LIVINGSTON MANOR, N.Y. Until six years
ago, James Frechter rose at 9 each morning, put on a dark suit and the mandatory tie and
took the subway to Wall Street to begin another long day as an associate lawyer with
Stroock & Stroock & Lavan.
|The Catskills have become a haven for Buddhist centers
like Dai Bosatsu Zendo, a Zen Buddhist monastery. Majo Sugimoto, above, will soon be
ordained a monk.
Breakfast at Dai Bosatsu is a ritualized
But Kigen, 36, did not need to move to Asia to live out
his transformation. The monastery he has embraced is just three hours north of New York
Major Buddhist centers have spread throughout the wooded hills and
valleys of the Catskills. And, academics and others say, the Buddhist presence is steadily
growing, both in the number of centers and in the increasing variety of their traditions.
"The borscht belt has become the Buddhist belt," said Melvin McCleod, the editor
of The Shambhala Sun, a leading Buddhist magazine.
The borscht belt was in fact well past its glory days when Dai Bosatsu,
nestled under forested mountains and partly shaded from view by trees beside a large,
clear lake, opened here in 1976. Soon after, a number of Buddhist centers followed in
scattered areas across the Catskills, far beyond the heart of the belt, bounded roughly by
Route 52 in the north and Route 17 in the south.
Kigen, raised in Forest Hills as a nonpracticing Jew, began his path to
the Catskills in his mid-20's, when he realized that the stress of his job was leaving him
far from satisfied.
"I was well paid but unhappy," he said recently, "and I
visited countries in Asia where people had much less than I did but were contented with
Now one of his duties at the monastery is to act as its business
manager, concerned with daily finances as well as the monastery's long-term financial
well-being. "But don't get the impression that life in the monastery is any kind of
escape from the concerns of day-to-day life," he said. "It teaches us to meet
life as it comes at us minute by minute and to use that as an opportunity for
Buddhism is hardly new to the United States, and a similarly diverse
pocket of sanghas, or communities, flourishes, for example, in the San Francisco Bay area.
But experts use words like hotbed and astonishing to describe the developments in the
Catskills, where academics and temple residents say new centers have been popping up at an
increasing rate in recent years.
"If the world survives another 500 years, the Catskills will be a
pilgrimage place for the United States and Europe," said C. W. Huntington Jr., an
assistant professor of religious studies at Hartwick College in Oneonta who led a seminar
last year titled "Buddhism in the Catskills." And large groups of these pilgrims
now attending retreats and other activities in the Catskills also find people coming from
Asia and Australia.
Some of America's most well-regarded and important Buddhist centers
make their home in the Catskills, said Mr. McCleod, whose magazine is published every two
months and is circulated throughout North America.
"Three places come to mind: the Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount
Tremper, the Karma Triyana Dharmachakra in Woodstock and the International Dai Bosatsu
Zendo at Livingston Manor," he said.
Many experts point to the mix of different schools and traditions
from Japan, Korea, China and Tibet concentrated in one area as the most
significant and unusual aspect of Buddhism in the region.
"It's really wonderful and quite astonishing what's happening in
the Catskills, particularly among Zen and Tibetan schools," said William K. McKeever,
who began sitting meditation in the Tibetan tradition 33 years ago at Yale.
"It's not a casual interest by those who go to the temples and
monasteries," added Mr. McKeever, who recently left his executive position with the
Asia Society in Manhattan to become president of the Deer Park Foundation, a nonprofit
group focused on Buddhism in the contemporary world. "The Catskills have become a hot
bed for people to sit on their cushions and actually practice meditation," he said.
Other experts welcome what they see as a new level of acceptance that
Buddhism seems to have attained. "When you have the Dalai Lama appearing in ads for
Apple computers you know it's not considered so weird anymore," said Tendo Tim Lacy,
38, a monk at Dai Bosatsu.
