In an Unsettled World, They Pray for Peace - The Grafton Peace Pagoda

Sunday, June 12, 2016
Life is full of surprises, some pleasant, some not.  I recently heard a term, "Godincidence", a much better way to describe what we think of as coincidences, a term which acknowledges that God is the force behind so many instances in our lives.  A while ago, I saw the photo below, taken by Ashley Vickers,  As you can imagine, I was mesmorized.  I knew I had to go see this place up close.  On Friday late afternoon, John and I took a ride to Grafton, NY to visit the Grafton Peace Pagoda.  Ashley's picture has probably piqued your interest too, so read on and learn more about this place that's right in our backyard.

Grafton NY

This story begins back in 1978 when Native Americans organized "the Longest Walk", a seven month walk from Alcatraz Island, CA to Washington, DC calling for indigenous sovereignty and an end to discriminatory legislation against native people.  Accompanying them on this walk was Jun Yasuda, a Japanese nun from the Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhist order who had come to this country at the urging of her teacher, the Venerable Nichidatsu Fuji.  He was convinced that if the US could be peacefully reformed and turned away from the path of militarism and domination, peace would come to the world.  He believed their spiritual practice could "open a new path of existence, a peaceful and sacred way of life for all humanity."  Since that time, Juan san has crossed the country seven more times on foot, drumming and chanting her prayer for peace, Na-Mu-Myo-Ho-Ren-Ge-Kyo.   She has organized countless peace walks in the US and abroad supporting indigenous rights, ending US wars, shutting down power plants and cultivating a simple, sustainable life in harmony with the earth.

Jun Yasuda - a Buddhist Nun (photo from Times Union)

In the early 1980's Dennis Banks, the co-founder of the American Indian Movement, was forced to flee California for sanctuary on the Onondaga Nation near Syracuse, NY.  Jun san accompanied him and while there, each month she would walk for ten days from the Onondaga Nation to the state capitol in Albany where she fasted for a week, calling for freedom for Dennis Banks.  That got the attention of many people, including Hank Hazelton, an activist for indigenous rights who owned the land on the Rensselaer Plateau in Grafton, NY, part of the ancestral lands of the Mohican People.  As a young man, Hazelton had been an eye-witness to the devastation that followed the atomic bombing in Nagasaki, Japan.  Since then, he had dreamed of creating some sort of monument for peace on his land and in 1984, he offered the land to Nipponzan Myohoji in hopes that a Peace Pagoda would be built there.
Construction began in 1985 and was completed in 1993 after nine years of toil and struggle.  The Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhist Order does not permit soliciting money, so the Pagoda was built entirely with donated funds, labor and material.  Over the years, visitors from many nations and all walks of life have been drawn to this place of refuge to strengthen their own commitment to peace. Currently there is only one other Peace Pagoda in the U.S., that is in Leverett, MA.  Another is under construction in Tennessee.
Here's a closer look at this beautiful site, beginning with another gorgeous photo by Ashley Vickers.

Pagoda in Grafton NY

Wondering what's inside the pagoda?  Nothing but empty space.  The first pagodas were built with stone and mud brick, their interiors solid.  Although modern construction has created an interior space in the Grafton Peace Pagoda, the area is purposely left unused.
Grafton Peace Pagoda
Can you find the moon?
Grafton Peace Pagoda

All around the Pagoda, scenes from the birth, life and death of Buddha are depicted.  Small signs describe the scenes.
Peace Pagoda
I love this one - "Life is a river, always moving. Do not hold onto things.  Work hard."
Peace Pagoda

Peace Pagoda in Grafton NY
View from the Pagoda looking down on the grounds.
Grafton Peace Pagoda
The Temple
Peace Pagoda
Inside the temple
 At the entrance to the temple, signs welcomed visitors inside for morning and evening prayers.  As it happened, we were there in time for evening prayers which take place from 5:30-6:30 each day.  At first, the woman in the above photo was alone in the temple, chanting and drumming, so we felt a little awkward entering, but stood quietly in the entrance observing.  A few minutes later, another woman entered, swiftly but quietly, and motioned us in.  I shook my head and we continued to observe.  Shortly thereafter, she  (now I realize it was Jun Yasuda, the Buddhist Nun) again motioned us in.  This time she pointed to some chairs in the back of the temple.  This time, knowing we wouldn't have to kneel or sit on the floor, we promptly removed our shoes and entered.  Jun san handed us two drums and two sticks so we could join in, but knowing what little rhythm I have, I left the drumming to John.  For an hour, the beat was the, two, three, four followed by a faster 1,2,3.   Here's a short video to give you an idea of the chant....

Peace Pagoda
John's drum and stick (Cho-na)
Jun Yasuda
Notice Jun's sticks are much larger.  Her drumming was much louder and stronger.
Grafton Peace Pagoda

During the hour-long service, others entered and found a spot on the floor.  Each had a bag wherein they carried their own drum and stick (Cho-na).  Near the end of the hour, Jun san moved to the altar, lit some candles and then led the group in a chant-like reading of Chapter 16 of the Lotus Sutra (the most influential and sacred scripture of Buddhism).  After the service was over, Jun san asked where we were from and invited us to join them for a soup supper.  Although I had a million questions, we declined.   I would have loved to take more photos, but I felt pretty sacrileges as I was sitting on a chair in a Buddhist temple during a service, not drumming or chanting.

Grafton Peace Pagoda

Grafton Peace Pagoda

Donor of Property at Grafton Peace Pagoda

Throughout the prayer service, several visitors came and walked the grounds, some sitting a while at the bottom of the Pagoda.  It is not surprising that this would be a place of peaceful refuge from the chaos of the world.  Ironic too that the morning after our visit to the Peace Pagoda, a place where prayers for peace are a primary focus, we awoke to the news that a 22 yr old singer was shot after a concert.  Then last night in Orlando, 50 were killed and 50+ injured in a shooting in a  nightclub. Coincidence? Godincidence?  There is no doubt.  We are living in a violent and destructive world, a world where peace and safety are becoming uncommon, even in our day-to-day lives, in our own cities.  Regardless of your religion, what church you attend, what God you worship, I believe Jun Yasuda and her followers have a good thing going - walking and praying for peace.  I think we can all agree on that.
Grafton Peace Pagoda

Grafton Peace Pagoda
If you are interested in learning more about the Grafton Peace Pagoda, I've included links below to their website and to some videos from You Tube.   I found a series from their 20th anniversary celebration particularly interesting.  Dennis Banks was one of the speakers talking of his history and friendship with Jun Yasuda.   If you are interested in visiting, the Peace Pagoda is just a short way past Grafton State Park on Crandall Road in Petersburg, NY.  It is open everyday from sunrise to sunset.
In closing, I will leave you with a quote from the cover of their brochure:

'Civilization is not to kill human beings;
not to destroy things, not to make war;
civilization is to hold mutual affection
and to respect one another.'
--Most Venerable Nichidatsu Fuji


  1. Stopping by to read your wonderful story, such a peaceful place, in a wolrd that is so chaotic.. you are so lucky you were able to go there.

    1. Thank you sorry for the delay in responding. We are lucky. It's a beautiful place and glad I finally learned of it!


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