Green mountains, good karma

By Sarah Schweitzer, Boston Globe Staff , February 23, 2005

Buddhist communities thrive in rural Vermont, drawing new residents and visitors

BARNET, Vt. (USA) -- In this decidedly New England village, where the Congregational Church spire towers over all else, karma bubbles all around. Seekers of enlightenment have settled here, in the river valleys and the town center, bringing talk of dharma and the toll of gongs to the Green Mountain State. 

Buddhism has taken root with astonishing vigor in Vermont. California may have the nation's largest number of Buddhists, but Vermont, where Asian-Americans are barely 1 percent of the state's population of 621,394, has what surveys suggest is the highest concentration of Caucasian Buddhists.

What began largely as a flirtation with alternative beliefs during the countercultural movements of the 1960s has evolved in Vermont into a mainstream religion. Buddhists here are a white-collar bunch: lawyers, software developers, and teachers devoted to spiritual enlightenment, a pursuit that they say reaches deeper than the current fascination with Buddhist-influenced yoga and meditation.

The trend is evident in the state. Buddhism is thriving in such cities as Burlington and Montpelier, but also in remote pockets such as Barnet, 58 miles south of the Canadian border, in Caledonia County, which is home to the state's most significant Buddhist population.

Exact numbers are hard to pinpoint, but Boston University researchers say that about 15.5 percent of Caledonia County residents who practice religion describe themselves as adherents of an Eastern religion and that Buddhism is the dominant religion practiced within that subset.

The number of Buddhist followers in Vermont is far above ''what's normal for New England or the United States," said Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University who has analyzed the numbers. In the rest of the country, 1.5 percent of believers follows an Eastern religion. Specialists say this number could rise as interest grows in Zen and the Dalai Lama.

''People are figuring out that being a Buddhist is not all that weird," said Bill Brauer, executive director of Karme Choling, a Shambhala Buddhist meditation center, the locus of Caledonia County's flourishing Buddhist community.

''It's not people who have fled the materialistic world. It's people who work in offices, go to concerts, have barbecues. . . . [They believe] you have to engage the world and can't run to a mountaintop and have a little enlightened circle."

The Buddhist boom has transformed Barnet, where the Karme Choling compound sprawls across 540 acres of pristine farmland and forest. It includes an outdoor target range for Zen archery and a half-dozen solitary retreat cabins for intense meditation.

Around the complex are houses that have been purchased by Buddhists, many from out of state, who have turned extra bedrooms into shrine rooms for meditation.

Down the road, in Barnet's center, is the factory of Samahdi Cushions, a major manufacturer of the mats and pillows used to ease the strain of floor-bound meditation positions.

An adjoining gift shop sells incense, gongs, cymbals, and more than 900 Buddhist texts, including treatises on advanced theory and popular primers, such as ''Turning the Mind into an Ally" by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche.

For longtime residents of Barnet, the Buddhists remain something of a breed apart. ''I don't meditate," said Bill Thresher, 36, a road-maintenance worker in town. ''I got enough to deal with in my life."

Yet with the cultural division, there is also quiet acceptance of the Buddhists' ways.

''I don't think they got many locals among them, and I certainly don't understand it," said Craig Calkins, who works for a heating-oil delivery company in town. ''But they seem fine to me and blend in quite well, and it hasn't been bothersome."

It is that live-and-let-live ethos, some say, that has made Vermont such fertile territory for Buddhism.

''Of all the states in the Northeast, Vermont has been the most accommodating of people who want to do their own thing," said Garrison Nelson, a politics professor at the University of  Vermont. ''There is less orthodoxy."

Nelson pointed out that Vermont has served as a seeding ground for other alternative religious paths. Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was born in Vermont. The state is also known for staking maverick positions: Vermont's Constitution was the first to abolish slavery, its Legislature the first to approve civil unions for gays and lesbians, and its electorate has sent a socialist to the US House of Representatives.

''That the Buddhists have found a safe haven in Vermont is no surprise," Nelson said. Buddhists here express appreciation for Vermont's unique sensibility.

''People are independent and gentle," said Suzann Duquette, 53. An owner of a bed and breakfast in Barnet, she moved from Providence nine years ago.

It was Vermont that Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the founder of Karme Choling, chose as a refuge in 1970. Among the hippies who had made their way to Vermont, many found great appeal in Rinpoche's vision of a tolerant, enlightened society through his Shambhala teachings, named for a legendary Asian realm of peace and harmony.

Today, Karme Choling retains only vestiges of its hippie roots. Visitors sport polo shirts and khakis. The cafeteria offers vegetarian fare, but also meat dishes. The center's furniture tends toward rock-ribbed New England design, much of it wood-carved Shaker pieces. The J. Crew catalog and the New York Times share space in the reading alcove with the magazines Shambhala Sun and Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Quarterly.

In the shrine rooms, Western tradition yields to Eastern ways. The rooms are striking in their opulence: burnt-sienna pillars and gold-painted trim, an elaborately arrayed mantel with candles and icons, and a buffed blond wood floor where meditators pad around without shoes, following Buddhist tradition.

Visitors bow before entering the rooms, sit together in contemplative silence, and clang a brass gong to signal the start and end of meditation, the practice that many say is the real allure of Buddhism, emphasizing intellectual rigor and self-awareness, but not requiring belief in a deity.

''What I love is the nondogmatic aspect; it feels so practical," said Judy Jones-Gale, 50, of Amherst, a former Catholic who was visiting Karme Choling last week. She turned to Buddhism recently, she said, after her second son left for college and she felt emptiness in her life.

Practitioners of Buddhism say that it has such a potent effect on the mind and that Vermont is such a rich place to explore the religion that many vacation in the state to meditate in its bucolic setting.

''There's a tremendous amount of positive energy," said Lisa Laura, a lawyer from Philadelphia who spent two weeks this winter in Barnet.

Others take it a step further: They move to Vermont in pursuit of Buddhism's karmic bliss.

''It's a means to finding out how your mind works," said Patton Hyman, 62, a former real estate lawyer in Atlanta who was raised Methodist and brought his family to Barnet six years ago, drawn in large part by Karme Choling. ''And when you learn how your mind works, you enjoy life more."

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