I spent a late-October weekend at the Milarepa Center, a Buddhist retreat center located in Barnet, Vermont. This place had intrigued me ever since Edith and I first began spending our summers in Vermont fifteen years ago. Named after an 11th-century Buddhist yogi and founded in 1981 by Lama Thubten Yeshe, the Milarepa Center is Tibetan in its orientation and offers programs, instruction, and retreats within the Mahayana tradition. I went there for two reasons: first, to undertake a brief private retreat; and second, to meet the current residents of the Center and to gain a sense of their approaches to Buddhism. (A semi-irrelevant aside: located just two miles away from the Milarepa Center is Karmê Chöling, a retreat center founded by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in the early 1970’s. What are the odds that a tiny Vermont town (pop. 1,708) would host two Tibetan Buddhist retreat centers?)
Friends and family who have visited Edith and me at Hyland Hill know that my writer’s shack is also my meditation hut. Why, then, would I drive almost an hour north to meditate in an unfamiliar place? The answer: to meditate in an unfamiliar place. My little shack is so familiar, so comfortable, and so congenial that meditating only there could become risky. It’s a little too familiar, too comfortable, too congenial. All the better, then, to alter my routines and disrupt my habits. In addition, I’m interested in visiting a variety of sanghas (communities) over the next few years to get a better sense of Buddhist practices in Vermont. The Milarepa Center was my first of these visits. So, after e-mailing back and forth with Felicity Keely, the Center’s thoughtful and helpful director, I reserved a cabin and, a few weeks later, I showed up for the retreat.
The cabin in question was Chenrezig, a one-room hut located a few hundred feet from the main house. Inside this little room I found a bed, a desk, a lamp, a heater, and a table equipped with an electric tea kettle and some packets of tea. A picture window looked out into the woods and down toward the house. Chenrezig offered just enough amenities to provide basic comfort but not so many as to create distraction. The falling late-autumn leaves outside created an arrhythmic ticking sound on the roof, and the sun light pushing through the foliage tinged the walls a golden hue almost all day long.
My stay at the Center ended up slightly shorter than I’d planned, as the new pellet-fired boiler back at Hyland Hill had started to act up, requiring my attention and prompting me to leave on Sunday evening rather than remaining for a second night and leaving on Monday. Even so, I had an enjoyable visit. I meditated throughout most of both Saturday and Sunday; I visited with the on-site staff members and two residents; I took several walks on the Center’s 276-acre wooded property; and I explored the library and the bookstore inside the main house. Everyone at Milarepa warmly welcomed me and cordially answered my questions. Among the people who explained aspects of the Center’s mission, history, and programs were Felicity Keely, the director; Kiira Anderson, the Spiritual Program Coordinator; and Samantha Ferrato, the Kitchen Manager/Cook.
Kiira took me on a tour of the facility that included a stop at the Center’s gompa (meditation hall): . . .
. . . and the devotional/ceremonial room:
Later, while walking on the grounds, I visited the Center’s stupa, a large reliquary used as another site for walking meditation.
My own walking meditation focused on exploring the Center’s woods, an extensive hillside preserve criss-crossed with trails. Deep in this forest are several more meditation cabins. (Among the practitioners who have these huts are visiting Tibetan lamas whose retreats have lasted many months or even three to four years.) I also spotted Buddhist-style “POSTED” signs nailed on trees to warn trespassers and to prohibit hunting. One of these, affixed to a large maple next to a conventional sign, is the most polite, earnest, and plaintive warning I’ve ever seen. Given what I’ve witnessed over the years while observing Vermont hunters in the woods––or at least the subset of hunters who couldn’t care less about trespassing or about hunting on “posted” land–– I’m surprised that this sign wasn’t riddled with bullet holes. Who knows? Perhaps beseeching even scoff-law hunters is more effective than threatening them.
In any case, I found the woods a source of great solace and peace of mind, as I always do. The path is uncertain, but I find it compelling and want to explore where it goes.