Prayer Walks on Ghost Roads: Re-Enchanting New England with the Monks of Nipponzan-Myōhōji  


Brother Kato of the New England Peace Pagoda, drumming in Taunton, Massachusetts

On a chill morning in November 2021 about a dozen people are circled up in a clearing atop a high hill in Massachusetts, the paper brown leaves of oaks and beeches crackling lightly in the wind. Nearby a white dome three-stories high rises from the earth, pale as a cloud, its base ringed with sculpted lotus leaves, its top sprouting a golden beehive and an ornate bronze mandala like an alien antenna pulling down signals from other worlds. Golden Buddhas crouch in niches sculpted into the stupa’s four faces and tattered prayer flags flutter in the wind above an adjacent reflecting pool.

I’ve recently relocated nearby with my partner and two children, having left California during peak pandemic and just before California’s peak wildfire season in the summer of 2021. We chose to come here to Massachusetts for many reasons: good schools, good soils, progressive neighbors, water, trees, and the fact that my English ancestors played a role in establishing the first colonial government here 400 years ago. After many years working as an environmental advocate, supporting Indigenous Peoples’ struggles for sovereignty, and building and joining international movements for climate justice, I felt it was time to go where the bones of my ancestors lay and to reckon with their legacy and my inheritance of settler colonial violence.

That quest led me very quickly here to the New England Peace Pagoda. Sister Clare, a woman in her 70’s, shaven-headed and dressed in white with a bright yellow kasaya, the simple robe worn by ordained Buddhist monks and nuns, welcomes us into the circle. She’s accompanied by Brother Towbee, Brother Kato and Tim, a non-resident Buddhist who manages affairs for their  order, Nipponzan Myohoji. Together we chant, Namu myo ho ren ge kyo, a chant to bring peace to all beings, before each sharing our reasons for joining the sixth annual Peace Walk: Listening to the Call of the Great Spirit – Facing 400 years of Colonization Walking Into the Future.

Over the next week leading up to the annual Thanksgiving holiday Sister Clare, Brother Towbee and Brother Kato, monks in their 70’s in 80’s, will walk the roads and byways of southern New England chanting, offering prayers and reflecting on the uneasy and often unspoken history of this land. Today they will walk from here to the nearby town of Turner’s Falls on the Connecticut River; tomorrow at Mystic Connecticut on the shores of Long Island Sound; then in Rhode Island at Mount Hope, near Providence; and then back to coastal Massachusetts, through the towns of Taunton, Plymouth and Duxbury; from Ipswich to Gloucester; and finally to Harvard Square and Boston Common a week from today.

Each of these places is a site of particularly violent episodes in the settlement of this land – places where the Wampanoags, Narragansetts, Pokanakets, Nipmucs, Pokumtuk and Massachusett peoples were brutalized, dispossessed, massacred and enslaved by the invading English. Most of these places are still steeped in colonial history: towns of white-washed saltbox homes and white-washed Protestant churches, colonial stone walls and rolling graveyards that memorialize four centuries of settlers and other immigrants while essentially erasing the much longer history of human habitation here.

Four-hundred years is an eye-blink in Buddhist time. The Buddha himself, it is told, lived 2500 years ago, an avatar of a timeless being born and reborn throughout the eternal cycles of life and death. But in the history of a nation, 400 years is time enough to change everything – time enough to rewrite past events, to degrade and despoil a continent, and to train the consciousness of generations to accept and even embrace the degradation.

In the invitation to this week’s walks the monks explain: “We are called to understand this seed planted here; to see the deeply harmful and destructive result of colonialism to Native People. Europeans held what they believed to be high aspirations for what they saw as a ‘New World.’ But the pan-European concept of entitlement made it nearly impossible for most to understand the great Nations and Peoples who had inhabited these precious lands for 12,000 years and more.”

Brother Kato, 82 years old, is lean and fit with an easy smile. In heavily-accented-English he tells us how he came to the U.S. from Japan in 1976 – “the bicentennial of this country” – to join a walk for disarmament 8000 miles from California to the Pentagon.

“On that walk I learned the history of genocide of native Americans. I had the perspective that the United States was making trouble for the whole world – so if we could make this country peaceful, we could bring peace to the whole world. But we cannot make peace until this country makes peace with its treatment of Native Americans.”

Brother Kato established the New England Peace Pagoda in 1985 at the behest of his teacher, the Venerable Nichidatsu Fujii, the modern founder of Nipponzan Myohoji. After the nuclear attacks on Japan that ended World War II and sparked off decades of Cold War, Fujii interpreted the words of the Buddhist Lotus Sutra as a commandment to construct Peace Pagodas around the world. Radiating out from these Peace Pagodas adherents would walk, chant and beat small hand drums, bringing peace in the wake of their steps. Nipponzan Myohoji has built pagodas in London, New Delhi, Vienna, Tokyo, Varanasi, and here in rural Massachusetts, just up the road from my house.

