heart-of-the-smokies1-p84“The pagoda appears first in the hearts of people, then it appears on the land,” explains Sister Denise from a primitive work camp in the Smoky Mountains of eastern Tennessee, where a Buddhist Peace Pagoda is currently under construction. “The pagoda is our answer to the nuclear weapons manufactured nearby at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. It is the life-affirming work that contrasts with the death-creating work performed there.”A nontraditional Buddhist sangha is building a vision of a more just world, one pagoda at a time.

Each school of Buddhism is unique, but few are as nontraditional as Nipponzan Myohoji. Founded in Japan in 1924 by Venerable Nichidatsu Fujii, a charismatic monk deeply influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, Nipponzan Myohoji breaks the mold for all forms of Buddhism present in the West. Its practitioners don’t form congregations or offer regular teachings or public meditation. Instead, they bring the two ancient practices of pilgrimage and worship at pagodas into modern life, creating opportunities for people to participate in healing the world and experiencing the dynamic power of the dharma. For Nipponzan Myohoji, there is no practice other than energetic, engaged Buddhism. All their activities—from erecting Peace Pagodas to leading cross-country walks to offering daily prayers for global transformation—are explicitly devoted to exposing and alleviating suffering in the world.

In Asia, pilgrimages and visits to stupas and pagodas are common Buddhist activities, but North Americans have little opportunity for such traditional practices. Nipponzan Myohoji is the foremost cultivator of this active style of pilgrimage practice, committed to “bearing witness” to injustice and oppression. In the past several decades, they have hosted numerous interfaith walks across the United States to promote the peace movement, environmentalism, prison reform, abolition of the death penalty, and atonement for the trans-Atlantic slave trade. They have also erected approximately eighty Peace Pagodas around the globe, from Japan to the Buddha’s birthplace in Nepal, from London to New York and Massachusetts. These gleaming white stupas are meant to inspire a focus on peace and on working to bring about a Pure Land on Earth, where poverty, hate, pollution, and fear will have been abandoned.

heart-of-the-smokies2-p84The Tennessee Peace Pagoda project is an outgrowth of the Nipponzan Myohoji Dojo of Atlanta, where Sister Denise and her colleague Brother Utsumi work. For several years, the Atlanta Dojo has been holding 282-mile peace pilgrimages from Atlanta to Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Oak Ridge’s Y-12 plant built the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, and its ongoing testing and production of weapons has poisoned the soil and water of the surrounding area.

Another destination is the School of the Americas in Columbus, Georgia. This academy, recently renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, has been a notorious U.S. Army training institution for Latin Americans; its curriculum includes torture and repression techniques. With their golden robes flapping about them, Nipponzan Myohoji peace pilgrims bang on drums outside the academy’s doors and chant Namu Myoho Renge Kyo, an invitation for all people, regardless of religion, to join in the creation of a better future.

The land for the Tennessee Peace Pagoda was consecrated last year in a ceremony that included a welcome and a prayer by the Cherokee Indians who have traditionally inhabited the area. For decades Nipponzan Myohoji has had an unusually close association with Indians, a friendship that has resulted in many joint pilgrimages and other events.

Nipponzan Myohoji has recruited some fifty volunteers to build a rustic wooden temple that will serve as a residence and place for services near the pagoda site. Once the temple is finished late next year, construction on the pagoda itself will begin. Since the work is being carried out entirely by volunteers, and because by monastic decision Nipponzan Myohoji may accept contributions but doesn’t permit active fundraising, it is expected to take ten years to build the pagoda. When completed, it will shine from the rise known as Hall’s Top mountain, creating a monument to peace that will be visible for miles throughout the Smokies.

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