June 18, 2001
Buddhism Blooms Amid the Forests of the Catskills
By TERENCE NEILAN
IVINGSTON 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.
Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times 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.
Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times Breakfast at Dai Bosatsu is a ritualized affair.
Nowadays, he is up by 4 a.m. in the Dai Bosatsu Zendo, an hour before a young monk wakes the rest of the monastery by walking through the corridors clanging a hand bell. Mr. Frechter, now a monk who answers to the name Kigen, has by that time already donned a kimono and a thin set of robes and headed to a hall in the predawn darkness to lead fellow monks and visitors in zazen, or sitting meditation.
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 City.
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 their lives."
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 practice."
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, 1968.
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."
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company