tennessee.) It's so amazing that we completely unknowingly stumbled across one of them. It made the experience that much more magical. The second is in Massachusetts, so we plan to go, but I know the feeling of awe will never quite top the experience of this first peace pagoda, rising up from the forest in the middle of rural New York. We're so thankful for moments like this; it's what being on the road is all about! 


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