The New England Peace Pagoda

Peace walk, day one

Our small group begins the walk by circling the pagoda as Buddhists across Asia circumambulate sacred peaks to sanctify them. At each of the four directions we offer a prayer to golden statues depicting events in the life of the Buddha. Leaving the pagoda grounds, we walk single file down a steep hill and onto the winding roads of rural Massachusetts. As we walk, we chant. Those new to the chant, like me, do our best to follow along until the rhythm settles into our steps.

After about an hour we arrive at the town’s Congregational Church, a white-spired New England church that still looks as it must have when built by the town’s founders over 300 years ago. Jim Perkins, a member of the congregation with deep-set blue eyes and weathered sandy gray hair, welcomes us warmly with snacks and cider. When we settle into chairs set up outside the church – it’s 2021 and still deep pandemic – Perkins speaks of the church’s efforts to approach the question of reparations. Recently the congregation hosted a Lakota woman who suggested the parishioners make a land acknowledgement before each sermon – a verbal recognition that the land they sit on was never voluntarily ceded by the native peoples whose homeland this was, and is. Perkins and his committee labored for weeks over the phrasing, but when they shared it with their Lakota advisor, he says, she found it lacking.

“She told us to try again. We are realizing,” he says, “that we still think of ourselves as the great white fathers, here to help. Well, if there’s anyone that needs help, it’s us.”

Perkins has the ruddy, deeply-lined face of an old-time New England farmer. He tells me later that his family’s been here for as long as this church: about six generations. In one view, that’s a long time – from the early days of the industrial revolution in the eighteenth century to the post-industrial tipping points of the Anthropocene, today. Yet the men of Perkins’ patriarchal line back to the founders of the church are so few they could fit snugly in a single Chevy Suburban. That’s how close we are to the events of centuries ago.

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We walk again, arriving after another hour at the Mount Toby Quaker Center, a nondescript building set back from the main road to Amherst and the nearby colleges. Peter, the man who greets us, shares a brief the history of the Quakers, making special note of the Quaker boarding schools where the rule, for centuries, was, “kill the Indian, save the man.”

“As Quakers, we feel great regret and sorrow for our role in the cultural genocide of the native people of this land.” Across the region, he says, Quakers are reflecting on how to address this history, including giving land back. “We know this is Pokumtuk land,” Peter says, “because we still have the deed where the Pokumtuk were forced to sell it. We’re looking for appropriate native-led organizations who can steward the land we want to return.”

Has this been under consideration a long time? I ask. “No,” he says, “It’s a very new discussion, but we’re committed to making I happen. It’s been far too long.”

From the Quaker Center we’d planned to hike to the summit of nearby Mt. Sugarloaf, also called Metacom’s Seat after Metacom, aka King Phillip, the Wampanoag leader who prayed there during the violence that beset this valley in the 1670’s. The Pokumtuk Range, a ridgeline of steep traprock hills clustered to the east of the Connecticut River of which Metacom’s Seat is a picturesque outcropping, had been seen by the natives as the body of a giant beaver who wreaked havoc in the broad river. The old name for the place is Wequamps, meaning approximately, “an extremity or end of something,” possibly referring to the killing of the marauding beaver by the Pokumtuk hero Hobomok.

After a brief discussion the monks decide the winter darkness is falling too fast to safely climb the beaver’s back, so we change course and drive instead to the Connecticut River in the nearby town of Turner’s Falls. It was here, less than ten miles from the site of the Peace Pagoda, where troops under a British Baptist named Captain William Turner massacred hundreds of native people in 1676.

“Turner’s men rushed the sleeping camp,” writes historian Eric Shultz, “firing into the wigwams so quickly that the Indians had little time to respond. Some natives were shot and others were drowned while trying to escape across the river. As the warriors fled, the aged and young were indiscriminately massacred. The camp was set on fire and the food stores destroyed.”

Today the massacre site is marked by a concrete and steel truss bridge above a large dam that shunts the river into a power canal to generate electricity for much of the region. In the gathering dusk Sister Clare speaks. “At the time of the Turner’s Falls Massacre, peace was in the offing. The Natives had gathered here to recover from the war, to catch fish coming up river in the spring. Peskeompskut” – the original name of the place – “was a very sacred place where native nations had always come together in peace. And they were brutally massacred. The massacre marked a turning point in the war or whatever-you-call-it. By August of 1676, Metacom had been killed, and his head had been set on a pike in Plymouth where it stayed for twenty years.”

On a hill across the river is a village site where remains have been found dating back 12,000 years. When plans were laid to bulldoze the site for a Walmart a decade ago, a group of Wampanoag and Narragansett people organized to stop it, eventually winning the first protection of a sacred site east of the Mississippi. Some in the town want to remove Turner’s name and rename the town “Great Falls,” but the idea has yet to gain traction. To further complicate matters, others, like local organizer David Brule, a descendant of the Nehantic people down river asks, “Why Great Falls? Why not give it back its real name – Peskeompskut?”

Peskeompskut, above the Connecticut River Dam in Turner’s Falls. where Captain William Turner and his troops massacred hundreds of native people one night in 1676.

