Peace Pagoda Tales
The New England Peace Pagoda in Leverett, MA. First Peace pagoda to rise in North America, inaugurated in October 1985.
Many years ago in the mid-80’s, it was my good fortune to help create the first peace pagoda in the Western Hemisphere, located in North Leverett, Massachusetts. Following are just a few of the stories from those days. But first, I should explain a little bit about peace pagodas and the monks and nuns who build and maintain them.
There are over 80 peace pagodas around the world. They are all built completely with volunteer efforts and donations. Although freewill gifts are always appreciated, whether that gift is a bag of rice or a check or a day of labor, funds are never solicited. And yet, concrete gets paid for and everybody volunteering or just visiting has plenty to eat.
Peace pagodas aren’t really pagodas; they are stupas, which are monuments to Buddha and contain a small bit of his ashes. (There’s a famous stupa in Ceylon which contains a tooth of the Buddha). Pagodas are usually multi-storied buildings you can enter. Stupas are built to circumambulate, that is, to walk around at the end of a pilgrimage. It is not possible to enter a stupa. But a “peace stupa” just doesn’t sound as good as a “peace pagoda,” so the term stuck.
The purpose of a peace pagoda is to serve as a focus for creating peace. Many of us also believe that the pagodas generate waves of peace. Any visitor to a peace pagoda would be impressed with the serenity and natural beauty surrounding the structure. Regardless of one’s religious or political beliefs, peace pagodas are special places to visit. Many folks comment on the inspiration they find when they realize that this building is really a monument to peace created out of love and devotion.
The monks and nuns of the peace pagoda are ordained members of a very special Buddhist order, the NipponZanMyohoji. Although the majority of members are Asian — usually Japanese — there are monks and nuns from all over the world, all the way from Boston to South Africa. An extreme degree of dedication must be demonstrated before anyone is accepted into even the initiation stages of the NipponZanMyohoji. They are not a proselytizing order. The order was started in the 1200’s by Nichiren, a great Japanese Buddhist saint. He renewed ancient practices contained in the Lotus Sutra, a sacred Buddhist text. The essence of this Sutra is dedication to a world of peace. (Japan was in the midst of terrible civil wars in those days.) There are specific practices outlined in the Lotus Sutra: chanting a special chant (“namu myo ho renge kyo,”) drumming to the chant, making pilgrimages and, of course, building stupas. They also adhere to the usual peaceful practices of Buddhists: no killing, no stealing, etc., and there are many austerities and ritual observances practiced by this order as well.
Nichiren’s school was re-energized by Nichidatsu Fuji around the turn of the century, that is, the last one. Nichidatsu Fuji, known as Guruji, worked very closely with Ghandi. They were mutually supportive of each other. With Ghandi’s help, Guruji was able to build many stupas throughout Mother India, the original home of Buddhism.
One other brief note before we move on to a few little stories. The NipponZanMyohoJi should not be confused with a similar Japanese Buddhist school, known as the Sokka go Kai. Both schools trace their origins to Nichiren and use the same chant but it is chanted very differently. Sokka go Kai does not use the drum, and uses malas, or prayer beads, instead. There are also many other differences between the two schools, but for the purposes of this article, we will mention only this chanting. Tina Turner, whom you may have heard of, is a member of the Sokka go Kai.
SMALL PEBBLES, BIG RIPPLES
One of my fondest memories of working on the Leverett peace pagoda illustrates how everybody can play a part in the creation of peace.
Since the pagoda was being built with all volunteer efforts and very little funding, every resource was valuable, including nails. Most all the materials used were recycled from local barns. This recycling produced a lot of old, bent nails — buckets full of rusted nails. But this was considered a resource, not a waste. There was one very old monk who had extreme arthritis. It was not safe for him to walk on our rickety and wobbly scaffolding, so he was assigned the incredible task of straightening out those many buckets of nails. We set him up with a comfortable seat and tiny workbench. He worked those nails for weeks and made his contribution to the construction. While his work may not have been world shaking and some folks might not see the connection between unbending nails and world peace, clearly, the pagoda would not have been built without his nails. His intentions and efforts went directly into the construction of a monument for peace for all to share. I still have one of those old nails. I keep it to remind me that even the smallest pebble can make a big ripple.
DONUTS, DONATIONS AND DUMPSTERS
One of my jobs around the peace pagoda was to get food for the crew. We had a few local folks who supported us with garden produce and staples, but we still had to supplement the dinner table whenever we could, so we would go dumpster diving. Oh yes, the good old days! One spot that usually had plenty of goodies was a local donut establishment. Late at night, we would check out their dumpster and sometimes found many day-old donuts that were still edible with a little magic from the kitchen.
