First came a Super Bowl ad, of all things, that started with a few seconds of actor Timothy Hutton recounting the tragedies of modern Tibet then shifted to him gushing about how those same Tibetans could still “whip up an amazing fish curry” that he can buy at half price in a favorite Chicago restaurant all because of something called Groupon.com.
Then, on Tuesday, The New York Times ran a front page story about how the 17th Karmapa, spiritual leader for the Karma Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism (one of four strains), was being investigated by Indian police after $1 million in foreign currency was found at his residence, including more than $166,000 in Chinese money. Indians, it turns out, have started questioning whether the former Ogyen Trinley Dorje, who escaped Chinese-held Tibet over the Himalayas while still a boy of 14, was a Chinese spy plotting a monastic empire along the border. The whole idea of India granting asylum and refuge to Tibetans in exile, including the Dalai Lama, reeled in the balance.
It seemed the right occasion to drive up Meads Mountain Road to KTD, the Karma Triyana Dharmachakra monastery that is the Karmapa’s North American seat…and itself a former center of controversy in the Woodstock community when it first proposed expanding to its current multi-storied building, which will include demolition of its former home in the historic Meads Mountain House this summer.
We had been trying to contact KTD for over a year about when it was planning to complete its building project and get a final Certificate of Occupancy from the town, as well as what was in the works for the dismantling of the old boarding house it moved out of about a year ago.
“With the tremendous outpouring of messages of support from people around the world wishing to contribute positively to the current situation, His Holiness the Karmapa has advised the international Dharma centers, students and supporters around the world that the following practices would be good to do in the current situation: Prayers to the 21 Taras 21. Seven-Limb Supplication to Padmasambhava. Dharma Protector Practice, such as Mahakala and others,” read a special proclamation on the KTD website as of Monday. “His Holiness also mentioned that if people wish to contact other Dharma friends from other centers in their area — not only Karma Kagyu, but practitioners of all schools of Tibetan Buddhism — and join with them to do group practice sessions together, that would also be very auspicious.”
Outside the new building at the top of Meads Mountain Road Tuesday morning, snow blustered beneath a bright sky. Inside, however, warmth and serenity ruled. Lunch was being prepared. Would we want some tea or coffee while the Executive Director finished up a meeting so he could devote some time for us?
After a few moments saying hello to friends from down in town, Mark Rothe appeared and asked us to follow him to his corner office, spare and efficient. We looked out on the old Meads Mountain House, which he remembered only for its coldness, talking about when he first moved in with his wife from California, 27 years ago this winter. He asks that we wait to speak to KTD board member Kathy Wesley about the matters in the newspapers, since his focus was more temporal, and based in the monastery itself.
He said that KTD had been granted a temporary certificate of occupancy on May 26, or thereabouts, of last year.
“It as our understanding that we could inhabit and use the building as we finished more tasks needed to get our Final Certificate of Occupancy,” he said, describing what had been a “pretty thorough process.”
Besides a few items inside, Rothe said that most of the work still to go entailed outside landscaping, completion of new parking, and the demolition of Meads Mountain House. All were weather-sensitive matters that couldn’t be started until spring came. And the latter demolition start, he added, was reliant on the determination of a plan for documenting the building before it was taken down, as well as its process of dismantling.
Rothe said he’d just heard from the Woodstock Historical Society about those processes, which included some negotiation about how to do so in ways that matched the technology of today. Much has changed, he pointed out, since documentation was first planned a decade ago.
“We’ll be charting the dimensions of every room and preserving certain boards from the building,” he added. “A plaque will be put up on the site.”
Had there been any problems with financing the completion of the new monastery, we asked.
Rothe replied that “It’s a truism of KTD’s 30 year history here that everything we do costs more and takes longer than we anticipate.” The monastery had secured loans to ensure the completion of all needed for this phase of its building project, including the outdoor landscaping…which he pointed out would now be done as much to live up to the Karmapa’s wishes for a green approach to life in all the lineage’s doings as any promises it had made during its permit process.
In other words, Wesley says as she enters, the place would look much different, and better than predicted, by the time the coming summer was over.
“We all have fond memories of the old house,” she says, looking out the window through the blowing drifts. “The first time I was here I met Allen Ginsberg on the porch there.”
Wesley is here from Newark, Ohio, where she worked for a community newspaper for years. Now she’s an abbot, open-faced yet aware of a journalist’s needs.
She points out that there are no financial constraints to KTD finishing all it needs doing to get its final Certificate of Occupancy from the Town of Woodstock. The only constraints have been technical, having to do with coordination of elements. And that was being sorted through.
She moves on to what’s been happening in India and admits, right off the bat, that she hadn’t yet read more than the headline of the Times story. But from what she could gather, it had as much to do with patterns set into motion in 1999, “when His Holiness escaped from Tibet and made quite a splash…It almost read like an adventure novel and it opened up concerns in India about its powerful neighbor, China.”
She suggested that what was bubbling up related to the Karmapa from all sides of the story reflected greater geopolitical concerns, as well as Tibetan refugee “struggles” that even the Karmapa may suffer from. Her hope, she adds with a smile, would be that it draws more attention on the plight of Tibetan refugees in India and elsewhere.
What about that Groupon Super Bowl ad, then?
Wesley is unaware of it but Rothe looks down and says, simply, “too bad.” At which point the abbot talks more about geopolitics and notes that “to be outraged by something is not sufficient. You have to engage in discussion.”
We shift to talk of last year’s earthquake in Tibet. Rothe and Wesley note how $100,000 was raised and successfully spent on aid efforts, but more was now needed to see to the replacement of the historic Trongyu Monastery lost to tremors. But first, a decision had to be made where to rebuild more safely.
Just as important, Rothe adds, is a need to repopulate the monastery, given the numbers lost to the earthquake.
And then the subject shifts.
“We’re concerned vis a vis the town that we present a congenial appearance,” Wesley says. “We will be taking the Meads Mountain House down in such a way that it could be rebuilt somewhere, if someone wanted to.”
Rothe mentions the free meditation sessions being offered on Saturdays, weekend guided tours, more hours for use of the main shrine room and bookstore/gift shop.
“We are, after all, arguably the most beautiful shrine in the country,” Wesley says.
“I insist on use of the term, ‘arguably,’” adds Rothe, with his own smile.
By which time the sun’s peeking back behind clouds and we all have much more to do with our days.++
For more on all things KTD, call 679-5906, visit www.kagyu.org, or just head on up and visit them at the top of Meads Mountain Road.