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What happens when you walk a place with the intention to bear witness to events that occurred centuries ago, to learn the old names, to try to hear the old stories? How many places do you walk when you walk such routes, where the names have changed over time and the meanings of each place are contested? Mount Sugarloaf is Metacom’s Seat is Wequamps, the head of the vanquished beaver; the name you give it determines how you approach, what you take away, and what you leave behind.

In The Old Ways, his book on walking some of the world’s oldest known foot paths, the British writer Robert MacFarlane deeply explores what he calls ghostly roads – paths walked over the course of millennia, evident only to those who know how to look, “where once-silenced voices might be heard.” In what we today call New England, the land is marked, if you choose to look, by a long absence – the absence of the people who might still dwell here had they not been nearly exterminated by disease and brutal violence over the course of centuries.

As dusk falls over Peskeompskut it strikes me that every road here is a kind of ghostly road. In the animist worldview of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, as in the cosmology of native peoples, the land itself is bountifully alive. In a living world where the very land records what it witnesses, events have neither beginning nor end: the stories of a place arise from the ground and sink back into the ground, or hover above it, walking the ghostly roads. What the monks of Nipponzan Miyohoji are doing is seeing the ghosts, remembering them, offering them a prayer of grief and redemption.

In The Nutmeg’s Curse author Amitav Ghosh explores the Dutch genocide of natives in modern day Indonesia in the 1630’s, concurrent to the English destruction of the Pequot people in what is now Connecticut. In both cases – indeed in all cases of colonialism, from William Bradford in Plymouth to Cortés in Tenochtitlan, Pizarro in the Inca kingdoms, Juan de Oñate in New Spain – both the land and its people must be dehumanized and disenchanted in order to be vanquished.

“It was the rendering of humans into mute resources that enabled the metaphysical leap whereby the Earth and everything in it could also be reduced to inertness,” Ghosh writes. Only once the world was experienced as dead could it be treated as such.

Many Buddhist traditions have a practice of pradakshina, where the practitioner walks around a devotional object while meditating, praying or reciting mantras. The practice demonstrates reverence for the object or place; but more than that, it is an act sanctifying, or re-investing a place with holiness. Chant is the root of enchantment. To chant to the land, to these places that have been so brutally disenchanted is, perhaps, to re-consecrate the landscape that has been stripped of its vitality through the brutal acts of colonialist history. The monks of Nipponzan Miyohoji are re-enchanting the lands of Southern New England and, in that sense, also re-animating the Earth.

Peace walk, day two

In the peri-urban town of Taunton towards the coast of Massachusetts I park at the Colonial History Museum and walk to a house across from the old stone Unitarian Church. I find the monks seated on high stools in white and yellow robes, drinking coffee. Brother Kato, in a yellow winter hat to match his robe, greets me with a warm hand clasp, the smile of a bodhisattva in his eyes. The monks’ hostess is an energetic elderly woman named Betsy, red-cheeked and smiling, who reminds me of my own New England Protestant grandmother. But unlike any experience my Anglo-Saxon Protestant grandmother ever had, this rosy cheeked septuagenarian worked side-by-side with these radical monks for years to shut down the nearby Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station.

Leaving the house in a single file of three monks and eight supporters we walk through a small park to the Taunton River, a little stream a few yards across where we gather to direct prayers to the water. One young woman, a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School, tells of her ancestors, among the first English families to settle Taunton, who fled across this river pursued by armed Wampanoags in 1675. She prays in silence to the river as the monks look on, actively witnessing her prayer.

Taunton and the river that flows through it sit squarely in the territory of the seventeenth century Wampanoags; the village here was Cohannit and the river was called the Kteticut. According to legend Metacom held council under a tremendous oak that stood here until the 1980’s. In 1671, authorities from Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies demanded to meet the Wampanoag sachem near that oak. When Metacom appeared, walking into what he had every reason to assume was an ambush, the English demanded he turn over any weapons and renounce his plans for making war. After that, it was only a matter of time before the colonists, and in turn the natives, unleashed open war on one another.

From the banks of the Taunton or Kteticut River we walk through parking lots behind brick shops and out an alleyway into Taunton’s commercial district, quiet at midmorning. With each footfall, chanting Namu myo ho ren ge kyo, I picture myself stepping through ghosts like through the smoke of blown-out candles, the flame vanished but the essence lingering on. Lamp posts lining the near-empty downtown streets are hung with patriotic banners celebrating Taunton Hometown Heroes – veterans of Desert Storm, Afghanistan and older wars, with each soldier’s name and dates of service. The red-white-and-blue banners are stark reminders of the bloodshed required to feed a nation – centuries of bloodshed, constituting a near-permanent state of war – as the yellow-robed monks stride beneath chanting and beating their small hand drums for peace.

