From the Bennington Banner, Feb. 26, 2008
By Mark E. Rondeau
GRAFTON, N.Y. — The story of the peace pagoda in this town of about 2,100 residents starts in a city of more than
12 million people on the other side of the world.
Born in 1948, Jun Yasuda grew up in Tokyo. She seems to have always
been a seeker. While studying Japanese culture in school as a 10-year-old, she encountered and was struck by the idea that
“life is like a river, you cannot hold it. ... So my karma, or my kind of spiritual ground, was already very much
connected to Buddhism.”
Yasuda is a nun in the Nipponzan Myohoji order of Japanese Buddhism. Its members build
peace pagodas and march for peace and justice. She is the force behind and the caretaker of the Grafton Peace Pagoda,
was completed in 1993.
But early in life, her future path was obscured in darkness.
She describes herself in her
youth as a city girl who used a motorbike and ran with wild kids, confused and angry at society. She went to college and held
many jobs, including as a saleswoman and a teacher.
That didn’t make her happy so she didn’t know what to
do with her life. She married, but although she and her husband didn’t fight and have since remained friends, she got
divorced. Eventually she went to India.
Traveling around India in her mid-20s, Yasuda observed life close to nature.
People went to bed early and woke up early because they had no electricity. They cut wood and went to get water by hand.
“People are more happy this way. It’s a very hard life, but people’s faces are more happy and they are
more connected to the earth,” she said.
Yasuda started realizing that the reason she was so confused was that her
life wasn’t connected to nature.
A further revelation in India came when by accident Yasuda learned about the Nipponzan
Myohojii order. She liked how it was not about controlling people and not about raising money. “I’m more comfortable
walking for peace,” she said with a laugh.
She met Nipponzan Myohoji founder Nichidatsu Fujii in Sri Lanka, and
was mentored by another elder monk in the order, a disciple of Fujii.
“He looked like Gandhi and was a very compassionate
person,” she said of this elder monk.
Yasuda followed him for a couple of years and her life changed. But one day
during an ordination ceremony, he had a surprise. He threw her a yellow robe, saying, “Jun, hurry up.”
said, ‘Wow, what’s the meaning of hurry up?’ ” she said. “At that time I did not know if I was
going back to Japan to get married again or get a job again.” But she wasn’t interested in this kind of life anymore:
“So he was reading my mind.”
At that time, she heard about what was called the Longest Walk, for Native American
rights, led by activist Dennis Banks. “My teacher, Fujii Gurujii, said ‘You should go to walk to the United States
with the native people.’ So that’s the reason I came here 30 years ago.”
Fujii also walked in this
protest. “He was already 92 years old, he was still very amazing, a very clear mind, very smiling,” Yasuda said.
“He fasted every month, and he sat all day drumming and had a very strong mind.”
Fujii delivered a speech
at the U.S. Capitol steps on July 16, 1978, at the conclusion of the Longest Walk. In his speech he strongly condemned the
dropping of atomic bombs on Japan: “History shall eternally condemn the criminality of the atomic bombings by the United
While many people live a comfortable life when they become elders, this wasn’t the case with Fujii,
who had received the nickname “Gurujii” from his friend Mahatma Gandhi. He kept his focus and fasted more than
anyone else, she said.
Yasuda stayed in the U.S., participating in walks and fasts for peace and justice, closely observing
the spiritual requirements of her order. During one of her fasts, in 1983 at the New York State Capitol in Albany, N.Y., a
fellow activist for Native Americans named Hank Hazelton approached Yasuda. He had heard of her work and offered her a parcel
of land in Grafton for a monument for peace.
Yasuda had worked in brief stretches on other peace pagodas, including one
in Sri Lanka. “But this peace pagoda is different because that was from my connection. I was not looking for this land.
I just pray to support native peoples’ rights.”
Work on the pagoda, including a separate temple building
which includes Yasuda’s living space and guest rooms, started in 1985. She really didn’t know what she was doing
at first, but little by little
people of various faiths and backgrounds started showing up to help her, some of whom
she met on peace walks and learned about her project. Monks and nuns of her order are forbidden to solicit donations, but
people brought her nails and other recycled building materials.
“Somehow people loved this idea of making a peace
pagoda,” Yasuda said. “Some Catholic nuns came, and [one] said, ‘Oh, your life is like St. Francis.’”
The nuns loved the pagoda idea and wanted to help her. People even came by bus to help. The generosity of people was
amazing, she said.
Though Yasuda is frequently away, the pagoda grounds are open all year round.
The Flower Festival
in honor of Buddha’s birthday will be held on May 17 this year. Hiroshima Day is observed in August and the peace pagoda’s
anniversary is celebrated along with Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday at the beginning of October. At other times, however,
people just show up unannounced.
“You meet incredible people here,” said Suzanne Dansereau, of Troy, N.Y.,
a friend of Yasuda’s who helps take care of the site when she is away for marches, fasts and visits to family in Japan.
“It is always so invigorating to be here. Even when I’m depressed and I come here, it is just so peaceful and
calm and natural,” Dansereau said. “And you can just relax and be.”
Grafton Peace Pagoda I
The New England Peace Pagoda