Field Report & Review:
Dai Bosatsu Zendo, Beecher Lake, NY

Diana, MaceVindaloo, SuSu, MaMa, PrincessChippy, PookaFish, FreakBoy, WalrusPengie, Gumpa, PerfectBaby, UglyNice, LLusr

It's not often that one can claim, "Sorry, I'm busy this weekend. Going to stay at a monstery." People might look at you strangely, especially if you further explain that it's a Japanese Buddhist monastery, and wonder if you've joined some weird alternative cult or something. But we do have an ulterior motive to visit this place deep in the woods, for the Jedi appear to be modeled on Japanese Buddhism. Maybe we just wanted to be inspired to write fanfic or something?

Some of us are born into miscellaneous and varied brands of Buddhism and in the Japanese tradition, one returns to one's "home village" once a year to greet one's deceased relatives. Your ancestors come back to earth, greeted by a huge bonfire. Those with no living relatives are sometimes referred to as "hungry ghosts" who wander the earth seeking their families ...

The event is called "o-bon" and it's always in August. In Japan, you cannot get anyone to deal with work queries because the whole country is on the move, getting back to their family's ancestral home. You cannot kill anything during this time, not even a bug, for it might be the spirit of one of your ancestors!

But if you're too far from the ancestral homeland, you can find a zendo, or prayer hall, and endure the ritual there. You ancestors will likely come and stay with you if you let them know where you'll be. How does one do that?

Rememeber when you were little, someone you loved had died? So you wrote a letter to them, and burned it, thinking that the spirit or ghost of the letter would be conveyed to heaven, so they could read it. They never wrote back, but it was kind of comforting to know that there was a way to get your thoughts up there.

Buddhism uses incense as the medium for prayers. You can light incense to convey wishes to your dead ancestors; you use fire to call them, and to see them off. You might have seen some people at Temples appearing to bathe in the smoke, too, sort of a way to cleanse impurities out of your being.

Dai Bosatsu Zendo, is a Zen Buddhist monastery. There are two Zendos associated with this organization: the one in the mountains, far in the Catskills, is Kongo-ji. The one in New York City on 63rd Street is Shobo-ji. There is an affiliated, independent Zendo in Katonah, NY as well. They offer instruction in Buddhist practice, and the opportunity to be enlightened, the process my which one becomes "one with Buddha."

It does sound flaky, and Buddhism was embraced by intellectuals in the 1960s for its lack of a deity. Prince Siddhartha, a Hindi prince, was a man who had reached enlightenment and thus became Buddha. The chanting is done in Sanskrit (the language John Williams chose for "Dual of the Fates," by the way), similarly to how modern Christians once recited their liturgy in Latin, or American Jews choose Hebrew for their services. The chanting is rhythmic, rather than melodic, and they are memorizable. Fortunately for those of us who can't remember the Lotus Sutra, or any of the other sutras, the monastery gives our prayer books with the sounds of the chant written out in English and Japanese letters.

The Drive to the Zendo
Getting to the monastery is a bit of a challenge. Though you can take the Thruway out of New York City and veer west on 17 (heading toward Ithaca and Binghamton), the world seems to change as you drive. You are going through what used to be called the "Borscht Belt" which is the resort area where Jews from New York used to congregate for holidays. They featured golf, entertainment, Yiddish theatre, and cruise-style food offerings where lunch might start with fruit cup (you know the type). There are some church-like buildings that upon closer inspection feature a Star of David in their rosette windows, and you might still occasionally see the faithful wearing their Sabbath finery and walking to their temple for services on Saturday. At one time, a local gas station had a sign on it reading, "Rabbi Glickstein declares it kosher!"

It's otherwise old Americana. There are icky diners and one ice cream shack called Dari King with port-a-potties outside. Gas stations feature things campers might need, like blankets, kerosene, propane, matches, water bottles, and silly souvenirs like picture frames made from local treebark or somesuch. There is a place called "Memories" which claims to be the best store in the Hudson Valley (though the Hudson River is way over to the east), and a Swarovski outlet. It's a curious combination of things.

