“Breath by breath, let go of fear, expectation, anger, regret, cravings, frustration, fatigue. Let go of the need for approval. Let go of old judgments and opinions. Die to all that, and fly free. Soar in the freedom of desirelessness. Let go. Let be. See through everything and be free, complete, luminous, at home—at ease.” —Lama Surya Das, Awakening the Buddha Within: Tibetan Wisdom for the Western World
Spiritually, New England is known for its white-steepled churches and the extension of various Protestant sects. We are, after all, founded by colonial religious freedom fighters. Enter Buddhism. There is a vibrant and growing Buddhist community on the Shoreline. Case in point: In 2007, a community of local Buddhists worked together to erect a different kind of place of worship: a stupa, the first ever in the state of Connecticut.
“Before that, I think there may have been four or five Buddhists living around here,” says David Brown, who owns the land in Old Saybrook where the stupa stands. “But when we started to raise the funds and gather what we needed to build, people came from all over to do everything from dig the foundation to paint the snow leopards on the walls. A few years ago, there were maybe two or three Tibetans living in Connecticut. Now there are as many as a hundred, and this will serve as a place to learn about each other.” A stupa is a monument to Buddha.
As large as a temple or small as a mantle ornament, a stupa houses rolled-up prayers and holy relics and serves as a testament to peace, harmony, enlightenment, and healing. The stupa in Old Saybrook is 14 feet high and 10 feet wide. Inside is a “life tree,” a cedar pole from nearby land with prayers and mantras inscribed on it in silver and gold, the energizing force of the stupa. A gun, a knife, and a spear point are buried underneath.
Building a stupa is not a casual undertaking. There are strict instructions that need to be overseen by a lama; and luckily a Buddhist monk, Tsultrim Gyastso, lived in nearby Middletown. He agreed to assist. Everything was done by hand.
The stupa stands modestly in the middle of a hay field, a bleached white structure surrounded by fraying prayer flags. It has become a gathering place for shoreline Buddhists who have gravitated there because David, a devout Buddhist, lives with integrity with the four tenets of Tibetan Buddhism. He’s an artist who lives off the land, selling his paintings, eggs, and flowers, catering organic dinners, and sometimes renting his property for weddings.
This November, as they do every fall, local Buddhists arrived at the stupa, armed with shovels and dragging around bags of ashy fertilizer and buckets of bulbs for the annual planting of the hundreds of daffodils that, when they bloom in glorious yellow splendor in the spring, will crowd around the stupa.
They’re a small group. No one is checking his or her cell phone. They work in gentle silence. One woman has a simple system: Turn over a divot with her shovel, place a bulb snugly in the hole, kick the divot back, and stamp the soil firmly in place.
And then there’s Chris. There’s something earnest about Chris, a young man on his hands and knees in the dirt, gloveless, and planting bulbs the way a chef preps foodstuffs.
“I live a couple doors down from David,” he says, crumbling a handful of black dirt into the hole he just dug. He reaches for a handful of fertilizer and sprinkles it over the dirt like glitter. “It’s impossible not to get involved, to help.” He puts the daffodil bulb in the hole, and not happy with the placement, removes it, fluffs up the soil a little, adds more fertilizer and, finally satisfied, covers the whole operation up with dirt.
“I’m part of the sangha,” says Deb Cronin, 43, of Cheshire. Sangha,a is the Sanskrit word for “community.” Deb is a young woman in purple socks—and shoes not quite right for digging in a hay field. Her sweater matches her socks. “I can’t really tell you how I came to be part of this.” She gestures loosely toward the others. “I mean, I was just searching … you know … searching for something. Myself, I guess.” She rested her elbow on her shovel. “I went to hear this man speak, this Buddhist lama, and I just knew. This is my teacher.” She means the Tibetan Abbot Khentrul Lodroe Thaye, a monk who directs the education and spiritual guidance of over 400 monks and nearly a hundred children in Tibet. Here in the United States, he is highly respected and popular. David Brown looked up from the dirt. With his long grey ponytail and kind eyes, he looks every bit the way one would imagine a practicing Buddhist to look. “That’s the way it was for me. I’ve been around a lot of Buddhist teachers. I lived in Tibet and Nepal. But this man. I just knew.” Buddhists don’t go to church on Sundays or temple on the Sabbath; they’re a loosely knit group who find one another through word of mouth and online, but find one another, they do. There are meditation gatherings at the Mercy Center where the sandy beach, with its huge rocks, looks eerily like an Asian Zen garden. They have potluck meals at one another’s houses.
There are retreats where they can meditate, replenish their faith, and listen to the teachings of visiting spiritual leaders.
Katog Vajra Ling is a Connecticut meditation group studying Tibetan Buddhism under the guidance of Khentrul, and Roxy Pickering of Guilford is the contact between the shoreline Buddhists and their teacher.
“He’s coming here in February,” says Pickering. With her ice-white hair and enthusiasm, she practically glows. She and her sangha are eager to be in the company of their teacher, who will be dividing his time between appearances in the Canadian Yukon and Juneau, Alaska, this winter, but traveling to Connecticut for a 5-day retreat at St. Thomas Seminary in Bloomfield.
“Buddhism may look intimidating—with its Sanskrit chants, statues of many-armed goddesses, and skulls and robes,” admits Karen Kernan of Branford, “but if you scratch a Buddhist,” she laughs, “we’re all American here.” Kernan wants people to know that Buddhism is accessible; its deepest focus is on a kind heart. “It’s all about compassion. And it doesn’t really matter what kind of Buddhism you practice. Arguing about whether Tibetan Buddhism is better than Zen Buddhism … it’s like arguing about cups of tea. Just the cups are different; you should be talking about the tea.” Back at the daffodil planting, there is another man named David Brown. (Yes, there are two of them.) He’s a handsome, rugged man in his 60s who is passionate about surfing, especially in the winter when he says the surf is better. The people in the sangha call him Surfer Dave to distinguish him from Artist Dave. “Zen Buddhism is more Spartan,” he says. “Tibetan Buddhism has all the idols, prayer flags, bells, and jewelry. But it’s all representative of the compassionate teachings and wisdom of the Buddha. We don’t worship the statues; we honor what they stand for.” Surfer Dave and Roxy Pickering resume their planting. Come spring, hundreds of daffodils will be the background of an annual day of celebration, prayer flags snapping in the wind, and people from all along the coast arriving with casseroles, salads, organic fruits and vegetables, homemade breads, pies, cakes, and compassion.