Soon after Shakyamuni began ordaining disciples, he instituted the practice of an annual rainy-season retreat (called varshika, or “belonging to the rains”), during which the community ceased its wandering and settled down to meditate and study doctrine. Ever since, Buddhist orders have devoted certain periods of the calendar to the strict observance of quiet contemplation.
Originally these monastic retreats took place in a forest glade or a bamboo grove, somewhere away from the hustle and bustle of city life. But north of New York City, in the Catskill Mountains, pine, maple, and elm have replaced bamboo, and groves have given away to modern centers, some replete with central air. Known in the mid-twentieth century as the “Borscht Belt” for its many mainly Jewish resorts at which borscht was a hearty staple, the verdant Catskills region has become a thriving home of the Buddha-dharma.
In a few days, you can cover a lot of ground by car. My friend Barbara Biziou and I set off from New York City on a three-day journey, during which we visited six centers (there are over a dozen in the Catskills alone).
Our first stop is the Dharma Drum Retreat Center in Pine Bush. Nestled at the base of the Shawangunk Mountains, Dharma Drum is the international retreat center for the community of Ch’an teacher Master Sheng-yen. We are welcomed by the Abbot Guo Yuan, who explains that seven- or ten-day retreats are held six times a year for people who have taken introductory meditation classes and have at least six months of daily meditation practice. Each day begins at 4 a.m. and ends at 10 p.m., with fourteen periods of meditation, chanting, work-practice, dharma talks, and private interviews. Accommodations are dormitory style. The retreat center, which boasts a newly constructed meditation hall with cushions for up to eighty participants, hosts beginner classes every Wednesday evening, and its New York City base, the Ch’an Meditation Center, in Queens, New York, offers a full schedule of meditation instruction and Buddhist teaching.
After a delicious vegetarian lunch, taken in an airy dining hall reminiscent of summer camp, Barbara and I drive two hours west and north to Dai Bosatsu Zendo Kongo-Ji. This pristine monastery looks as though it had been airlifted from a mountaintop in Japan and dropped intact onto the shores of a lake in the middle of Catskill State Park.
Dai Bosatsu is one of the few places in the United States where one can experience the elegant rigors of orthodox Rinzai Zen practice. The full-time residents are mostly ordained practitioners, but Dai Bosatsu opens its doors to seasoned students who wish to join the weeklong retreats (sesshin) that take place six times a year. In addition, the monastery hosts regular “Introduction to Zen” weekends and also allows guests to stay at the monastery when the community is not in retreat.
After dawn zazen, breakfast oryoki (a traditional Zen meal practice), and tea with head teacher Eido Roshi, we leave Dai Bosatsu and head thirty-five miles east to Menla Mountain Retreat, Tibet House’s new facility in Phoenicia. The sprawling complex boasts a state-of-the-art conference center, a separate wooded sanctuary (meditation hall), a yoga studio with a bamboo floor, a swimming pool, miles of hiking trails, and housing for 108—the number of beads in a mala, or Buddhist rosary.
Menla is the Tibetan name of the Medicine Buddha, and Robert Thurman, Menla’s director and a professor of Buddhist studies at Columbia University, is co-hosting an integrative medicine retreat the day of our visit. He tells us that “the focus of Menla Mountain Retreat is healing and total renewal.” Though the buildings have a modern feel to them, I mention that the land itself feels old and sacred. “That’s because the Catskills are among the oldest mountains in the United States,” Thurman offers.
The next stop on our journey is Zen Mountain Monastery (ZMM), a mere three miles from Menla. ZMM, one of the most active Zen training centers in the country, offers a wide variety of programs for all levels of interest and commitment. Housed in a turn-of-the-century stone building in Mt. Tremper, New York, ZMM is “dedicated to providing authentic and traditional, yet distinctly American, Zen training” under the spiritual leadership of its abbot, John Daido Loori Roshi.
A few miles down the road is Karma Triyana Dharmachakra (KTD), the North American Seat of His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa. Perched atop Meads Mountain, overlooking the town of Woodstock, the center offers an active schedule of traditional Tibetan teachings and retreats led by distinguished teachers of the Karma Kagyu lineage. Teachings are given in the large, ornate shrine room of the monastery, and participants stay in a comfortable, rambling guesthouse. Facilities are also available for individual retreats. (Also check out Kagyu Thubten Choling, a Karma Kagyu retreat center in Wappingers Falls, New York: www.kagyu.com.)
Finally, Barbara and I wend our way south along the Hudson River to the Garrison Institute. An hour north of the city, this extraordinary property (a former Capuchin monastery) has recently been renovated and reopened as a fully equipped retreat center. Garrison currently has accommodations for 160 overnight guests, and the cathedral-like meditation hall (stained-glass windows intact, Stations of the Cross removed) seats up to 300. The Institute plans to offer a program of “ongoing retreats, symposia, conferences, and dialogues,” and was recently the site of the First Conference of Tibetan Buddhist Dharma Centers of the Americas.
Leaving the Borscht Belt on our way back to New York City, I couldn’t help but marvel at the changes that have occurred in the American dharma landscape over the last thirty years. Some of you will remember what such a dharma journey used to entail: the passport, the visas, the shots, the months overland to India or weeks on a steamer to Japan, the dysentery, the dislocation, the culture shock. And now, amazingly enough, it is possible to live in New York City and savor the taste of an authentic Buddhist retreat on a weekend jaunt through the countryside.
Visiting the Borscht Belt
Dharma Drum Retreat Center
184 Quannacut Road
Pine Bush, NY 12566
Approximately 1 hour, 45 minutes from NYC. Metro North Railroad from Grand Central to Beacon. 30-minute taxi ride to center. Shuttle buses from Queens Center in NYC available during retreats. Sample fees: 7-day retreat, $250
Dai Bosatsu Zendo Kongo-Ji
15 Beecher Lake Road
Livingston Manor, NY 12758
Approximately 3 hours, 45 minutes from NYC. Short Line bus from Port Authority to Livingston Manor. 45-minute taxi ride to monastery. Pickup service sometimes available. Sample fees: 7-day sesshin, $350
Menla Mountain Retreat
375 Pantherkill Road
Phoenicia, NY 12494
Approximately 2 hours, 30 minutes from NYC. Adirondack Trailways bus from Port Authority to Phoenicia. Short taxi ride to center. Sample fees: Weekend retreat program, $175
Zen Mountain Monastery (ZMM)
P.O. Box 197
Mt. Tremper, NY 12457
Approximately 2 hours, 15 minutes from NYC. Adirondack Trailways bus from Port Authority to Mt. Tremper leaves you a few hundred feet from the front gate. Sample fees: Weekend sesshin, $225
Karma Triyana Dharmachakra (KTD)
335 Meads Mt. Road
Woodstock, NY 12498
Approximately 2 hours from NYC. Adirondack Trailways bus from Port Authority to Woodstock. Short taxi ride to KTD. Sample fees: 3-day teaching/retreat, $230—$260
P.O. Box 532 Route 9D
Garrison, NY 10524
Approximately 1 hour, 15 minutes from NYC. Metro North Railroad from Grand Central to Harrison. Short taxi ride to the Institute. Sample fees: Depends on program
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