There are also signs for local businesses like kit-set housing, incontinence clinics, car yards, etc. You pass by outlet and mega malls. We admit to stopping into Walmart, simply because we don't have one in the city!

You finally get to Livingston Manor, which is the town just before Roscoe, considered the trout fishing center of New York State. It's quite famous, believe it or not. But though the zendo is billed as being located in Livingston Manor, it's actually just the start of your drive up the mountain.

You pass through quaint houses and a little store which features a worm machine. Seriously, you put in some coins and you get a bunch of worms! It's for fishing, not for feeding children (though one of us did tell the children with us it was for their spaghetti dinner ... bad person, we know). The worm machine is not always working, it's quite old. In fact, everything on this road might be termed "rustic."

You can tell where the road washouts are because that's where the rocks are, and where the roadway side barriers are distorted or missing. There are trees and brooks and lakes, and the temperature gets cooler as you drive. You have to be on the lookout for deer which tend to jump out suddenly. This time of year, they often have their young with them too, so unless you want to piss off your dead grandma, be careful!

There are also bears, skunks, rabbits, and all manner of Disney-esque critters and vermin. They are more out and about in the night time, and remember that bears are more dangerous when they have cubs. Don't stop and pet anything; even docile deer can have lime-disease bearing ticks!

You pass hunting lodges, horse farms, places where they are making hay (if the sun is shining). Brooks babble if they are semi-dry, or move like glass if they are full. There is the Turnwood General Store, past the covered bridge parks and a town called Lew Beach. It's all very pretty, but there never really seems to be anyone in the towns and pretty homes.

You pass the Quill Gordon Lodge and Ardsley Farm and the French chateau with the Tibetan monkeries behind it, and suddenly you're on dirt road. If you get stuck behind another car, you can expect to be driving through smoky dirt clouds the rest of the way up the mountain.

And when you finally get to the gate, you still have a way to go, but this road is maintained by the monks who reside at the monastery, so it's narrower and in less robust condition than you might expect. You drive through covered forest, so the sunlight is dappled and you feel like you're in a cool, damp cave ... until you suddenly come upon Beecher Lake, directly in front of you! Cross the little wooden bridge (which makes a loud report when you drive over it, no way you can take anyone by surprise) on the left, and drive past the big pile of wood for the bonfire, past the woodshed, past the Beecher guest house (on your right, as is the lake), through a double-row of pine trees, and then you are at the monastery!

You go in and let them know you've arrived, so they don't give your room away. It's a bit like checking in for a flight, and they always seem to be kind of overbooked. When you make your reservation, be sure to follow up; they have a tendency to lose bookings, so they have to do some last-minute scrambling to accommodate everyone. If you're unlucky, you may have to sleep in the basement sewing room with others in homemade bunkbeds. Or perhaps you will share the library or guesthouse zendo floor. They sleep Japanese style here, on futon mats directly on the (covered) floor, so it's not a bad as it may sound. Still, it makes for an ultra-firm sleeping experience.

Accommodations include guesthouse rooms with shared bathrooms (there are about a dozen rooms here), and the monastery rooms which are cell-like and accommodate two or more. Then you figure that space is at a premium in countries like Japan, so taking out a futon to sleep on, then putting it away so you can do other things in the same space actually makes sense. We bet the Jedi Temple accommodated padawans and knights this way, too.

The grounds use to be the property of the Rev. Beecher of Binghamton, New York. Among other things, the Rev. Beecher was the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin and semi-jokingly credited by President Abraham Lincoln as the "woman who started the Civil War." It's thought that she wrote parts of the book while here in her family's summer residence. Back in the day, horses would have carried family, belongings, servants, supplies, etc. to stay in the mountains for months at a time, to escape the terrible heat and dangers of the city in summer. The house and 100 acres were gifted to Abbot Roshi Shimano by then-owner Chester Carlsson in the early 1970s.

