About 18 miles east of Troy, there is an easy-to-miss dirt road nestled in the woods. Up this road, in the middle of a clearing, is a rounded white structure with stairs leading up to a statue of Buddha. Just 30 minutes or so from downtown Albany, the usually serene spot seems almost from another world.
The Grafton Peace Pagoda, located in Petersburgh, was built as a symbol of nonviolence meant to help unite people and inspire them to search for world peace.
Saturday was the 20th anniversary celebration of the completion of the Peace Pagoda. Hundreds of people from all faiths flocked to the ceremony, which included multifaith prayers for peace, guest speakers, music and dance performances, and a potluck lunch.
Keynote speaker Dennis Banks, an activist for Native American civil rights from the Ojibwa Nation. Banks, spoke of his experiences both around the world and in Grafton with the Peace Pagoda. He addressed the struggles that Native Americans have faced throughout the history of America, and how white settlers came to their land preaching their ways and religion upon the Native Americans.
“Now we have the bible, and they have our lands,” he said, which caused the audience to erupt briefly in laughter.
A key organizer of the celebration, Jun-san Yasuda, a Tokyo native, was one of the main leaders in the construction of the Grafton Peace Pagoda. Yasuda is a Japanese Buddhist nun, though she considers herself simply spiritual and doesn’t like being “put in a box.” She has walked across the country on multiple occasions in efforts for world peace. She has also spent time on the steps of the New York State Capitol fasting in support of freedom for Native American activists who had been, many activist believed, unfairly arrested and imprisoned. Many of Yasuda’s days spent fasting on those steps were in support of Banks specifically.
It was during one of her fasts that Yasuda first met the late Hank Hazelton, the man who donated the parcel of land where the Grafton Peace Pagoda is located. The structure, which was only the second of its kind in the United States, was built entirely with volunteer labor and donated funds and materials. It was completed and dedicated in 1993. Yasuda has called the site home since construction first began.
Saturday’s ceremony began with a group of monks and nuns from the Nipponzan-Myōhōji Buddhist Order, including Yasuda, walking out and leading the congregation in the traditional Na-Mu-Myo-Ho-Ren-Ge-Kyo chant, a prayer for peace. Small in stature, with wire brimmed glasses and a shaved head, Yasuda has a humble way about her. When she, along with the other monks and nuns, walked out at the beginning of the ceremony, everyone stood, and Yasuda frantically motioned for them all to sit.
Yasuda was the last to speak on Saturday, and did so only for a few minutes. She spent most of the time thanking the crowd for coming out to the ceremony and asking that the young and able-bodied of the spectators help with the cleanup if they could.
“Many of us are very old,” she laughed, speaking of the monks and nuns. She then asked that those who were “feeling young” help move some benches back to the area where the potluck would be later. If anyone felt “especially young,” she asked that they help move some of the larger equipment.
Yasuda said she was extremely grateful for the large turnout of people from so many different places and walks of life. “[People] came from four directions, eight directions, 10 directions, many directions,” she said with a smile.
She had been unsure of how many people would end up coming to the event, but in a letter inviting friends of the Peace Pagoda to the festivities, she wrote: “Every day, friends come and go like the breeze, 20 years also marks the cycle of one generation. As a new generation comes of age, we want to transmit our message of peace to them and share the story of how the Peace Pagoda arose on this land.”
During one of the celebration’s dance performances, the 64-year-old Yasuda strutted in front of the stage to get the crowd going. Her face beamed, and she clapped her hands to the beat of the music. Within seconds, so did the audience. Yasuda’s positive outlook and energy were infectious.
“I have been many places,” said Banks, as he addressed the crowd. “I have met many good people and I have not met one bad man amongst them, nor do I sense that there is a bad man amongst this crowd. That is a good feeling.”