At a monument in the town square Sister Clare reads a passage from Our Beloved Kin, A New History of King Phillip’s War, a recent work of critical geography by Lisa Brooks, a professor at UMass Amherst. The book revolves around Weetamoo, Metacom’s sister-in-law, best known to history as the captor of Mary Rowlandson, the Englishwoman whose Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mary Rowlandson made the London best-seller list in 1682. While that early book portrays Weetamoo only as the cruel wife of an Indian sachem, Brooks uncovers the Wampanoags’ matriarchal ways and recasts Weetamoo as a strong leader whose role in diplomatic affairs was central to the events of the time but imperceptible to the English patriarchs.

“As she walked the familiar path from Pocasset with her counselers,” Brooks writes, “Weetamoo would have followed the Kteticut north, passing through the ancient planting grounds at Assonet, grown high with grasses and edible plants. New plants intermingled among native ones – dandelion, red clover, Englishman’s foot, first brought to these lands in cattle dung. From Cohannet the trail led east, a road long traveled by diplomats. A canopy of nut trees provided shade from the sun’s rays. At Nemasket, Weetamoo, Wamsutta, and their company could stop to refresh and exchange news with their kin. From there, the Nemasket trail led them to the coast and the old town of Patuxet, where the English settlement of Plymouth had arisen from ground depleted by disease.”

King Phillip’s War nominally ended with the killings of Weetamoo and Metacom in the summer of 1676. Increase Mather, the Puritan minister who assiduously documented events to cement the Puritan narrative, declared that Weetamoo had been found drowned in the Taunton River. As in many Puritan accounts, the story lacks details about her death or the cruelties she may have suffered. However she may have died, what is known is that Weetamoo’s head was taken by her killers and “set upon a pole in Taunton,” just as her brother’s was shortly after, in Plymouth.

After Sister Clare’s reading and with many miles of ghostly roads still to cover, the monks usher us back to our cars to follow Weetamoo’s old Kteticut trail, to our next destination, Plymouth.

Chanting for peace beneath Taunton’s war veterans

***

The modern founder of Nipponzan Myohoji, Nichidatsu Fujii, practiced a form of engaged Buddhism that brought to bear the wisdom of the Sutras and the power of what we might now call mindfulness to campaign against nuclear power in the 1940’s and ‘50’s, and later, in the 1970s, against the ongoing repression of Native Americans.

In a dharma talk at the concluding rally of the Longest Walk, the historic cross-continental walk for indigenous rights that came to Washington D.C. in 1978, Fujii said “Some 20 million people have been sacrificed by slaughter and starvation…. In an abuse of state power, the United States of America continues to legislate unjust laws aiming to annihilate the surviving Indian population.”

Fujii had entreated the monks of Nipponzan Myohoji to join the Longest Walk. Brother Kato was among them, as was a young Japanese Buddhist nun named Jun Yasuda. “One of our monks had gone to see Dennis Banks of the American Indian Movement (AIM),” Kato old me. “Many young monks came to join that walk, and we were appreciated by AIM. They especially appreciated the drum – we use it differently from native people – we never put it away, we just always drum as we walk.”

Following the Longest Walk, Jun went on to organize many walks in support of AIM and many fasts on the steps of the New York State Capitol in Albany in support of Dennis Banks. In 1983, during one of her fasts, Jun-san as she is known was offered a parcel of land in Grafton, New York, for the purpose of building a “Monument for Peace.” During the same period, Brother Kato was tasked with establishing a Peace Pagoda in New England. “I started walking around Boston looking for land. The Boston Indian Council was organizing intertribal events, and I stopped by quite often and made some friends. A lot of Wampanoags were there.”

Brother Kato began taking part in the National Day of Mourning organized in Plymouth every Thanksgiving by the United Indians of New England. From there, he was invited to visit the Six Nations Reserve between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario in Canada, and from there to the Mohawk homeland of Akwesasne, where he had a pivotal experience.

“In 1979 I heard there was some problem going on in Akwesasne – a clash between the traditional chiefs and the tribal government, involving state troops. They had created an encampment, and I went up with other monks.”

“Rockefeller was Governor of New York and was very aggressive. They had set up surveillance cameras, and when people started taking them down, the tribal police started arresting people. We put up tents and had a morning prayer. Before the sunrise tobacco offering, we did our chanting, every day, very early, before dawn. After our prayers we would go eat. One day from the morning meal they invited us up to a little house and when we went in we saw they had lots of guns. Hmm, we thought, what is this, Vietnam?”

“The next morning we saw people running in the dark, with guns. We heard that police troops were surrounding the encampment. We put on our clothes and our drum bags and we left our tents. Someone told us to go with the women and children and hide in a basement. I said, ‘we didn’t come here to hide.’”

In his deep, slow voice, Brother Kato is methodical in the telling. His slight shoulders perk up. “We walked to the gate of the encampment and saw they had set up sandbags. The encampment was maybe 500 yards from the main road, and you could see troops lining up there. We gathered some sheets and a Buddha, and set up an altar between the encampment and the troops. We started chanting and chanting. Other people showed up. Gradually the troops started dispersing, and by noon they were gone.”

I ask Brother Kato if this was his first experience of engaging in non-violence as a form of active resistance.

“We didn’t feel resistance,” he says. “We only felt being.”

