REGIONAL – Once upon a time, Buddhism in America had a somewhat foreign feel to it. The very name, which derives from the word "budhi" — to awaken — lent itself to mispronunciation and even humor.
Then, beginning in the 1970s, Buddhists began to build temples. They appeared before planning boards with their projects, and communities across America reacted, often with fury.
In our region, we have seen a proliferation of temples, meditation halls and retreat centers. Buddhism, more than any other established religion, seems to be growing here in the Hudson Valley. One can even trace out a "Buddha Belt" through the region, beginning in Walden — where the newly completed Tibetan Tsechen Kunchab Ling temple is the seat for His Holiness Sakya Trizin, in North America — before continuing across the Route 52 corridor to Cragsmoor, where the projected Dharmakaya Hermitage has aroused community opposition and passing north, up Route 209, to Woodstock and the Karma Triyana Dharmachakra complex, the North American seat for the Gyalwa Karmapa, Supreme Head of a separate lineage of Tibetan Buddhism.
There are three Buddhist building projects before planning boards in our area. In the Town of Crawford, the Society of Wonderful Enlightenment, an Amitabha "Pure Land" group, seeks to build a temple complex off Route 48. In Shawangunk, the World Buddhist Society is moving forward with the conversion of the former Walker Valley Golf Course to a modest Meditation Hall and residence. And in Cragsmoor, the projected 70,000 square foot Hermitage project has reemerged before the Wawarsing Planning Board.
The way communities and Buddhists have interacted holds lessons for both sides of the divide.
Dara Trahan was town planner for the Town of Woodstock during contentious hearings over the construction of the second phase of the KTD project ten years ago.
"There are several fundamental things to understand about this," she said. "First, New York law has determined that these projects are good for neighbors. They can't be excluded and they are given certain privileges over a commercial use."
Then, there's a legacy issue.
"There is a tradition here of large hotels which brought people to the area in considerable numbers. So, there is a long history of large facilities in the area," Trahan added. "And like the mountain houses, these Buddhist centers do provide economic benefits to their communities, even though they're usually off the tax rolls as religious centers."
Trahan also noted that, "The larger these projects are, the more they trigger environmental review. The scale of them, which is often pretty large, attracts the reaction."
Certainly that can be seen in Cragsmoor, where the Hermitage project, which won approvals several years ago and then went into hibernation due to the economy, has recently resurfaced... with local opposition following well-worn pathways.
"We have several issues, water and our wells being chief among them," noted artist and teacher Joan Lesikin, who has a house on Cragsmoor Road that shares a boundary with the proposed Buddhist temple. "This is a rocky mountain here and water quality is variable. What will the effect be of having such a large facility drawing water on our wells? Then there's the traffic and the noise... Like many others, I came up here for peace and quiet, not a construction site."
Lesikin added that she and others in Cragsmoor further fear expansion tied to The Hermitage's plans to become a world headquarters.
But not every Buddhist planning board application has been met with such reactions. Dr. Chodrung-ma Kunga Chodron, Secretary Treasurer at the Walden Sakya temple, said that in his case, "We had nothing but welcome here from Walden Village and the Planning Board. We have also done everything to comply with regulations and zoning."
The Tsechen Kunchab Ling Temple is painted "a shade of maroon" according to Chodron. "It's a traditional color, with traditional ornamentation...We wanted to harmonize ourselves with the village, and our architect began by considering the village code in his design."
Again, at Blue Cliff Monastery in Mamakating, Brother Phap Vu noted that his entity had an easy time of it with both the planning process and community reaction. Blue Cliff follows a Vietnamese Zen tradition...
Phap Vu — who says of himself, "I'm just a monk involved with construction at Blue Cliff" — explained that, "Our architect wanted to integrate our meditation hall into the landscape and the cultural environment, too. Which suggested the New England 'barn' look. Our relations with the town planning board have been very good; they've always been very supportive."
Two things that helped at Blue Cliff were supportive previous owners of the 80-acre property they purchased, and a decision to pay local taxes.
"The Jeronimos, the previous owners, wanted us to take over the property and turn it into a monastic center. So, we had a friendly welcome," Phap Vu said. "The Planning Board worked with us and we didn't have to make many changes in our original plan. We also agreed to pay local taxes, so our property did not come off the tax roll."
While, nothing can reduce the nuisance of construction, mitigation can be sought for many of the other concerns of neighbors surrounding these new regional spiritual centers. Then again, human nature is what it is.
"In Woodstock, the KTD center still has some very bitter neighbors. Some people even moved, and there are others who watch it constantly and are ready to complain," Trahan concluded. "But there are also others who never even noticed that it's there."