First-time visitors to the Grafton Peace Pagoda are often struck by the sense of serenity in that remote section of eastern Rensselaer County.
Those who have the time and are looking for a quiet place for prayer and introspection won’t be disappointed. And if they’re really lucky, they meet Jun-san Yasuda and experience another layer of earnest tranquility.
“I’m amazed at her peaceful, all-embracing demeanor,” said Jim Fulmer, a member of the Saratoga Peace Alliance. “I love the way Jun-san embraces everyone she comes into contact with.”
“She is very humble, yet she has this presence that is noble,” said Linda Patrik, a former Union College professor who visited the Peace Pagoda several times with her Asian Studies class. “The personal attention Jun-san gives everyone is so endearing. She is very welcoming.”
A native of Tokyo, Yasuda is a 64-year-old Buddhist nun, although she doesn’t like the idea of labels and prefers to be described as simply a spiritual person.
“Society wants to say I’m a Buddhist and that’s OK, but I don’t like being put in a box,” she said. “You can’t put spirituality into a box. Sometimes that just makes people fight. ‘I am Jewish, you are Muslim, oh we must fight.’ It does not make sense to me that our spirituality has to have a title.”
Grafton Peace Pagoda
WHAT: 20th anniversary celebration
WHERE: Grafton Peace Pagoda, 87 Crandall Road, Petersburgh
WHEN: 11 a.m. Saturday
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: 658-9301, www.graftonpeacepagoda.org
On Saturday, the Grafton Peace Pagoda will celebrate its 20th year since it was built in 1993, completing an eight-year project started by the landowner, Hank Hazelton. Yasuda has lived on the site since construction of the pagoda began.
“I didn’t choose this place,” said Yasuda, giving all the credit to Hazelton, who died in 2005. “Hank wanted to make a peace symbol of this place. He was very active with the Native Indian people and their struggle in history. He was very supportive in their struggle, and I am trying to do the same thing.”
Yasuda’s support seems to have no limits. She walks for peace, and her efforts encompass all faiths and religions.
“Since 9/11, the Muslim people are suffering, and the Albany imam has been imprisoned for a trivial reason,” said Yasuda, referring to Yassin Aref, who was arrested in an FBI undercover operation in 2006. “I believe he is very innocent, and I may have another walk for him next spring. ”
While Yasuda is synonymous with the pagoda, her peace walks also garner a lot of attention. If she is not in Grafton, she’s somewhere else in the country walking for peace or some other cause she sees as just.
“I will keep walking for peace, but I am also happy here, and to have people come here, and I make tea for them,” said Yasuda. “I am getting older, of course; I will be 65 this year, so I am slowing down and walking may become more difficult.”
Expeditions with friends
Fulmer has walked with Yasuda on many occasions and is looking forward to another expedition.
“There are people who may have an issue with the way we represent peace, but she treats everyone with respect and dignity, regardless if they have a different approach than we do,” said Fulmer. “She’s so peaceful, and yet she’s also very hard-working and has this wonderful stick-to-itiveness about her. I’ve walked with her and been at other celebrations, and it’s a wonderful thing.”
Patrik and her husband, David Kaczynski, have operated Karma Triyana Dharmachakra, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Woodstock, for more than a year now. Kaczynski is the brother of domestic terrorist Ted Kaczynski, often referred to as the Unabomber, and aided the FBI in the 1996 arrest of his brother. Formerly director of New Yorkers for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, he is now executive director at the Woodstock monastery and Patrik is director of operations.
“We have been admirers of her for many years now,” Patrik said of Yasuda. “David and Jun have walked together because of their joint commitment to end the death penalty, and we’ve both been impressed by her very peaceful way of social and political activism.”
While she doesn’t like to be pigeonholed, Yasuda is a member of a small Buddhist sect, the Nipponzan Myohoji order. That group — formed in the 1930s by Nichidatsu Fujii, a friend of Mahatma Gandhi — will open Saturday’s ceremony at 11 a.m. with multifaith prayers for peace. American Indian activist Dennis Banks will be the guest speaker.
“He is a good friend of ours, so he will come and share stories, and we will have a prayer session, Muslim, Christian, Jewish — all faiths,” Yasuda said of Banks, who co-founded the American Indian Movement in 1968 with other Native Americans in Minneapolis. “I have no idea how many people will come, but it always amazes me. We have an Internet world, and there is a lot of mouth-to-mouth word, so whoever wants to come and celebrate peace can.”
Temple, gardens, pond
Along with the pagoda, a large circular structure adorned with many illustrations carved into rock, the grounds also include a temple, gardens and a pond.
“We have been working cleaning up the place, getting ready,” said Yasuda. “Making peace is not just one person. Everybody is needed, and that is why I share. If I don’t share, I become greedy.”
Yasuda’s first big peace walk — she typically marches while beating a drum — was in 1978.
“Buddha, Jesus and others, their most highest teaching was about compassion, love and sharing,” she said. “That’s what they practiced at the highest level. They didn’t care who you were or what you did, and it doesn’t mean you have to become like Buddha or become a nun. What I’m doing is focusing on how best to help other people. That’s all I do.”