***

We circle up again in the parking lot of Plymouth Plantation, a historical recreation of the colonial settlement that New England school children visit to learn their history. For us its merely a place to have a bathroom break and a quick glimpse through the visitor’s center to the cluster of cottages built of hand-milled planks, before we take up the chant of Namu myo ho ren ge kyo and climb a small rise to come out in view of Plymouth harbor, and the sea.

We are squarely in the Boston suburbs now and cars honk supportively as they fly past. At one point a woman in her sixties waves eagerly from a house and runs across the road to greet us. Her long gray braids and round gold wire-framed glasses give her something of a pilgrim look. She launches into an eager series of questions, who are we, what are we doing, will we be in Plymouth for Thanksgiving next week?

The monks bow with hands pressed together, polite but reserved. We must come back for Thanksgiving, she tells us, breathlessly, we’re more than welcome to stop into the Yellow Deli, a restaurant run by her family that may be the only place in town to eat that day.

“We really share your values of world peace,” the woman says emphatically, adding, “We’re doing everything we can to bring back the values that the original pilgrims stood for.”

Later I look up the Yellow Deli and find that it’s run by a Christian cult and dogged by rumors of human trafficking. So much for the values of the original pilgrims.

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Plymouth is a solidly middle-class enclave built on the tourist revenue that streams from its colonial history. The downtown is clean, trimmed, very white, with old stone churches and plaques at every corner declaring the importance of past events. But if Plymouth is an open-air museum to settler colonial history, this history is publicly contested, with clashing versions of the story posted everywhere you look. When we arrive at Post Office Square, the heart of downtown Plymouth, I’m surprised by a plaque below the old church commemorating the darker side of events:

“After the Pilgrims’ arrival, Native Americans in New England grew increasingly frustrated with the English settlers’ abuse and treachery. Metacomet (King Philip), a son of the Wampanoag sachem known as the Massasoit (Ousameqin), called upon all Native people to unite to defend their homelands against encroachment. The resulting ‘King Philip’s War’ lasted from 1675-1676. Metacomet was murdered in Rhode Island in August 1676, and his body was mutilated. His head was impaled on a pike and was displayed near this site for more than 20 years. One hand was sent to Boston, the other to England. Metacomet’s wife and son, along with the families of many of the Native American combatants, were sold into slavery in the West Indies by the English victors.”

In the heart of Plymouth, an act of truth-telling

Here we stand in silence for a few minutes, no words needing be said. The monks chant and drum, namu myo ho ren ge kyo. We move on toward the waterfront where a statue of Massasoit, erected in 1921 for the 300th anniversary of the Mayflower landing, overlooks the tranquil harbor. The message here takes a different tone to the Metacom plaque, in far fewer words: “Massasoit, Great Sachem of the Wampanoags, Protector and Preserver of the Pilgrims.”

Just below the hilltop where Massasoit spreads his arms in apparent welcome to the Pilgrims is Plymouth Rock. Any visitor to Plymouth anticipating a stirring sight of the epic stone is bound for disappointment. The storied Rock, loaded with all the symbolic weight of the nation’s myth of origin, is the size of a large Labrador Retriever napping in a cage in shallow water and sheltered under a white colonial monument with the fluted Corinthian columns of a Roman temple. The effect is like a miniature version of the Lincoln Memorial displaced from the National Mall and planted in the sand over a nondescript boulder facing a row of kitschy t-shirt shops.

We break for lunch on a park bench near the memorial. The day is warm, the harbor placid. A replica of the Mayflower docked offshore prompts one of our group to cite an astonishing figure: today there are about 5000 people of Wampanoag descent, most still living nearby, in and around the small reserves of land at Mashpee on Cape Cod and Gay Head on Martha’s Vineyard. In contrast, descendants of the 50 people who survived the Mayflower crossing are scattered throughout the U.S., numbering some 35 million – almost ten percent of the country’s entire population.

***

Brother Kato’s bold direct action at Akwesasne in 1979 and the organizing efforts of Jun-san and the Grafton Peace Pagoda brought Nipponzan Myohoji into a relationship of deep trust with the American Indian Movement and the native leaders of the Northeast.

“After that, we came to know some great Chiefs,” Brother Kato tells me. “Oren Lyons, Tom Porter, Tadadaho Leon Shenandoah, and Slow Turtle, Supreme Medicine Man of the Wampanoag.”

“Slow Turtle was the Director of the Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs. He would go into prisons and hold sweat lodges. He was very aware of the way that this culture separates people from their families and puts them in prisons and institutions. He had tremendous spiritual strength.”

In 1982 Fujii invited Slow Turtle, as well as Dennis Banks of AIM, to attend the inauguration of Peace Pagodas in Vienna and London. Brother Kato recalls, “At the time Dennis was not allowed to leave California – they were trying to charge him with something like they did to Leonard Peltier for Wounded Knee. So instead they invited Mark Banks, his brother,” – an actor who’d played roles in popular ‘70s sitcoms like Barney Miller and The Bob Newhart Show.