Guo-yuan Fa Shi, abbott of the Dharma Drum retreat in Pine Bush, said
that just a few years ago, people would stare as he walked around New York City in his
robes black in winter, gray in summer, brown for special occasions. But these days,
he said, "people often bow to me and show more respect."
The Buddhists have certainly captured the respect of real estate
agents. Frank Lumia, an agent in Delhi, about 40 miles north of here, says he prizes the
Buddhists because of their commitment to the environment and because they buy and then
renovate their properties. "They make excellent neighbors," he said. Merchants
also attest to the economic boost provided by their new neighbors. The Zen monastery here,
for example, looks to local farmers' markets when it has to feed upward of 100 people, and
to the local Sam's Club for other supplies.
For although the centers' aims are spiritual, they are set up in the
Catskills in part for down-to-earth reasons: land is relatively cheap and it is close to
New York City. And the hills and forests provide the serene setting that Buddhists have
always sought for contemplation.
A number of the Catskills' Buddhist centers were established as country
retreats for their main bases in the city, including those set up by Asian immigrants who
wanted to preserve their practice and culture. New York City and the surrounding areas
also provide a ready population to draw upon for new members, who, through donations and
retreat fees, help to keep the centers going.
On July 4, Dai Bosatsu will celebrate the 25th anniversary of
establishing a center on 1,400 acres that were paid for by Dorris Carlson, the widow of
Chester Carlson, who invented the process that brought the world Xerox. The Carlsons had
an interest in Eastern philosophy and religions. They also wanted to help transmit the
Buddhist message, particularly the one taught by Eido Shimano Roshi, a Zen master. Dai
Bosatsu's city base is a converted East 67th Street carriage house that was bought as a
center for Eido Roshi by Mr. Carlson, who died four days after its dedication on Sept. 15,
Dai Bosatsu's Catskills building, modeled on a Zen temple in Kyoto,
looks as if it was brought straight from Japan and simply dropped beside Beecher Lake. The
Zen Mountain Monastery, a former Catholic and Lutheran center, on about 250 acres, was
founded 20 years ago. Karma Triyana Dharmachakra in Woodstock, built on about 22 acres in
the colorful and decorative traditional Tibetan style, opened in 1978. It is the North
American seat of the Karmapa, the teenage leader of the Kagyu school, one of the four main
branches of Tibetan Buddhism. The Karmapa fled Tibet for India in 1999, and his arrival in
Woodstock is eagerly awaited as a major event.
Newer centers include the Dharma Drum retreat, opened in July 1997, but
still a work in progress. It is part of a worldwide group based in Taiwan with a city
center in Elmhurst, Queens. Perhaps the newest of all is the Sky Lake Lodge, which opened
in mid-May in Rosendale, south of Woodstock. But getting a handle on the exact number of
Buddhist centers in the region is like trying to solve a koan, the traditional riddle that
Zen masters give their students to contemplate.
Jeff Wilson, the author of "The Buddhist Guide to New York,"
published late last year, listed 16 centers. But anecdotal evidence suggests that the
number is closer to 25 or more. Other estimates put the number at 40. The short answer is
that nobody really knows. There is no all-embracing Buddhist organization keeping count,
and the sleepy hollows, winding dirt roads and forested, almost secretive acres of the
Catskills seem designed to hide many such places from view.
For Majo Sugimoto, 34, the road to Livingston Manor began in Vienna,
where he was brought up as a Christian. He came to New York in 1989 to improve his playing
as a jazz pianist and learned about Zen. In 1991, he went back to Vienna and, inspired by
his Zen practice, he says, switched from studying music to psychology. He recently
received a doctorate from the University of Vienna, combining his studies there with
occasional retreats at Dai Bosatsu.
On Thursday, he will be ordained at Dai Bosatsu as a monk, and will
start his 1,000 days of training.
All of us have "questions that we have to answer before we
die," he said. "Through Zen practice it might be possible to answer them."