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Thursday, 2 May 2013

5/2 - Vermont Zen Center

The Vermont Zen Center in located in Shelburne, a small, artistically-inclined community outside Burlington, which itself is a pretty city on  Lake Champlain. One notices the Peace Pole at the foot of the Center’s drive before one sees the official sign set in a small flower bed. The sign has the calligraphy figure with the three vertical strokes associated with the Kapleau lineage and the simple declaration: Zen Center.

                Proceeding up the driveway, the next thing one notices is the landscaping. The grounds are impressive and lovingly cared for. The Magnolia trees are in full bloom, their bases littered with large white petals. The rhododendron is in flower, along with many colorful bedding plants. The teacher, Sunyana Graef (her students call her “Roshi”) informs me that when they bought the house, it was in the middle of an alfalfa field and there was only a single tree—a pine which now towers over the property. A spruce the sangha (community) planted, however, has almost reached its height. The sangha is celebrating its’ 25th anniversary this year. The cedars and other trees, plants, bushes, and flower beds have all been added in that period.

                Inside the building, one is struck by the craftsmanship apparent everywhere. The original house has had several extensions and is now able to house sixty people for sesshin—comfortably. I admire the care taken with both the woodwork and the lighting around the various shrines. Polished hardwood floors run throughout the building. The first room one enters is a living room, with stuffed furniture and a big fireplace. Sunyana explains that she wanted the members to form a community, to get to know one another. If they went straight into the Zendo or the Buddha Hall, they might never get to know one another. So they take a moment to sit and chat before proceeding into the formal areas of the center. It’s the type of touch I will learn to expect from her.

                “How did you become a teacher?” I ask.

                “My teacher [Philip Kapleau] told me it was time.”

                “And then you came to Vermont. Was that because he asked you to come here?”

                “No. My husband and I chose to come here.”

                “Was there a community here?”

                “No. Not really.”

                “But you’d lived here before?”


                “So, why . . . ?”

                She grins bashfully and looks away (she has several shy mannerisms and asks me not to take her photograph). Then she spreads her hand and shoulders in a gesture which recalls her Jewish heritage and says, “I like cows.”

                She remembered driving through the state as a child. It struck her as bucolic and beautiful. It is. This is the first time Joan and I have been to the state, and we are both struck by how attractive it is. The Zen Center fits its surroundings. The building and grounds are elegant.

                It is a space one could easily come to love.

                There is a Jizo figure under the magnolias out front, and a small Jizo grove in back. But the dominant devotional figure in the building is Kannon—the Bodhisattva of Compassion. There are several statues of her, including one that greets people who come in the front door. Sunyana trained at Rochester, where the style of teaching has frequently been described as “boot camp Zen” or “Samurai Zen.”  The emphasis in Rochester, she tells me, was on the attainment of wisdom (awakening) but maybe not as much on the attainment of compassion as it should have been.

                Sunyana does not use the kyosaku. “Roshi [Kapleau] relished telling how when he was training at Hossinji with Harada Roshi  he would stay up all night being beaten on the shoulders by a monitor, but he didn’t make his breakthrough there.” It wasn’t until he came under the milder training of Yasutani Roshi that he had his awakening experience, and yet—ironically—when he started teaching in Rochester, he returned to the harsher training methods used by Harada. Well, it was the ‘60s, and most of his students were hippies. He may well have thought they needed the discipline.

                There are several kinds of retreats offered at the Vermont Center, in addition to the standard seven day sesshin focused on seated meditation. There are “work” sesshin, in which people spend more time working on the grounds. And there are “Metta” Retreats—Loving Kindness retreats. These are now led by one of Sunyana’s disciples, Dharman—a former university professor who shame-facedly admits he taught a course on Buddhism while in the department of philosophy before he had begun practice.

                I ask him what makes Sunyana (Roshi) a good teacher. The first thing he mentions is her integrity. And then he stresses her compassion. “I’m so glad I found a teacher who was a woman,” he tells me.

                She also happens to be a professional baker.

                I get the feeling that Sunyana is a teacher one could easily come to love.

Cypress Trees in the Garden:

Graef, Sunyana – 204, 329, 337-51, 361, 374, 388-89, 468

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