In a quiet corner of northern Vermont, meditation gains ground
When the first offer came in, the real-estate agent knew that this would be a different kind of sale.
For 95 acres of farmland, the buyer was willing to give retired farmers Winston and Burnice Adams $85,000, plus weekly "accupressure treatments" for the rest of their lives, and a discount on Chinese herbs.
"I've been practicing real estate for over 18 years," recalls Mary D. Scott, "and I've never, ever, had anything like that incorporated into an offer."
The Adamses said no thanks, and the negotiations continued.
On Dec. 10, the sale went through.
The buyer, Hyun Moon Kim, a Korean man with a shaved head who wore a dark-green robe to the closing, paid the Adamses $76,960 - no treatments, no herbs - for a smaller parcel, 71.9 acres, on which to build a Taoist meditation center.
It will be the third meditation center in Barnet, a rural hamlet in Vermont's rugged Northeast Kingdom, just across the Connecticut River from New Hampshire.
The fourth, if you count the Sufi instruction a woman offers in her home.
THE ONLY other commerce in Barnet is a few small machine shops, three general stores and a gas station.
Many people work at minimum-wage jobs in the neighboring town of St. Johnsbury, or in the woods, cutting and hauling logs.
The locals welcome the visiting seekers - the Barnet Village Store stocks a supply of saki - but seem uninterested in Buddhism, and chuckle when asked whether they're ever tempted to sit on a cushion and watch their breath.
"Not yet," says Town Clerk Bill Hoar, as if it might still happen.
"No," says Selectwoman Mona Stark. "That's being quiet for too long a time."
"No," says Marion Somer, a dairy and strawberry farmer. "I read the Bible and pray and things like that - I don't meditate the way they meditate. Definitely not."
She remembers reading a pamphlet left at the farm a few years ago by a Buddhist who'd come to buy milk, and the whole thing seemed too "inward."
"You're trying to get in touch with your" - she shudders - "whatever."
She once saw her daughter's friend, a teenage girl from one of the centers, sitting in the lotus position in the bucket of a tractor, teaching the other kids about meditation.
"It was kind of a funny sight."
Visiting lamas, or meditation masters, are often seen walking down Route 5, the main road through town, in their saffron robes.
Until it was stolen, a sign that said, SLOW - MONK CROSSING, the gift of a disciple with a sense of humor, announced the lamas' presence.
The biggest mingling of East and West, though, occurred in 1987, when a Buddhist abbot died, and disciples came from all over the world - crowd estimates range from 2,000 to 5,000 - to witness his cremation atop a hill.
The center paid townspeople to park the disciples' cars, and churches sold food along the path to the cremation site.
BARNET, a town founded by Scottish Presbyterians, didn't become a spiritual mecca overnight.
In 1970, some American students of Tibetan Buddhism bought 440 acres of land and an old farmhouse, and invited their guru, an exiled Tibetan Buddhist abbot named Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, to use it as his occasional base in the United States.
The center was called Tail of the Tiger (later, its name was changed to Karme-Choling,) and at first it raised some eyebrows in town.
But the Rinpoche - a title that means "precious jewel" - was smart. Rather than staying at the center when he visited, he lodged with townspeople, so that they could get acquainted with him.
Over the years, the friendship between center and town developed, with center staffers volunteering in town - to help renovate and paint the Town Hall, say - and their children attending local schools.
Karme-Choling would become the first of three such rural residential centers in the world; the others are in Colorado and southern France. There are more than 100 urban centers worldwide, plus a monastery in Nova Scotia where Buddhist nuns and monks live.
Within a few years, a second Tibetan Buddhist meditation center - Milarepa, which springs from the Dalai Lama's lineage of monks - set its sights on Barnet.
"It was a complete, good accident," says co-founder Peter Baker. "Extremely good karma."
Prayer flags wave in the breeze along the long, steep driveway to the converted farmhouse, where a sign over the door says, "May all beings be happy."
Inside, Baker sips tea at a long table in the rustic dining room, which is warmed by a woodstove.
It was the late 1970s, he says, when he and a monk he'd met while traveling in India thought about opening a center in the United States. To Baker, born in Vermont, the state seemed a logical place.
"It has a mystique for some people," he says. "It's the only place a Californian can move and people don't feel sorry for them."
