“This building has an eye — it sees. It is a living being, part of the mountain and an extension of our bodies and minds. We meet within an eye that is open.”
Abbot Konrad Ryushin Marchaj was addressing the community of 150 or so Buddhists who had gathered for the dedication of the new Sangha House, or community building, at the Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper on Sunday, March 3. The $3.6 million structure, built according to principles of environmental sustainability, will alleviate crowding at the monastery’s historic main building and open up new spaces for workshops, community events, and other functions.
Ryushin spoke after the dedication ceremony in which Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, the Head of the Mountains and Rivers Order, had “opened the eye” of an intricately carved wooden statue representing Kannon, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. With the tip of a traditional Japanese brush, Shugen placed a dot of ink on the face of the statue and chanted from the liturgy to establish the altar as “an alive thing. We bring the image to life,” he explained later. “It changes people’s experience of being in that space.”
Attendees, including monastery residents, Zen practitioners from the local area, and visitors from the affiliated temple in Brooklyn, toured the new building, which is situated alongside the stone edifice that was once the headquarters of a Lutheran camp. The Sangha House is luxurious in terms of space allotted for an auditorium with a soaring ceiling, classrooms, offices, a workout room, an art studio, a laundry room. But its aesthetic sticks to the simplicity that we associate with Zen.
The building is a simple rectangle, and the predominant color is gray, in shades from somber to light and pearly. The architect, Frances Halsband of the Manhattan firm Kliment Halsband, reported that she had originally considered a design that would include geothermal wells for heating and cooling. She discovered that the technology would not be cost-effective because “they don’t use air conditioning here. They like opening the windows and being part of the land. A lot of things were upside down,” compared to the usual architectural design job.
Ryushin described the history of the building project, which had been in the works since 1983, when former abbot John Daido Loori sketched out plans on a map of the 230-acre property. “He saw the property as a kind of Dharma Wonderland,” said Ryushin. “He drew in housing, gazebos, and ponds, even, I think, a zoo, and in the middle, a sketch of a community house.”
Over the years, plans for constructing the Sangha House were begun and dropped several times, as resources proved insufficient, and other priorities arose. After Daido’s death in 2009, the project was revived, and a fundraising campaign provided a slow but steady trickle of money. “I don’t know how it happened,” admitted Ryushin. “The money came up when it was needed, and we never had to go into debt. The building is completely paid for.”
“Of course, there’s no furniture,” joked Shugen. The original furniture contractor raised its prices unexpectedly, so delivery of furniture has been delayed. However, a few rooms are furnished. Daido’s massive desk graces one office. The historic Stickley, Audi & Company donated several Mission-style oak tables and chairs, including a handsome conference table with a small inlaid lotus on each corner.
The abbot praised local builder Hank Starr, who executed the architect’s designs with aplomb, accommodating the activities of a community devoted to spiritual practice.
The building has a large array of solar panels on the roof, which combine with the panels in an adjoining field to produce a substantial portion of the building’s electrical needs. Extensive engineering was done to create an efficient stormwater handling system.
“After years of focusing on unwise developments, now we understand the difficult process of building in the watershed,” said Ryushin. The order’s Zen Environmental Studies Institute has challenged such local projects as the proposed Crossroads Ventures resort at Belleayre Mountain, predicting severe environmental impacts. With the shoe on the other foot, Ryushin found that one of the most difficult aspects of building the Sangha House was following the environmental regulations of government agencies.
Michael Nieminen of Kliment Halsband said the firm is in the process of completing an application for LEED certification, establishing the “greenness” of the construction.
Monastery residents are delighted with the new building, according to program coordinator Shea Ikusei Settimi. She enjoys putting her laundry in one of the bright new washers and sitting in front of a huge window downstairs to gaze out at the landscape.
The new building will have no residential units, but the offices, library, and monastery store will all be moved over from the main building, where residents will have more quiet and space. Instead of moving all the dining room tables and benches each time a workshop sets up, and then replacing the furniture for every meal, the dining room will stay put, and workshops will take place in the large, airy rooms at the Sangha House. The community is also invited to use the new rooms for events and presentations.
Ryushin acknowledged the sacrifices made to construct a large building in a rural setting. “We have destroyed life. There was a white birch among the trees that called our attention. We even considered transplanting it or building around it. We owe a debt of gratitude. We must take responsibility to use this place in a way that will translate those deaths and offer them to life, sanity, clarity — and to others.”
For more information on the Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper, see https://www.mro.org.