While in London, Slow Turtle invited Fujii and his disciples to build pagodas for peace on Turtle Island. “The way Slow Turtle said it to us was something like this,” Sister Clare tells me. “‘All that Native American people had ever known from this government is violence. And the country carries this violence on to the rest of the world. So native people have a spiritual duty, when they see something that is good medicine to change the spirit of this country, to support that medicine. So this pagoda, and really all the pagodas across Turtle Island, were born from an invitation by Slow Turtle.”

Brother Kato was entrusted with the task, and in 1985, the same year the Venerable Nichidatso Fujii died at the age of 99, the New England Peace Pagoda was completed.

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From Plymouth we drive to Duxbury, a coastal town to the north, and we park alongside a 400-year old cemetery smaller than a baseball diamond tucked among suburban homes. Old gravestones, fabricated by hand with no standard shape or size, poke up like oversized toadstools in random patches across the ground. Close to the center of the graveyard is a rectangular stone plinth about twelve feet from edge to edge with a black chain cordoning it off. At the four corners, on low stone pillars, rest four large cast iron naval cannons. The cannons give a visual impression of early American shock and awe that strikes me as both offensive and comically overwrought. Beneath this heavily fortified monument, Myles Standish is buried with his two daughters.

The history I learned in school made Standish a hero. In our whitewashed Thanksgiving myth he is the Puritan with a polished helmet and a musket on his shoulder. But if you read even a little on the topic, say, Nathaniel Philbrick’s bestselling book Mayflower, you find a rash, hot-tempered military man. Standish was not a Puritan himself, but a mercenary hired to protect the Plymouth Company, the investment enterprise that underwrote the Pilgrims’ mercantile venture. With flaming red hair and so small in stature that he was called “Captain Shrimp” by other Englishmen and “the little pot that boils over quickly” by the natives, Standish would appear as buffoonish were it not for his brutality. As head of the Plymouth militia he would often invite the Indians to parlay in truce and then kill them, as if for sport.

Brother Towbee, the youngest of the monks, perhaps in his late sixties, is a descendant of Standish. Along with his fellow monks, Brother Towbee was active in the recent successful campaign to change the Massachusetts state flag. The flag, shockingly, shows a Native American man in a tunic and beads, two feathers in his hair, a bow in one hand and a single arrow, pointed downward, in the other. Above the Indian floats a disembodied arm bearing a curved broadsword, its blade raised under a Latin inscription that translates as “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty.”

Brother Towbee told me the arm holding the broadsword belonged to his ancestor. At a Senate hearing about the flag, he stood up in his yellow monk’s robes and said, “Myles Standish was a terrorist. I am a descendant of this terrorist, and I want to see this flag changed.”

I’d like to engage Brother Towbee in conversation at Standish’s gravesite, but he’s chanting and drumming so I stand at a distance and shoot photos. In one photo a cannon appears to be trained on him, which seems morbid but fitting, as if the fortifications are defending the militant Puritan from the threat of a bunch of monks chanting namu myo ho ren ge kyo.

Nipponzan Myohoji at Myles Standish’s grave.

After the prayer Brother Towbee wanders off around the graveyard and I ask Sister Clare a question: what is it you’re doing when you chant over a grave like this?

“Buddha nature is in all of us,” she says. “But in some it doesn’t reveal itself much during their lifetime. Those are ones we have to help to recover their Buddha nature. The Buddha had a cousin, Devadatta, who was jealous and angry. He tried to undermine the Buddha, to turn the Buddha’s followers against him, even to kill the Buddha. When the Buddha’s followers wanted to retaliate, the Buddha said, ‘In times gone by, was my cousin Devadatta not my teacher? In times to come, will he not be my teacher again?’”

“Our task,” she says again, “is to help these dead to recover their Buddha nature.”

                                                                        ***

The Lotus Sutra is among the oldest teachings in the Buddhist canon, a set of parables told by Shakyamuni Buddha on a mountain peak in India 2500 years ago. For Nipponzan Myohoji, as for numerous other Buddhist sects, the Lotus Sutra is so powerful that one need merely chant the sutra’s name – Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo, in Japanese – to invoke the transcendent power of its teachings.

A contemporary translator of the Lotus Sutra, Gene Reeves, identifies the tale of Devadatta as illustrative of a core tenet. “Basic to the teachings of this sutra is a kind of promise that every living being has the ability to become a Buddha – regardless of their moral qualities. Buddhists are also asked to try to look forward, seeking a way ahead, a better world, a world of peace. Buddhists have an enormous healing ministry to perform as part of a movement toward world peace.”

About fifty dharma talks given by the modern founder of Nipponzan Myohoji, the Most Venerable Nichidatsu Fujii, are compiled in a book, I Bow to the Buddha in You, of which Brother Kato had given me a copy. Strikingly, the talks are not oriented towards imparting comfort or a meditative sense of “inner peace,” as anyone with a passing knowledge of American Buddhism might expect. Rather, they are deeply political calls to action in the name of social justice.