He and the monk looked for Vermont land where it was cheapest, the remote Northeast Kingdom, and found in Barnet a narrow piece of property - nearly 3 7acres, with a farmhouse - that the state was selling.
The construction of Interstate 91 had cut off access to the driveway, but this was no problem for Baker. A civil engineer who had dropped out of his profession (he decided that money wasn't everything), he knew that a new entrance could be blasted open. He bought the site for $37,000 - it was worth about $60,000, he says - and Milarepa, named for a Tibetan yogi from around the year 1000, was born.
In a third-floor meditation room under the eaves, Milarepa holds retreats throughout the year, some of which are quite intense. One three-month retreat requires students to silently recite mantras, which are a kind of repeated incantation, and to visualize themselves as Tibetan deities for three hours straight, four times a day.
After finishing that one, recalls Baker, "I almost got run over by a car." He says that he was so unused to ordinary life that he "walked in front of traffic."
"BUDDHISM IS about calming the mind and seeing the real," says the Rev. Thomas Ahlburn, senior minister of the First Unitarian Church in Providence.
A longtime Buddhist, he has meditated at both Karme-Choling and Milarepa, and says he finds in Buddhism an appealing "naturalness."
"I had been raised in a rural setting, and (Buddhism) spoke to me of stars' being born and dying, of impermanence in the barnyard around me, and of the shine of the moon on the pond - the immediacy of nature, without any supernatural trappings.
"When I drive across the state line into Vermont," says the Ohio native, who was raised in Kentucky. "I can sort of go, 'Oh, boy, I'm home.' "
Back in 1967, in Kentucky, he took a walk in the woods with Thomas Merton, the late Roman Catholic monk who had a deep love of Buddhism and whose writings about the contemplative life have been widely popular for decades.
"Merton is sort of the first prominent Buddhisto-Christian," says Ahlburn, who applies the same term to himself.
And yet, Ahlburn holds "a little bit of a cynical view" of people who lose themselves in Eastern religion - or in any religion - and it's partly because of his experience at Karme-Choling.
Ahlburn was among the VIPs invited to Chogyam Trungpa's cremation in 1987, because he was serving on a United Nations commission working to preserve the Buddha's birthplace, in Lumbini, Nepal.
"I sat next to Allen Ginsberg, all these Zen masters, great Buddhist leaders from around the world," Ahlburn recalls. "I want to tell you, it was unbelievable."
At one point, the multitudes pointed to "rainbows" in the sky - actually, says Ahlburn, they were "sun dogs" or very small, incomplete rainbows - but the crowd took them as a sign of Trungpa's divinity.
"This was credulity run wild," he says.
He was also put off by Trungpa's security force, known as the "vajra guards." (Vajra means indestructible in Tibetan.) "They were around patroling the area, and it was really militaristic."
Ahlburn believes what others have said and written about Trungpa: that he was a violent, authoritarian and often drunken leader.
Two years after Trungpa died, his successor - a New Jersey native named Thomas Rich, who was given the name Osel Tendzin, or "radiant holder of the teachings" - was forced to step down because of questions about whether he slept with students after discovering he had AIDS. He died in 1990.
"People are looking for magic masters," says Ahlburn. "So many things are mixed up with religion, it's such a dangerous thing. Terrible stuff, really. Horrible. In some ways, worse than the Inquisition, is the stupidity, the willingness to surrender yourself to just anything that you think makes you feel better."
SUZANN DUQUETTE, the center's co-director, acknowledges that Trungpa was controversial, but says he embodied "total compassion" and generosity, and she seems proud to have been one of his students.
"The teachings are the teachings," she says. "The way this community continues after his death is because of the strength of that teaching."
Under its current leader, Trungpa's eldest son, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, "the community has come into a new era," says Duquette. "There's enormous strength and healthiness."
Karme-Choling offers a calendar of programs in everything from basic and advanced meditation instruction to Japanese archery and flower arranging, plus a nonreligious program of meditation called "Shambala training" for people who may not be Buddhists but who want to incorporate Buddhist practices into their lives.
The center also runs a factory in town - Samadhi Cushions - that makes meditation pillows, and a shop that sells books and spiritual paraphernalia.
"It's almost like a Buddhist tourist center," says Barnet's town clerk, Bill Hoar.
One local innkeeper puts up so many pilgrims who can't find room at Karme-Choling that, for her guests' convenience, she keeps its phone number on speed-dial.