The residents of the monastery actually vacate their rooms during festivals like o-bon. O-bon is actually the high holy day of Japanese Buddhism, equivalent to the Christian Easter or the Jewish or Chinese New Year, so it's their busiest time of year. They welcome between 80 and 120 guests annually, which is difficult for a place which normally houses under 40 residents (often as little as 10). They take volunteers to help with cleaning, organizing, etc. But some years, the volunteers aren't trained well and they aren't terribly useful.

You get into your room and there are sheets, blankets, and towels atop your bare futon. You're meant to make your own bed, and strip them when you're ready to leave, and put the dirty sheets in the laundry room. They give you two blankets apiece; many people don't realize that they're at altitude here and it gets very cold. Some will end up huddling in blankets to go outside!

Making Toro
After you are settled in, you go to the main entrance hall of the monastery, where there is a low table set with India ink and calligraphy brushes. You select a paper lantern, stacked on the side of the room, and sit at the table and start drawing / writing the names and symbols of your dead relatives and friends. Identifying the dead is an important ritual, and names will be called, like for the Christian All Souls' Day, during the service. It's believed by many cultures that as long as you are named, you are remembered, and thus you still exist. Many modern writers of science fiction, like Ray Bradbury, have used this idea in their tales. Even children's tales, like Madeleine L'Engel's Wrinkle in Time series, place the importance of names as the primary savior of memory.

So you write the names of your departed in English or Japanese on the blue sheets provided. After you are done with creating your toro (lantern), you bring it to the opposite end of the building, where a shrine to the dead has been created. This part of the ceremony has flavors of Shintoism in it, Japanese native agrarian religion. Offerings are made to the dead, including vegetables sculpted to resemble animals, water, rice, fruit, and incense.

You light the incense and place it in the bowl of fine sand, then ritually clap your hands to call attention to the spirits. You then pass your toro over the rising smoke three times, then put your hands together again. When you rise, you can take your toro to the edge of the room, to join others for that night's service.

Dinner is served at 5:30pm, so you are free to walk the grounds, go swimming in Beecher Lake (there is a dock by the Beecher guest house) if it's warm enough, visit the cemetary, or rest in your room. There are Buddha statuary throughout the grounds, and many little shrines in memory to the deceased, whether specific or for a population. You can even take one of the rowboats out for a little spin around the lake. If you're lucky, you get to race beavers and dear swimming along. But be sure to return the boats to where you found them; they're needed later.

Dinner is vegetarian and country-Japanese. In some years, the monastery was lucky to have a professionally trained chef among them to be their tenzo, or cook. Other years, the wife of the abbot, herself a monk, would cook for the crowds of people. Large bowls of the food are placed buffet style on the main island in the well-appointed kitchen, and everyone takes a seat in the dining room. Again, there are low tables and cushions stacked beneath it for seating.

Despite what one may believe about Japanese food, real down-home Japanese food is boiled or charred. As the food is meatless, the treatments of some of the ingredients is difficult for those not accustomed to the food. Children, in general, reject all of it. So if you are coming with children, be sure to pack bread and peanut butter for them, or they will go hungry. This isn't a catering hall, and though there are many dishes offered, and many of them cooked and presented well, there is no deviation in the menu.

You line up outside the kitchen, and wait for the tenzo to announce the meal with a gong, and with clappers. Traditionally, silence is maintained throughout, so that one can focus on the getting and eating of food, but events like o-bon are more social, and it's more like what you'd expect of people not having seen each other for a year.

Frequently, there is not quite enough space for everyone in the dining room, even though the volunteers go last in the food line. Some years, we've sat on the many outdoor decks in this Japanese-style building at ate happily, feet swinging. Sometimes, a deer would come and stare at us, her fawns in tow. We've done this even on rainy years, because the eaves of the temple extend over the decking. We love the decks.

