Dharma Valley: Buddhism As Popular As Ever in the Hudson Valley

Buddhism is one of the world’s fastest growing faiths — and that growth is especially evident here in the Valley

If you live in the Hudson Valley today, Buddhist tradition counts you as one of the fortunate few. That’s because you have access to the Dharma, the profound teachings that Buddha, “the enlightened one,” first expounded upon in northeastern India some 2,500 years ago.

In fact, it seems that you have lots of access. “There are so many Buddhist monasteries, retreats, and centers here that sometimes the Hudson Valley is nicknamed the Dharma Valley,” says Kristin Scheible, assistant professor of religion at Bard College. She says that many forms of Buddhism have thrived here both because of the area’s proximity to New York City and its compelling natural beauty, which has long inspired both artists and spiritual seekers. “Buddhism has its roots in India, where mountains and rivers are important to sacred sites,” she says. 

Of course, interest in Buddhism has continued to blossom in all corners of the country for decades now. “America’s Fascination With Buddhism” was the cover story on an issue of Time magazine back in 1997; meditation and mindfulness books and retreats are at an all-time high. Many celebrities — including Richard Gere, Tina Turner, Orlando Bloom, and Keanu Reeves — have publicly spoken about their belief in Buddhism. And then there is the unrivaled popularity of the Dalai Lama himself. The 78-year-old spiritual leader of Tibet has been called one of the most influential people in the world, and has seemingly attained almost rock-star status: When he appears in the U.S., it is often to overflowing crowds. And with nearly 13 percent of the U.S. population claiming that Buddhism influences their daily spirituality, it seems that Buddhist thought is here to stay. “I think it’s natural for people who are looking for ways to be more mindful and for explanations for the angst of the human condition in general,” says Scheible about this interest. “Buddhism is all about answering questions about the perceived ‘fractured’ self.”

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khenpo karthar rinpoche and karma drodhulKhenpo Karthar Rinpoche, 90, and his nephew Karma Drodhul, answer all sorts of questions about Buddhism at Woodstock’s Karma Triyana Dharmachakra monastery

So what exactly is Buddhism? Some call it a religion, some a philosophy. “I teach Buddhism as a system of ethics that addresses, ‘What might one do to be the best person you can be?’ ” says Scheible, who teaches a class called “World Religions in the Hudson Valley.”

Unlike Christianity, Islam, or Judaism, Buddhism doesn’t accept the idea of a central, all-powerful creator deity called God. Though venerated, Buddha was a human being who wanted to know why we suffer. Why is the pleasure we feel upon attaining some longed-for goal so fleeting? Is there a way to overcome this suffering? 

After years of fruitless practice, Buddha is said to have sat beneath a bodhi tree and meditated long hours. He arose in an awakened state, his mind suffused with bliss, filled with an expansive awareness of impermanence, the reality that everything is always changing. 

Buddha shared his realizations in a sermon called “The Four Noble Truths”; these are the foundation of all forms of Buddhism. Buddha’s first teaching comes down to this: Life is full of suffering and dissatisfaction (dukkha) because as soon as we get what we want, we want more. This dissatisfaction has a cause, which is our wish to hold onto the things we desire (first kisses, power, youth) that cannot last, and our wish to avoid what we do not like (long waits, insults, old age) but cannot escape.

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Some of the world’s most famous Buddhist teachers have taught here

It is not easy, Buddha taught, but we all have the capacity to end our own suffering and to ultimately achieve enlightenment. 

To get a firm footing on the path, people need instruction; after all, even Buddha studied with spiritual masters. In this, the Valley offers a wealth of opportunities. In fact, some of the world’s most famous Buddhist teachers have taught here, including the Dalai Lama. Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk who popularized mindfulness, leads weeklong retreats every other year at Blue Cliff Monastery near Pine Bush. With books like When Things Fall Apart, Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chodron addresses the realities of pain and suffering in a culture that doesn’t like to acknowledge them. She travels to the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck every year, and speaks to sold-out crowds.   

There are many different schools of Buddhism. In the U.S., two popular ones are Tibetan (or Varjayana), characterized by an emphasis on rituals like chanting; its exotic reputation appeals to many Americans. Zen Buddhism, on the other hand, emphasizes long periods of seated meditation.

lama dudjom dorjeeLama Dudjom Dorjee, who leads a dharma center in Dallas, Texas and will teach at KTD in September

One of Scheible’s favorite places to send her students is Karma Triyana Dharmachakra (KTD) in Woodstock because “it’s as though you could be in Tibet for the day.” Along with other Buddhist centers in the region, it offers numerous ongoing programs, ranging from free weekly meditation instruction to advanced and esoteric Buddhist teachings. One of the first monasteries to arrive in the Valley, KTD was founded in 1976 and today serves as the North American seat for the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje — arguably the second most important leader in Tibetan Buddhism. In 2008 Time called the now 28-year-old “the next top lama.”   

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Tourists and pilgrims travel to KTD from all over the world to spend time in the traditional Tibetan shrine hall, a sacred and colorful space rich with imagery and symbols so layered, nuanced, and complex it could take you a lifetime (or many) to understand. Presiding over it all is an enormous golden Buddha. The Dalai Lama taught here atop a gilded throne reserved only for the very highest teachers. The shrine room is so magnificent that it was selected as a location for Kundun, a 1997 Martin Scorsese film about the life of the Dalai Lama. 

