Sunyana Graef

The Vermont Zen Center is located in Shelburne, a small, artistically inclined community outside Burlington. Perhaps because there had been one outside my office for several years, I notice the Peace Pole at the foot of the Center’s drive before I see the official sign set in a small flower bed. The sign bears the calligraphy signature—or kao—of the 17th century Japanese Zen Master, Butcho Kokushi—three vertical strokes rising from a single horizontal stroke. This glyph was on the cover and title page of Philip Kapleau’s Three Pillars of Zen when it was first released and has been associated with the Kapleau lineage since. 

I am struck by the care with which the Vermont Center has been designed and maintained. The grounds cover some 72 acres and are lovingly tended. It happens that my visit takes place in May when the magnolia trees are in full bloom, their bases littered with large white petals. The rhododendron is in flower, along with many colorful bedding plants. The center’s teacher, Sunyana Graef, informs me that when the house was purchased it was in the middle of an alfalfa field and there had been only a single tree, a pine which now towers over the property. The sangha celebrated its 25th anniversary the year of my visit, 2013, and a spruce they planted when they first took over the property is now almost as high as the pine. The cedars and all the other trees, plants, bushes, and flower beds have all been added since.

Inside the building, careful craftsmanship is equally apparent. The original house has had several extensions and is now able to comfortably house sixty people during sesshin. The woodwork and the lighting have been designed and constructed thoughtfully. Polished hardwood floors run throughout the building. The first room one enters is a living room with stuffed furniture and a big fireplace. “When I was looking for a place for a Zen Center,” Sunyana tells me, “one of my chief requirements was not a zendo but a living room. What I was looking for was a place where people would have to walk through the living room to get to the zendo. The reason for that is simply that I wanted a sangha to form. And this is where sangha is formed. Not when you’re sitting in silence but when you come together in a social environment. So that’s why I loved this place. You come in, and you have to walk through the living room. And people would sit here and chat and get to know each other.”

Although she tells me that—even after all these years—she finds it difficult to speak in front of groups, she is an accomplished and often dramatic speaker. She stresses her points in various ways, sometimes with a sharp tone, sometimes whispering, sometimes slowing down and pronouncing each word distinctly and separately.

“I would say the function of Zen is to help people be alive. Truly alive. It helps people see who and what they are. Of course, you can practice Zen on many different levels. Right? But if you’re practicing Zen on the deepest level, it enables you to see through all of your habit patterns, your ego delusions, your greed, your anger, your ignorance, and get to that point where you truly see. And once you see who and what you are, your life changes and so does everyone else’s life, because you touch the world. You’re not separate from the world.”

There is a figure of Jizo – the protector of children and travelers – under the magnolias out front, and a small Jizo grove in back. But the dominant devotional figure in the building is Kannon—the Bodhisattva of Compassion. There are several statues of her, including one that greets people who come in the front door. Sunyana trained at Rochester, where the style of teaching at the time was frequently described as “boot camp Zen” or “Samurai Zen.”  The emphasis, she tells me, had been on the attainment of wisdom (awakening), but there may not have been as much emphasis on the attainment of compassion as there should have been.

During the Zen Boom of the late ’70s and ’80s, Rochester had been one of the more disciplined centers. “From day one, the Precepts were emphasized. We took the ceremony of jukai, taking the Precepts, twice a year. We knew that they existed, and Roshi Kapleau didn’t change the wording to make it sound like, ‘Well, well, it’s okay if you drink, but just don’t get drunk too often.’ No. Nothin’ like that. And I’ll tell you one other thing, and I think this is really important. He did not emphasize emptiness. And what I’ve seen, teachers who talk a lot about how empty they are—the importance of emptiness, being truly empty—are people who are . . . not compassionate. Because they’re stuck in this realm of ‘absolute freedom,’ and they’re ‘one’ with everything. But they’ve lost the whole side of the Precepts. And this is critical. You can’t really be enlightened if you’re sitting there on top of that pole feeling just empty. You have to get down into the world and live a true life, and this means engaging with people. And that is just as much part of enlightenment as emptiness. Form and emptiness. Not two. So, anyway, my teacher did not emphasize that, and he did talk about compassion. It’s just that we chose not to hear it, I think.”

The emphasis on compassion in Vermont is clear. “I began teaching Loving Kindness to my students. At every sesshin there would be half an hour where we would do the Loving Kindness, from sending it to yourself, to a friend, so on and so forth.” That focus is obvious throughout the center.

 Cypress Trees in the Garden: 204, 329, 337-51, 361, 374, 388-89, 468.

The Story of Zen: 300, 302, 359-60.

Zen Conversations: 145-46.

Other links:

Vermont Zen Center

Published by Rick McDaniel

Author of "Zen Conversations" and "Cypress Trees in the Garden."

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