In past years, typical fare for dinner has been:
  • inari-zushi, or seasoned riceballs in fried tofu pockets
  • vegetable sushi
  • soba in a dressing of sesame oil and spices (buckwheat noodles)
  • boiled mountain vegetables in miso (carrots, horseradish, potatoes)
  • cold tofu cubes with seasonings
  • chirashi-zushi, or mixed rice (like fried rice, but not fried)
  • green salad
  • for dessert, there is mochi stuffed with sweet red bean paste
  • various teas (green or buckwheat or grilled rice)
Breakfast is usually:
  • juku (brown rice porridge) with Japanese style condiments (ground toasted sesame seeds, seaweed, pickles)
  • boiled eggs
  • breakfast pastries like croissant, danishes, muffins
  • fruit
  • hot tea, juice, milk
Announcements are made at this time (things like, make sure your car is in the fenced enclosure or the porcupines will come and eat the rubberized hoses on the underside of your car, or please do not enter other rooms, or please put used chopsticks in the kindling pile for the winter, etc.), and then when the evening meal is done, you are free to do as you wish until the service begins at about 7pm.

Chanting Service and Calling of Names
The zendo, or prayer hall, is a long, thin room, and if you know what's good for you, you try to get there early enough to get one of the back seats, up against the wall, so you can sit in relative comfort. Otherwise, you sit in one of the rows facing inward to the room on a black pillow. It's actually a big physical challenge to sit crosslegged and still for the two hours of the service! For those who can't sit that long on the floor, there are some folding chairs provided in the front and back of the zendo. Either way, if you need one, get there earlier.

You are given a prayer book which is an accordian-folded scroll, and the jikijitsu will call our the sutra or prayer. A monk will rhythmically beat out the tempo on a fish-shaped wooden drum, so you can recite the chants in time. As for intensity and loudness, follow the lead of the monks and volunteers, who have committed the sutras to memory and get louder, softer, slower, faster as appropriate. There will also be other rhythmic instruments brought out at different points: bells, cymballs, other drums, wheels.

One can argue that if one has to chant in a dead language like Sanskrit, the meaning of the chant will be lost. The point is not so much the absolute meaning of the words, but the ability of the chant to transform and transport. You go past yourself, past the pain in your legs and back, past the feeling that you are doing something silly, past the odd and strict rituals of the place. With luck and devotion, you may touch upon enlightenment, that state where you are one with Buddha and all who came before you. It's like feeling the music even if you can't play it, and even if you don't understand the words being sung.

About halfway into the service, the toro are lit by the volunteers, and the names of the dead are called, first in Japanese, then the English-written names. In addition to individual friends and family members, it's not uncommon to hear names like Jerry Garcia, or Joey Ramone, or Elvis Presley. They deserve to be remembered, too, after all, even if they are so famous that people may forget to call their names on the one day the dead return to the earthly plane. (Because of this belief, you may not harm any animal during O-bon, lest it be the ghost of a friend or relative, coming to say hello!) It's actually a beautiful and comforting ritual to hear the names of your beloved deceased being read out for public recognition.

Following the calling of names, there is additional chanting, then Eido Roshi Shimano— the abbot and head — will give his sermon, or dharma talk. His themes usually refer to the infiniteness of the past and of the future; the impossibility of dreams; the sadness of life and death; transcendance. Some years are better than others; some years, he's a bit confusing. But he speaks with compassion and feeling, and has a beautiful voice which is a pleasure to listen to whether speaking in accented English or singing in an absorbing chant.

The service closes with the end of his talk, when he thanks everyone for coming, and asks us to pick up our lit toro and to process down to Beecher Lake. There, rowboats are used to bring the candlelit lanterns to the back of the lake, so that they may drift in a line toward the waterfall under the little bridge. This is reminiscent of the Japanese tradition of putting lit, decorated toro into a stream, to help lead the dead spirits back to the netherworld for another year. Chanting and prayers accompany the efforts, and on clear, new moon nights, the sight of lit lanterns against the silhouette of mountains under a sky full of stars is awe-inspiring and beautiful.