Toured on a Wednesday afternoon, the center bustles with people. The kitchen smells fragrantly of chai, darjeeling tea flavored with milk, honey, cardamom, cinnamon and ginger.
The largest of six meditation rooms - or shrine rooms - is the showpiece of the three-story complex. It is a glowing, ornate expanse of wooden floor, on which up to 300 people can sit cross-legged on cushions.
As big as Karme-Choling is - lit up at night, the center resembles a cruise ship - it is still too small for all the seekers who want to meditate here, which is why, within the next five years, the organization plans to expand again.
What explains this zeal for meditation?
"It's tough out there," says Duquette.
IN DWELLING, be close to the land.
In meditation, go deep in the heart.
In dealing with others, be gentle and kind.
In speech, be true.
In ruling, be just.
In daily life, be competent.
In action, be aware of the time and the season.
- Chapter 8 of the Tao Te Ching, the sacred text of Taoism.
NOW THIS third meditation center is planned in Barnet.
The Taoists, led by Master Hyun Moon Kim, call their practice Sun Do. According to a brochure, Sun Do "gradually unblocks the energy channels of the mind and body," allowing the energy known as ki (also called chi) to flow freely, "leading to increased vitality, enhanced peace of mind, and expanded self-awareness."
The organization's plan to locate in Barnet may sound like the kind of competitive strategy that leads Burger King to locate across from McDonald's and Taco Bell. But Marc Tamiso, a wooden-boat builder and Sun Do practitioner, who heads the project, insists that the two other meditation centers "weren't a real factor" in the site selection.
He says he simply found the property in the real-estate ads, and that once he showed it to Master Kim, who fell in love with it, no other site in New England made sense.
The three centers are not in competition, their directors say; there is plenty of room for all.
"I appreciate that they are here," says Kim, who says there are 1,000 Sun Do practitioners nationwide, most of them on the East Coast.
It was a cold, still December afternoon, and the master, who had driven up from Connecticut, where he lives, stood on the road before the hilltop property. In an hour, when he and the Adamses closed the sale, it would be his.
The farm lay under two feet of gleaming snow. Deep-blue mountains floated on the horizon beyond it.
"This is it," he said, as if he'd come home.
The site, he says, has the right kind of friendly energy for retreats. (Like Buddhists, Taoists emphasize breathing and visualization, and seek to realize their "true nature." But their practice is somewhat more physical, involving stretching exercises and yoga-like postures.)
Kim's plan is first to build a 900-square-foot retreat house. Down the line, Kim envisions building a second retreat house - an octagonal building, symbolizing oneness, since "we are all one" - and then, perhaps, an Oriental-style park, with a pagoda and a pond, which would be open to the public.
"It's too premature to talk about, though," he says. "I'd like to invite neighbors and the people and show them our project, and maybe we can talk."
As did Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche before him, Master Kim wants to cultivate a relationship with the people of Barnet.
During the negotiations over the land, says real-estate agent Mary Scott, Kim made a point of visiting the sellers, Burnice and Winston Adams, and later met with all of their neighbors, to allay any concerns.
She is proud of how well the people received the gesture.
"They didn't say, 'We don't want any Taoists in our neighborhood.' They see the good in all people, regardless of their religion."
"IS THIS your free act and deed?" the lawyer asks the retired farm couple at the closing of the sale of their property.
Winston Adams, a tuft of gray chest hair poking out of his flannel shirt, nods. Burnice Adams, her face a record of the farm's ups and downs, nods, too.
Yes, it is their free act and deed.
Still, it's not easy to sell land that's been in the family for 80 years - land that in the spring blooms with lilacs and in the summer ripples with hay, and that now rests under two feet of perfect snow.
There is a gravity to the proceedings in the small book-lined conference room of the lawyer's office, in St. Johnsbury.
When Hyun Moon Kim, sitting serene and erect across the table from the couple, is through writing out his checks, he puts away his pen.
"How do you feel," he says to the farmers, "about the land?"
Winston Adams chuckles, as if embarrassed to have been caught feeling, but answers the question.
"Personally, I hate to see it go, 'cause I've had it so long and I think a lot of it."
The new owner invites him to visit the property anytime - he is "not going to take that land to Korea" - and they part with warm handshakes.
Later, Winston talks a little more about the farm, and what he'll miss about it.
"I'd been able to drive up there and get out there and set," he says. "And see all around. And sort of meditate."