Peace Pagoda marks 33rd year at weekend ceremony

  • In foreground, right, a drummer keeps rhythm as, at left, practitioners burn incense celebrating the 33rd anniversary of the New England Peace Pagoda in Leverett, Sunday. In the background, monks of the Nippozan Myohoji Buddhist Order participate in the ceremony. STAFF PHOTO/ANDY CASTILLO

  • Prayer flags wave in the breeze at the New England Peace Pagoda in Leverett this past weekend. In the background, visitors can be seen taking in the day during a break in the pagoda’s annual anniversary celebration.  STAFF PHOTO/ANDY CASTILLO

  • Monks of the Nippozan Myohoji Buddhist Order walk around the New England Peace Pagoda. STAFF PHOTO/ANDY CASTILLO

  • The Venerable Gyoway Kato, presiding monk of the Nippozan Myohoji Buddhist Order, at the New England Peace Pagoda in Leverett during the anniversary celebration. STAFF PHOTO/ANDY CASTILLO

  • At right, Andrea Lynn of South Dartmouth, with other practitioners at left, offers incense at the New England Peace Pagoda in honor of its 33rd anniversary. STAFF PHOTO/ANDY CASTILLO

Staff Writer
Published: 10/9/2018 12:05:33 AM

LEVERETT — As a child, Casay Yamazaki Heineman sometimes played near New England Peace Pagoda’s colorful prayer flags.

He says he feels deeply connected to the pagoda because his parents, Thomas Heineman and Chieko Yamazaki, met while volunteering during its construction, and lived for a few months in the shadow of its stark white stupa after his mother moved to the United States from Japan in the late-1990s.

On Sunday, those prayer flags waved gently in a warm breeze over a frog pond as Yamazaki Heineman, now 25, acted as master of ceremonies for the pagoda’s 33rd annual anniversary celebration.

“It’s just a constant source of comfort, knowing that it’s here,” he said afterward, noting he drove home from New York City to emcee. Yamazaki Heineman described his relationship to the pagoda as “a spiritual connection.”

The celebration, which began around 11 a.m. and ended after 2 p.m. with a community potluck, featured a Buddhist ceremony; interfaith prayers offered by area religious leaders; special music by guitarist Annie Hassett and violinist Nina Gross; and talks advocating for a more peaceful society delivered by representatives of various nonprofit organizations.

Those who spoke were Dr. Marlene Campbell and Savina Martin, both of the National Poor People’s Campaign; Vicki Elson, co-founder of NuclearBan.US; and Tim Bullock, organizer for Walk For a New Spring and other walks advocating for peace.

“We commit ourselves, body, mind and soul, to the practice of nonviolence,” said the Venerable Brother Gyoway Kato, presiding monk, reading from a passage that was originally written for the pagoda’s inauguration three decades ago.

Kato, who sat in front decorated with colorful flowers and apples, led the other monks and nuns in the Buddhist ceremony, which ended with an opportunity for audience members to burn incense and walk around the pagoda.

“The practice of nonviolence is a struggle, within and without,” Kato said.

He cited world leaders, like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., as examples of people who successfully led nonviolent campaigns.

The New England Peace Pagoda — the stupa of which was completed in 1985 entirely by volunteers — is one of about 80 peace pagodas worldwide, according to the pagoda’s website. An adjacent temple was added later. The dozen or so monks who live there follow in the tradition of Nipponzan Myohoji, a Buddhist religious order founded in 1917 by the Most Venerable Nichidatsu Fujii, a Japanese monk.

Despite Sunday’s celebratory occasion, the mood was subdued. And while many of those in the audience joined in with chanting and singing, some beating their own handheld drums, others meditated in solemn silence, cross-legged and with eyes closed, beneath trees along the outskirts of the stupa’s clearing.

An overarching theme throughout the ceremony was demilitarization, particularly of nuclear weapons.

“Our prayer is the abolition of nuclear weapons and nuclear power,” said Sister Clare Carter of the pagoda’s Buddhist order.

Among those who offered interfaith prayers for peace were Carrie Schuchardt of the House of Peace in Ipswich (Christian); Neela Satter, a preschool teacher in Springfield (Islam); Shehim Mekuria-Miller of the Beit Ahavah Synagogue in Florence (Judaism); and a man who went by White Hawk of the Anishinaabe Ojibwe (Native American).

After, while enjoying a meal of hearty bread and fresh vegetables, others among the 150 or so people in attendance shared Yamazaki Heineman’s sentiments about the Leverett pagoda.

“(The pagoda) mostly means there’s a sacred place where people can feel not just peace but connection — to the land, to each other, to the wonderful spirit that has been here, and is here,” said Warren Lett of Greenfield, a founding volunteer who helped acquire land for the pagoda.

“I come up here to be with people who are doing the work,” Schuchardt said. While the monks and nuns practice Buddhism, she noted they’ve done a good job including all faith groups into the pagoda’s peaceful mission.

“It makes me want, as a Catholic, to be a better Catholic,” said Andrea Lynn of Dartmouth. She discovered the pagoda about seven years ago during a peace walk in Rhode Island, and has stayed involved ever since.

Before the pagoda was built, Bob Jennings, a volunteer engineer for both the stupa and the temple building, recalled first encountering Kato and other monks at a peaceful protest 34 years ago outside Naval Submarine Base New London in Groton, Connecticut.

“Standing there in the pouring rain, with their bald heads and drums … there was a spirit of peace,” Jennings said. “They said they had this movement in western Massachusetts, and wanted to build this peace pagoda, and would I help?”

Since then, Jennings says he’s watched the community expand exponentially — as evidenced by the large turnout Sunday.

“I met a few people, and a few more, and it snowballed,” he continued, looking back at the stupa behind him. “You see that structure there? From the time the first tree was cut down, it took 18 months. That’s how powerful it was. And it’s still going.”

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