Some years, the volunteers have difficulties with the boats, and they capsize! The lanterns are stacked into three little rowboats, some even on top of the two monks per boat. Fortunately, the toro are made from a styrofoam-like base and balsawood, so they tend to float upright, even when dumped off a boat. It was a cold night (about 40°F/4°C), so the monks likely did not fare as well!

After the lanterns are put into the lake, we walk a little way up the gravel road to the bonfire. This is meant to evoke bones being cremated, and people bring bundles of papers and things to burn on the fire. It gets really hot, which is so welcome in the chilly night. It's so hot that even on rainy evenings, the fire burns rather brightly.

After The Dead Leave
And when you've said your goodbyes to your ghosts, you can go to the guest house lounge for beer and snacks! They do a nice job with Costco provisions, and every year, the party fare has gotten a bit more sophisticated. It includes pastries, cheese, dips, crackers, cookies, fruit, coffee, herbal and Japanese tea, beer, nuts, etc. It's a nice spread, and if you couldn't eat dinner, you can make up for it here.

People loosen up and talk in party mode. It's as if one was bound by ritual all day, and now you can stop behaving so strictly, because the dead ancestors are gone now! It's startling to some people, and they aren't required to party, of course. But it's a nice way to meet others and to relax before turning in.

Or you can take advantage of a clear, dark night and watch the night sky. O-bon at Dai Bosatsu Zendo occurs about the time of the Perseids meteor shower, so you can lie on the ground and watch the bright streaks of falling stars. You can see constellations clearly and bring up that stuff you learned in high school mythology classes.

It's so dark that you may end up feeling more tired that you normally would at this time of night. So you go to bed, but remember the morning bell is rung by the monk who walks past your door at 7am or thereabouts. They do this before every service, apparently, if you are staying in one of the monk cells in the monastery, so you won't need to bring an alarm clock.

Showers and bathrooms are communal, and normally there aren't so many people here, so there are more men's rooms than women's rooms. But if you check or ask politely, the men are usually willing to vacate or wait for you to use their bathroom.

Showers and toilet stalls have lockable doors on them, but the tubs are out in the open, Japanese style. In a Japanese bathroom, the drains are on the floor and you soap up and rinse outside the tub, before getting into it to soak. Here, the mostly vertical tubs are filled with clean hot water, then you shower in a prival stall to get clean — clearly an American compromise. Unfortuantely, there are no drains on the floor, so you will likely make a mess if you try to use the tub on a casual basis.

The kitchens are off limits to visitors during o-bon, but if you have brought microwaveable things for your kids, you can use the one in the guest house.

There are often corporate and group events here, as well as yoga retreats. There is a one-room cabin which has been rented by writers, singers, and others who want some private time away. Rental of facilities buys you participation in the communal meals, but you must follow their rules and practices, which can be strict. In fact, a little book of rules stipulated what you must wear beneath your robes ... how not to have relationships with others at the monastery ... how to behave at meals ... how to clean the floor ... Someone is a control freak!

Leaving the monastery, you should plan to have the brunch at 9, and to leave by 11am. There is a bus which brings people up here and takes them back to Shobo-ji in New York City, and getting down the one-lane dirt road too late means having to follow the bus and drive in its dusty wake. As well as being behind other cars which may decide the countryside is so pretty, let's drive slowly ... not that there's anything wrong with that, unless you're blocking others who need to get by you.

Be sure to get gas in Livingston Manor before you hit the highway. There isn't gas for quite a while, and if you get caught in a traffic jam, you don't want to be worrying that you have enough gas to outlast it. There are two in town, and we prefer the second one, past the post office and grocery store.

This is an annual event for some of us, and despite our gripes about having to get up here in time, sore joints and butts, losses of reservations, the weird food ... it's actually a refreshing experience. True, we don't always feel the presence of our ancestors, but we figure they might be busy, or visiting other relatives. Though they are ghosts, we assume they are limited somewhat by physics and time/space, too. We're always glad we did it, and we'll continue to visit the mountain annually, and we hope our ancestors can join us there.

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