In his 1933 Letter to Gandhiji, Fujii expounds to the great Indian anti-imperial leader that, like Ghandiji and his followers among the dalits, the early practitioners of Nipponzan Miyohji “had to endure persecution, incarceration and death.” Fujii allies his emergent sect of Buddhism with Gandhi’s mass civil disobedience movement, and sets his sights, like Ghandi, on the total transformation of the oppressive modern state.

In a 1956 address, Nuclear Technology and the Future of Humanity, Fujii refers to society’s devotion to science in the absence of moral principles, “the dark side of the modern world,” and warns, “Should the civilization of science continue to lead, the obvious path is one of self-destruction for the human race.” Drawing on the Lotus Sutra, he calls forth a vision of a “conflagration whose flames from eternal hell reach to the face of the earth, reducing everything to ash.”

Carrying the mantle of his teacher with unswerving devotion, Brother Kato, seems with every step to be walking towards a just peace. “If you plant a seed of a thorn bush,” he tells me, “you’ll get a thorn bush. If you plant a seed of a strawberry, you’ll get a strawberry. To acknowledge what has been done to the native people, we have to really plant very different seeds.”

Listening to the Call of the Great Spirit

Peace walk, day four

The next day’s walk was planned for Massachusetts’ North Shore, from Ipswich to Gloucester, and I was eager to join. Having recently moved to Massachusetts to reckon with my own karmic legacy, I’d asked the monks if we might visit a site where my known ancestor, an early settler named Roger Conant, had played a historical role. On the rocks overlooking a bay in Gloucester, an imposing plaque was dedicated to Conant, who had mediated a fight between Plymouth Colony and another Puritan faction four centuries ago. Here in 1625,” the plaque reads, “Gov. Roger Conant, by wise diplomacy, averted bloodshed between contending factions, one led by Myles Standish of Plymouth, the other by Capt Hewes, a notable exemplification of arbitration in the beginnings of New England.”

The monks congenially agreed they’d visit the Conant plaque in Gloucester. But the morning of the walk on the North Shore I woke at home with a sore throat. With the coronavirus pandemic entering its second year, I reluctantly decided to stay home. Years of studying colonialism, slavery, the genocide of native peoples and what I perceive as my country’s wars of aggression, and years of working in solidarity with anti-imperialist social movements, have bred in me a deep cynicism about American Exceptionalism and nationalist myths like Manifest Destiny, and I had recently come to see my ancestral legacy as a platform to publicly examine such myths. I was excited for the chance to join Nipponzan Miyohoji at a place that had both historical and personal significance.

Consequently, the lost opportunity found me abandoned by my better Buddha nature and spending the morning in bed in a state of profound grumpiness. So I was surprised around midday by a call from the monks. They were sitting atop the rocks overlooking Gloucester Bay, at the site where my ancestor had encountered Myles Standish and the Plymouth colonists. The monks had just finished chanting there, and they asked me to share a few words over the phone. I was astonished. I gathered my thoughts, informed by sitting at the feet of many teachers over the years, and I said something like this:

“You are sitting in a place where history records a conflict between factions of settler colonists over the rights to something they had no right to in the first place, and where native people had inhabited for all time before. My own ancestor was there and his actions were recorded as an act of peacemaking. But, until we face the brutal events that occurred in places like this at that time and in the times since, and until we learn to be claimed by the more-than-human world, and to metabolize the suffering of the ancestors – all the ancestors – we will not heal the violence of yesterday or today or tomorrow.”

After a period of silence over the phone, I heard the monks lightly pound their drums and chant, na mu myo ho ren ge kyo. Before hanging up, Sister Clare said, simply, “There can be no healing without facing the need for healing.”

***

Peace walk, day five

On the final day the monks walked from Harvard Square to Boston Common. I met them part-way at Boston’s Old South Church and from there we walked through crowds at Copley Square, Boston’s toniest shopping district, into the manicured Public Gardens and across a boulevard onto the shabby, rolling lawn of Boston Common. There we formed a circle and the monks led a chant. Among the group were several members of the clergy from different faiths, two Nahua woman from Mexico, and several Wampanoag youth accompanying the grandson of Slow Turtle, the Wampanoag leader who had asked the monks to build peace pagodas forty years ago.

The wide, flat expanse of what is now greater Boston was once home to the Massachusett people. None identified with the Massachusett were present with us, but on their website, they write:

In a time before now, before the arrival of European Traders or the English Settlers to the coasts of Massachusetts, the Confederation of Indigenous Massachusett lived and thrived in what is now called the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. For years beyond counting, Indigenous Massachusett Villages spanned from Salem to Plymouth along the coast, and inland as far west as Worcester. The Massachusett People led by their Sac’hems, hunted, fished, worked their quarries, created their tools and sculpted their weapons. They planted vast fields of grain, corn, squash and beans, harvested, prepared and stored their harvests. In their villages they celebrated, practiced their religion, built their homes, raised their families and enjoyed prosperity.

