A Brief History of the Milarepa Center
Milarepa Center is a Buddhist retreat center located on 276 acres of wooded mountainside and rolling fields, overlooking the Connecticut River valley in Barnet, Vermont. Named for an 11th century Tibetan yogi famed for attaining enlightenment in a single lifetime, the center was founded in 1981 by students of Lama Thubten Yeshe and of Lama Zopa Rinpoche. Peter Baker was the original benefactor and first director of the center. Ven. Thubten Pelgye (John Douthitt) was the first resident Sangha person. [Read his stories of the early days, 1981-1983]
In the early 1980’s, life at Milarepa Center was very primitive by Western standards. The first residents were faced with the task of making livable an abandoned farmhouse and two ancient barns. There was no electricity or running water, the roofs leaked badly, and the only access from the road was by foot. Wood-burning stoves were used for cooking and to provide heat. There was a three-hole outhouse and water was hand carried from the spring. Retreaters and visitors slept on hay in the barn loft above the gompa. Goats and chickens roamed the dooryard. Teachings and retreats were held despite the austere conditions. Beginning with Lama Zopa Rinpoche, who blessed Milarepa Center with its first teaching in 1981, a steady stream of lamas, Tibetan and Western, have continued to bestow teachings to the present day.
In addition to Lama Zopa Rinpoche, who taught and gave initiations in 1986 and 1988, Geshe Lobsang Tharchin, Song Rinpoche, Serkhong Rinpoche, Geshe Ngawang Dhargye, Achaan Mahaghossananda, Katagiri Roshi, Geshe Khenrab Gajam, Zasep Rinpoche, Glenn Mullin, Thubten Kalsang Rinpoche, Alan Wallace, Gelek Rinpoche, Geshe Tengye, Ven. Thubten Pende, and Geshe Lobsang Jampa all taught and led retreats while Peter Baker was director. Lama Osel Rinpoche, the reincarnation of Lama Thubten Yeshe, the founder of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT), visited during the 1986 retreat led by Lama Zopa Rinpoche.
In the early years, the three-month long Heruka-Vajrasattva retreat was an annual event, taking place throughout the months of January, February, and March. Since 1987, the weeklong Milarepa retreat between Christmas and New Year has been held annually. Numerous other group retreats were held, including White Tara (led by Geshe Tengye), Lama Tsong Khapa (Geshe Gyaltsen), and Yamantaka and Vajrayogini (both led by Geshe Khenrab). A Cittamani Tara retreat was co-led by Geshe Khenrab and Geshe Jampa. In addition, many people did individual retreats, either in the farmhouse, in tents, or in the retreat cabin built by Peter.
In 1988, Geshe Lobsang Jampa became Milarepa Center’s first resident teacher. He led several Nyung Né retreats and taught at the center nearly every weekend on most of the topics of the Lam Rim.
In the fall of 1989, Lama Zopa Rinpoche asked Martha Tack to become the director of Milarepa Center. The traditional Heruka-Vajrasattva and Milarepa Retreats continued. Many of the same teachers continued to teach and lead retreats; Geshe Khenrab led Yamantaka, Vajrayogini, and White Tara retreats and Ven. Thubten Lodro (Hermes Brandt) led a one-week Kalachakra retreat. And many new teachers came, such as Amchok Rinpoche, Ven. Thubten Chodron, Lati Rinpoche, Antonio Costa y Silva (a Brazilian healer, now Segyu Rinpoche), Ven. Thubten Wangmo, Ven. George Churinoff, and Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche.
Under Martha’s direction the house was painted (inside and out), the small barn was made livable, unfinished projects such as the dining room and dormitory were completed, and the construction of a stupa was begun when the monks of Ganden Jangtse Monastery performed the rituals to purify and bless the site. The old barn, where the first teachings at Milarepa Center were held, had become dangerous and was finally torn down. [More from Martha Tack here]
The tradition of individual retreats continued as well. Ven. Sarah Thresher spent the summer of 1991 in retreat. (She led several Nyung Né retreats as well.) And Martha invited Paula Chichester and Roger Munro to undertake the traditional Three-Year Retreat at Milarepa Center, which they completed in the spring of 1996.
While Martha Tack was director, there were monthly ‘Open Houses,’ during which interested local people could visit Milarepa and learn a little about Buddhism. Medicine Buddha, Guru, and Tara Pujas were performed on the proper days for local members and visitors. In addition, Martha held meditation and Lam Rim classes in the winter.
