Vermont Zen Center Offers Peace and Quiet

Posted on March 18, 2011

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Camille Dodson

Vermont Zen Center Offers Peace and Quiet

From the picturesque Shelburne Farms, to the museum, the Vineyard, and the Teddy Bear factory, Shelburne, VT has its share of appealing attractions. However, some people might be surprised to learn that Shelburne is also home to the Vermont Zen Center, a gathering place for Buddhists.

The building is easily mistaken for another family home on Thomas road. A modest sign at the end of the driveway, reading “Zen Center” is all that distinguishes it as something more.

Dharman Rice, who has been practicing Buddhism for 23 years, is an active member at the center. He believes that Buddhism is different from other religions in that there is no creed one must accept or believe in.

“You don’t have to believe in anything,” Rice explains; “It’s about what you experience and how you act.”

Rice leads informational sessions for newcomers, teaches a class on loving kindness, speaks at local colleges about the Center, and usually meditates for at least an hour and a half each day.

Daily sittings or meditation sessions are the main attraction for members. The focus of the practice here is called zazen, which means seated meditation. The ultimate goal of the meditation is to come to awakening and freedom. While freedom has the connotation of being effortless and unbound by rules, in Zen Buddhism it is achieved through intense and constant discipline, something Rice sees as an apparent, but not a real, paradox.  He also believes that Buddhism is a way of life to be incorporated beyond the meditation practice.

“It would be a waste of time to come sit three to four times a week, and then yell at people while I sit in traffic,” he says.

In addition to the sittings, the Center also hosts classes and offers weeklong retreats. The members cook meals for a halfway house in Burlington, and take part in regular ceremonies for causes including famine relief and death of young children. The original building in the Center complex was purchased in 1991. Today the Center includes a mediation hall, planting gardens, dorms, a kitchen, and a dining room.

While it’s hard to pinpoint the number of members who frequent the Center, Rice says that there are 30-50 people who come once a week, and a smaller group of 15-20 who come up to three times a week. He estimates that there are 200 people who come at least twice a year.  Some commute from as far as Middlebury for weekly sittings.

People who come to the Center typically usually do so as a way to find healing or balance in their lives.

“Most people who come to practice Zen are hurting in some way,” Rice says.  He explains that life involves suffering, and people turn to Zen as a way to cope. Many members have dealt with addiction, depression, or situations like losing a job.

Buddhism does not seek converts; most people come of their own accord.

The Center has a website, a Facebook page, and a twitter account that they use to communicate with members and provide information about who they are and what they do.

“We’re not trying to proselytize,” Rice clarifies. “We’re trying to generate good relations with the community and attract people who might be inclined to practice.”

The Center is lead by Sensei Sunyana Graef, whom Rice describes as a spiritual guide.

“The relationship with one’s teacher is unlike any other I’ve had,” He says.

The word sensei literally means the one who walks ahead, but this does not mean that she has absolute authority. Rather, Sensei Graef helps each student at the Center become the best version of his or herself.

When the Center hosts retreats, Sensei meets with each student (there are usually about 30) three times a day for anywhere from a minute to 30 minutes to check in on the individual’s progress. Talking with Sensei is ideally the only talking students do during the weeklong retreat. The rest of the time they are silently meditating, keeping their eyes down, and making no verbal contact with each other. Though the retreats may seem isolating, Rice says the process actually creates intense feelings of camaraderie and intimacy with the other students that exceeds what would come from conversation. He explains that the silence cuts down on irritations that might come from living in close quarters.

“After the first day of a retreat I ask myself why I do this,” Rice says. “For the next six days, I wonder why I do anything else.”

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Posted in: Camille Dodson