Well, to make a long story shorter, one night we got caught by the manager of the donut shop, who at first was rather grumpy and very suspicious. After all, these donuts were trash and customers were supposed to buy things, not steal trash, eh? So at first, he started to run us off, but then asked what we did with the donuts. Since we couldn’t have gotten in any more trouble, we simply told him the truth. He just walked away. But before we could drive out of the parking lot, he came back out with a box of fresh mixed donuts. He said, “Come here every Thursday night at exactly 10:30 and don’t make a scene!”
Well sure enough, every Thursday at 10:30 there were a few boxes of fresh warm donuts sitting on top of the dumpster in plastic bags. I came to find out later through the local grapevine that the baker’s father was killed at Iwo Jima — yes, by Japanese soldiers. He had hated them for that reason almost all of his adult life and was quite upset when he found out that Japanese were building a temple in his territory, so he went up there to give them a piece of his mind. He met and talked with the head monk, Kato-shonin, who impressed him so much with his peaceful intentions and stories of protesting the war from within Japan, that the baker had a change of heart. He had gone to the pagoda to give them a piece of his mind and came back with peace of mind.
MY FIRST PEACE PILGRIMAGE
The most venerable Nichidatso Fuji, inspiration for the Leverett Peace Pagoda, died in 1985 at the age of 100 just a few months before the Pagoda's inauguration day.
I had just returned from two years in Hawai’i and resettled in Boston to be near my daughters, Stephanie and Heatherjoy. Somehow, I managed to find a job as a teacher in a multicultural daycare center on the edge of Chinatown. It was a warm summer day and the class recessed in a small fenced-in playground. Ah, the good old days! We all got to be a little louder, a little more rambunctious, and much more childlike. Some of the kids were singing made-up songs about each other. A small circle of boys were proving their competence to the entire world by smashing a ball against a wall and recovering it before it could fly out of the fence. The brick buildings of the South End of Beantown echoed with children’s laughter and songs.
And then we heard it. An echoing drumming that kept beat to the made-up songs! A drumming calling our attention. A slow, easy, but determined drumming to walk to. To sing to. And then we all heard the chanting, which was a singing of sorts.
Three of the girls bolted out of their miniscule secret garden and dashed up to the fence to look down the street at the music’s source. Two of the wall-ball boys were not to be outdone and zipped to a good viewing spot at the fence. Half of the kids had figured out what was happening before any of us adults could acknowledge the obvious. It was a parade! Well, it was not just your usual parade. This was a parade for peace.
Then the chant became clearer and I knew it was the peace pagoda monks that I had heard a little bit about through some Zen Buddhist friends. “Namu Myoho Renge Kyo” — its echoes still mingling with whispers of the children’s songs. And then the parade came into view. There was a tall purple banner with a big red sun on top and the kanji (Japanese characters for the chant). The boys liked the banner. Then, two monks and a nun, all drumming, chanting and walking in step followed next, their yellow robes fluttering with their energetic pace. Next, a small line of just regular folks — some drumming, all chanting. On the playground, I noticed the last two boys who wouldn’t be dragged away from their game for anything, joined us at the fence. The ball, abandoned, bounced into the street.
As the banner and the sangha (ordained Buddhists) walked by me, I got a charge up my spine. The local Hawai’ians call it “chicken skin,” like goose bumps, but good, oh so good, goose bumps! I was a Buddhist for two decades so it was natural for me to bow deeply to the sangha. I did so. Immediately, and without losing step or skipping a beat or stopping their chanting, the two monks and the nun bowed back. And then the spirit moved in the children, as it so easily and often does. Three of the little Chinese kids bowed, kinda’ sorta’, as these weren’t the people they usually bowed to, but they were nice, and teacher Ken was bowing, so let’s play too! Yes, it was all a parade.
As the head monk and tall purple banner with the big red sun on top turned the corner onto Boylston Street towards downtown, all the ordinary folks kept up the bowing, which got more of the kids to bow, including some of the non-Chinese boys. The very last of the peace walkers noticed the ball in the alleyway, and tossed it over the fence to me. In order to demonstrate my competence to the entire world, I caught it and bowed one last time.
TENTING OUT DURING CONSTRUCTION
Two Buddhas expounding Supreme Dharma, nestled in the lower-center area of the New England Peace Pagoda.
The Japanese have an expression — yamabushi. It translates, literally, as “mountain man.” I think that is how I appeared to most of the pagoda folks in the early construction days. After all, I slept out in a tent in the woods, drank a lot of coffee, chanted off key (which really wasn’t a problem as most other folks did too) and I was known to swing from scaffolding to scaffolding. Honestly!