In 1992, Milarepa Center joined with two sister centers, Kurukulla Center in Boston and Kadampa Center in North Carolina, to invite a resident teacher who would be shared among the centers for three years. And, in the spring of 1993, Geshe Tsultrim Choepel arrived at Milarepa Center with his translator, David Molk. Geshe Tsulga, as his students know him, spent three summers at Milarepa Center teaching (Lam Rim Chenmo), giving initiations, and leading retreats (Green Tara, Chenresig, Vajrapani, and Vajrayogini).
In the fall of 1994, Peter Baker returned, at Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s request, as director. During his second tenure, Geshe Tsulga remained in residence through 1995, then moved to Kurukulla Center in Boston. He continued to return periodically to teach and to lead weekend retreats in the practices of Green Tara, Chenresig, and Medicine Buddha. Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche returned as well to give Guhyasamaja, Lama Tsong Khapa, and Yellow Dzambhala initiations. Dr. Marsha Wolff taught a weekend course in Tibetan Medicine. And Song Rinpoche returned in the guise of a thirteen-year-old boy to bestow a transmission of the practice of Lama Tsong Khapa. Winter Milarepa retreats continued under the leadership of Ven. Robina Courtin.
In the fall of 2001, John Feuille became the director. Together, John and many talented volunteers repaired, remodeled, and repainted the interior of the farmhouse. The old three-hole outhouse (which was replaced with composting toilets at one point) was replaced with two flush toilets, sinks, an indoor shower, and a laundry room. Also, new central heating systems were installed, the main structure of the stupa was finished and lighted, and the driveway was repaired. Geshe Tsulga and other teachers came to lead weekend retreats. In the late summer of 2002, Lama Zopa Rinpoche returned to lead a five-week Mitrukpa (Akshobhya) retreat.
The Heart Shrine Relic Tour, a collection of more than 1000 relics of Buddha and many other saints, visited Milarepa Center in the fall of 2003.
When John Feuille retired as director in 2004, he was succeeded by Wendy Hobbs. Geshe Tsulga continued to lead weekend tantric retreats along with a 3-week Yamantaka retreat in the summer of 2008. Choden Rinpoche, Khyongla Rato Rinpoche, and Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche gave teachings and empowerments and the Relic Tour returned in 2006.
Venerable Amy Miller took over as director in September, 2008. Visiting teachers returned, such as Choden Rinpoche, who gave a Kalachakra Initiation, Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche, who gave a Milarepa Empowerment with retreat, and Ven. Robina Courtin.
Today, new teachers continue to visit including Ven. Dagri (Pari) Rinpoche, Khensur Rinpoche Geshe Lobsang Jampa, Geshe Ngawang Tenley (from sister center Kurukulla in the Boston area), Ven. Antonio Satta, and Professor Jan Willis, to name a few. Ven. Amy continues to lead many courses and retreats, at Milarepa and surrounding sites such as the library in Montpelier, the capital of Vermont. She offers some annual programs such as the New Year’s Vajrasattva Retreat, Death and Dying Daylongs, and weekly courses during the busy summer season. She also continues hosting monthly and holiday rituals and has created a lovely offering room at the Center for preliminary practices.
Ven. Amy also instituted outreach programs such as the Annual Milarepa Festival Day, as well as volunteering in the local community. She helped expand programming for the annual Family Camp and Residential Summer Work Study Program so there are more and more participants.
Under Ven. Amy’s direction a huge number of changes were affected. Paid staff positions for a manager, facility manager, and cook were created along with implementing a more professional administrative system and new office. Promotion and advertising were expanded to include a new website and design along with the production of a monthly e-letter. The barn was remodeled and two new cabins were constructed for additional staff housing and retreat. The garden was expanded with a more secure fence, adornments were completed on the Stupa (shrine), and a new altar was built and installed in the meditation hall to house the newly acquired Kangyur (the discourses of the Buddha).
The larger-than-life-size statue of Bakula Arhat, originally obtained when Wendy Hobbs was director, has been covered in gold leaf and another statue, this one of Padmasambhava (the saint who brought Buddhism to Tibet from India) in the form of Sampa Lhundrub, has joined Bakula in the offering room. In May of 2012, a life-sized Maitreya statue joined the other two statues and in 2013, a second Padmasambhava statue arrived to complete the ensemble. [read more from Ven Amy’s time here]
Of course, over the past 23 years, living conditions at Milarepa Center have changed tremendously. The goats and chickens are gone. Four small huts constructed for individual retreats have been built. A gompa (meditation hall), dining room, and dormitory have been built and the old farmhouse has central heat. Last, but not least, from the activity of the Center, one can see how all things are interdependent. All the Dharma activity of the Center depends on the kindness of people offering time and money for improvements to the facility and people having the interest to join the various retreats.
Over a thousand people have done retreats and received teachings at Milarepa Center. It is a place blessed with both natural, serene beauty and the presence of highly realized beings.