In many forms, especially Tibetan Buddhism, having a living connection with a teacher is greatly emphasized; you cannot understand the Dharma by reading books or listening to tapes. In centuries past you had to prove yourself a worthy disciple; today the teachings are more freely given. You don’t have to be Buddhist (or even want to be one) to come to KTD, where revenues from programs and rooms have grown tremendously in recent years. Much of the growth is from newcomers like Asia Nowokunski, a 36-year-old Manhattan lawyer who last year drove up with two girlfriends. “We wanted to get out of the city, but it ended up becoming something much deeper than that,” she says. “It’s such a special place; it leaves an impression on you.” 

Anyone can take a free tour of the monastery at 1 p.m. on Sundays, attend free classes in meditation and Tibetan Buddhism, and join in daily meditation. (Accommodations and vegetarian meals require preregistration.) Visits to the monastery are becoming so popular that it now hosts a “Weekend at a Buddhist Monastery” event (May 2-4 and September 12-14; see inset). Aimed at anyone who wants to slow down and learn a little about Buddhism, the weekend offers introductory classes along with the chance to walk in nature, do chores with monastery staff, sit in meditation, or chant with the monks. You can also schedule an interview to discuss spiritual questions with Lama Karma Drodhul — the outgoing, English-speaking 36-year-old Tibetan monk who lives at KTD when he is not traveling to India to receive teachings, or flying somewhere in the U.S. to offer them.  

Like many, I came to Buddhism in a roundabout way

Always wrapped in the burgundy robes of a renunciant, Lama Karma grew up with a nomadic family in eastern Tibet, herding yaks until he entered a monastery at the age of nine. Whenever Western students express incredulity at ideas (like reincarnation) that are foreign to our culture, he uses the example of airplanes. “If you had told me when I was little that a plane could fly in the sky and carry hundreds of people, I wouldn’t have believed you.”  

Lama Karma left Tibet at the age of 20. A year later, he came to America to join his uncle, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, now 90, who is considered one of the world’s greatest living masters of Tibetan Buddhism. 

anitra brown and khenpo karthar rinpocheAnitra Brown and her teacher, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, during his 90th birthday celebration

I am a student of Rinpoche. I attend his teachings, turn to him for advice with my practice, ask for his counsel when life becomes most difficult. In these private interviews, Rinpoche communicates through a translator (he speaks his native Tibetan), but nothing gets lost. He listens carefully and seems to know exactly what I need.

Like many, I came to Buddhism in a roundabout way. I was raised in the Midwest by devout Methodists who made sure I went to weekly services, Sunday school, church camp, youth group, ice cream socials — pretty much everything but tent revivals. As an adult, I moved to New York City to pursue worldly pleasures and ambitions. In the ’90s, my husband and I moved to the Valley, and at some point I saw an article about a Buddhist monastery with a mouthful of a name. I remember thinking, “That’s for other people, not me.”

But one winter I went to work in Arizona for a while. My Tibetan Buddhist roommate ended up having a “Lama” come to visit for a month. Although he ran a retreat center in France, he treated my roommate like a servant, spent her money, and played people against each other. I ended up wondering, “Do all Buddhist teachers behave like Lama?”  

Three days after I returned home, I headed to KTD to find out. I zigzagged up the pine-covered mountain on a winding road, and pulled into the parking lot. I got out of the car, walked towards the shrine building — then stopped, sensing profound safety and calm. I’ve been studying there ever since; six years ago, I took “refuge vows” in a short ceremony conducted by Rinpoche.

I am happy to be one of the “fortunate few,” living in a time and place where the number of people learning about Buddhism are not so few anymore. 

Expanding Consciousness

It seems that there is an ever-growing number of Buddhist monasteries and retreat centers opening in the area. For example, a new Tibetan monastery was completed in Walden in 2012, and another one is being built in Red Hook. Check out some of the programs at these various retreats. 

Blue Cliff Monastery Pine Bush

Type: Zen Buddhism
Major player: Vietnamese poet and world-renowned Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. He’s only here a few weeks every other year, but you can learn from him over the Internet.

On 80 wooded acres, this monastery is home to a community of Buddhist monks and nuns focused on mindful living. Guests are invited for days of mindfulness on Thursdays and Sundays; to one of several annual themed retreats; or anytime for a personal retreat, which includes vegetarian meals. 845-213-1785; www.bluecliffmonastery.org

Zen Mountain Monastery Mt. Tremper

Type: Zen Buddhism
Offered every week of the year, the Sunday program — which is open to beginners — includes chanting and bowing service, beginning instruction in zazen (seated meditation), and formal discourse, followed by lunch with clean-up. An “Introduction to Zen Training Weekend” (May 2-4) costs $250, and includes two nights in dorm rooms and vegetarian meals. 845-688-2228; http://zmm.mro.org

Menla Center for Health and Happiness Phoenicia

Type: Tibetan 
The upstate retreat center of New York City’s Tibet House is overseen by famed Tibetan scholar Robert Thurman (dad of actress Uma). This beautiful center doesn’t do many beginner programs, but it does have an exclusive 4,000-square-foot spa and healing center, with exclusive prices to match. 845-688-6897; www.menlamountain.org

Chuang Yen Monastery Carmel

Type: Pure Land School
Landmark: A giant Buddha — the largest in the Western Hemisphere
Although not well-known in the West, Pure Land is probably the most popular type of Buddhism in the world and the one that most closely resembles Western monotheistic religions. This monastery is home to the Buddhist Association of the United States. On May 11, it hosts a garden party to celebrate Vesak, the day that commemorates Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and death; May 24-25 mark the site’s 50th anniversary. 845-225-1819; www.baus.org

KTD’s Weekend at a Buddhist Monastery 

May 2-4 and September 12-14
The program costs $65 per person, plus accommodations, which includes vegetarian meals. $48 per person per night for dorm rooms, $77 per person for a shared room with bath, and $96 for a private room with bath. 845-679-5906; www.kagyu.org

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