Beset upon by the colonists, much of the tribe was forcibly converted to Protestantism by the 1660’s, and their settlements turned into “Praying Indian Towns” where they were permitted to live as long as they practiced the Christian faith. But even this didn’t last. In late 1675, when the settlers around Boston began to fear that the Christian Indians would turn on them, residents of the praying towns were rounded up en masse and shipped to Deer Island in Boston Harbor. That winter at least 500 died of starvation and exposure. When spring came, colonial authorities retrieved the survivors and shipped them to the West Indies to be sold as slaves to cover the costs of the war. During that cruel winter, as Christian Indians were starved to death out in the harbor, dozens or hundreds of others captured during the many battles of King Philip’s War were brought to Boston Common and publicly hanged.

As a chill wind blew down the common from Massachusetts Bay a few miles east, Reverend Nancy Taylor, the Senior Minister of the Old South Church spoke:

The English and Europeans who arrived here in the 1600’s encountered 3000 miles of culture, from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. Three thousand miles of peoples and tribes with unique and marvelous histories, languages, economies, cuisine, art, music, dance, sports, politics, spirituality and social organization. Three thousand miles of cultures in symbiotic relationship with the land and its flora and fauna. The English and Europeans who arrived here in the 1600’s not only dismissed these cultures, but mounted an assault on native land, culture and sovereignty.

I am here to acknowledge, to confess and to apologize for over 400 years of suffering by this land’s native peoples at the hands of English and Europeans – my ancestors – who brought with them violence, greed, cruelty, deceit and disrespect; who brought with them an attitude of entitlement and superiority; who were aggressively acquisitive and ruinously destructive.

I acknowledge that for more than 400 years that violence, greed, cruelty, deceit and disrespect has led to the near extinction of native peoples and cultures and to the inordinate privilege experienced by whites, privilege that is passed on generation to generation, just as the suffering has passed on from generation to generation.

I am here to acknowledge and to confess that some of the Puritan ancestors of the church I serve – who claimed to be agents of God – were in fact agents of ruin and violence, agents of evil, doing irreparable harm to Native peoples and Native cultures.

I am here to acknowledge and name these years of suffering by some and these years of privilege enjoyed by others, and to apologize to God, to the land, and to the First Nations’ peoples for this egregious past which has bled into and become an egregious present.

Few people strolling across the green of Boston Common today would reflect on it as a site of historic atrocity, but it is that, and has never been cleansed. Reverend Taylor ended her talk by acknowledging that her words were vastly insufficient; while that is undoubtedly true, there was to me an undeniable power in hearing one of the oldest Churches in the nation speak truth about the genocide as a cold wind blew down the Common’s shabby ghost-ridden lawn.

To take a cue from the national Grassroots Reparations Campaign, on the pathway of truth and reconciliation, you have to voice the truth before you can get to reparations. Only then – and only after some kind of real reparations have been made, materially, culturally, spiritually – can you begin to have reconciliation. The first step doesn’t get you to the end of the journey, but until you take that step, there is no movement, no journey and no hope of metabolizing the traumas of history. By walking the ghostly roads of colonial New England and inviting others to walk with them, the monks of the New England Peace Pagoda are, step by small step, re-enchanting the land and, step by small step, opening a path for truth against the silence of history, so that one day there may perhaps be reconciliation, healing, and peace.

Namu myo ho ren ge kyo.

At Boston Common

Published by Jeff Conant

Writer, social and ecological justice advocate, world traveler, family-man, gardener, bee-keeper, baker & tender of life in all her fine forms. Here on The Watering Hole you will find my books, both published, unpublished and in progress, my photographs and artwork, and my short (and long) essays and ruminations here in the late stages of the anthropocene as humanity struggles to turn away from millenia of destruction toward a future of co-existence with all creation…or not.

4 thoughts on “Prayer Walks on Ghost Roads: Re-Enchanting New England with the Monks of Nipponzan-Myōhōji  

  1. Wow…
    I just read this…
    And am so grateful to hear your clear words speaking the truth is ways I never heard. I got the “we are the greatest” press release from the time I was a child, even when I was I child in Tokyo 7 years after the United States atrociously bombed the innocent people of Japan.

    I leave for Japan in 2 days, to live and work in Kyoto on a series of performances to bring awareness to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    I will be on “Prayer walks on ghost roads” with you.

    Eric

    Like

  2. Thank you for writing this, Jeff. By coincidence I read it while busy discovering items for a virtual Peace Museum, based on East Budleigh’s Salem Chapel. So, even though your feelings about Roger Conant are mixed, he has led me on beyond New England into a most meaningful project. Michael

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    1. Michael, thats wonderful. And, while I am looking into Conant with a strongly critical lens, its really not intended to be critical of the man in any personal way, but to examine the unspoken assumptions of what a man of that time contributed to history, and especially the history of the United States. I do find that Conant was generally a good and even great man, relative to his peers — and I continue to be very thankful for the work you’re doing to put him on the map…

      Like

  3. Beautiful writing filled with powerful insights.
    “To chant to the land, to these places that have been so brutally disenchanted is, perhaps, to re-consecrate the landscape that has been stripped of its vitality through the brutal acts of colonialist history.”

    Like

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