But those times will always remain deeply spiritual to me. I got the chance to think out in that tent. It was good to be back in my beloved New England, but I was dreaming of my beloved Hawai’i. It was very good to be back with my daughters, very good. But there I was, “homeless” to most folks. But it didn’t feel homeless to me. It felt like heaven. Now, don’t get me wrong here. I wasn’t carried away in some religious fervor. It wasn’t like that at all. I am a very different kind of Buddhist than those of the NipponZanMyohoji. I remain a Madhyamika Buddhist (Middle Path). I wasn’t excited about finding a religious community, although I had found a spiritual community. I was excited about what was going on here and the small, but functional part I was playing as an experienced carpenter amongst volunteer labor. But mostly I was feeling that this monument to peace would be standing for generations. What kept me warmer than my down-filled sleeping bag was the thought that my daughters could come here many years after I was dead and my ashes were scattered in the ocean. They could sit on a stump between the pond and the stupa and bathe in the spirit. On those mornings when I had to burrow out of the snow piled against my tent on all sides, it was good to know that all of the efforts of all of the volunteers that day would last for many generations for all people.
Yep, yamabushi! And because I had lots of long hair and a full beard in those days, a few of the monks nicknamed me Bear, that is, kuma. Yamabushi Kumanagi.
A WAMPANOAG SNAKE DANCES AROUND THE PEACE PAGODA
Around October 4th every year, the pagoda celebrates its anniversary with high Buddhist fanfare. They have a very colorful and multicultural party with great food from around the world. There are always ecumenical prayers from local rabbis, Moslems and usually local musical talent. In one such yearly celebration, a large group of Wampanoags from Cape Cod came to celebrate with the NipponZanMyohoji. They were led by Slow Turtle, the medicine leader, who has since passed away. He and the head monk, Kato-shonin, were very close. After some prayers and some rituals, Slow Turtle asked us to all join hands in a great circle in front of the pagoda. He gave us all a wonderful blessing. Then he asked his daughter to lead us around the pagoda in a snake dance. That was quite a sight! About two hundred folks from all walks of life and all races joined hands and followed the beat of a few rattles.
The NipponZanMyohoji have made a worldwide commitment to indigenous peoples’ rights and whether they are working with the Ainu of Hokkaido or the Lakota of Wounded Knee, these “foreign” monks and nuns always manage to spiritually connect with indigenous issues. Guruji gave the first Buddha statue at the second American Peace Pagoda in Grafton, NY to Indian activist and spokesperson Dennis Banks.
IF YOU AREN’T ANGRY, YOU AREN’T AWAKE!
The reason I wrote this article is that every once in a while I get quite upset with the small and large injustices I can’t help but see all around me. From the dehumanizing of political prisoners, to gross inequalities in resources distribution, it is like the Moody Blues line, “We live in a world of persecution that is burning energy.” Beyond the rampant materialism of our world culture, we seriously worry about the immediate fragile ecology of our little blue marble floating in space.
What do we do with the anger at the unnecessary suffering of masses of children and elders who live in a world of deprivation and limitation when it doesn’t have to be that way? What do we do with the anger at the continued irreversible destruction of crucial biospheres and the daily extinction of species forever? What do we do about our anger at the grossly unequal distribution of resources which allows a tiny fraction of people to live a lifestyle so grand as to be gluttonous while at the same time, perhaps on the same street, a majority of people live a life so low as to be dehumanizing?
Surely that anger must be nursed through its stage of potential violence by the twin medicines of wisdom and compassion. Perhaps that anger can be consciously acknowledged and in a spiritually alchemical process, transformed into a practical reform of the conditions which lead to so much personal suffering and global tragedy. It is a hopeful possibility that when this anger is no longer denied nor diluted (nor numbed out of our awareness), but rather acknowledged and worked with and most importantly, redirected towards relief of suffering, that this discontent can create better conditions for future generations.
Just before I get overwhelmed with the abysmal vertigo of this world’s negativity, I breathe deeply and can hear the chanting and see the peace pagodas popping up like mushrooms all over the globe. It is encouraging to know that there are many people out there dedicated to peace and creating the Beauty Road. The peace pagoda and many other spiritually engaging movements give substance to the vision of a world of justice, peace and beauty. There are many folks out there actively co-creating a Beauty Road for us all to walk.
I would like to leave you with some words from one of the speakers at Guruji’s 100th birthday. Joan Raddock was an English woman who was very active in the anti-nuclear movement there. She shared, “We do not inherit the Earth from our fathers, we borrow it from our children.”
Ken Pratt lives as the spirit moves and is a guest contributor to Spirit of Change Magazine and a devout volunteer of Peace Pagoda building, Harvest Gathering and other spiritual endeavors.