John (Pelgye) Douthitt

The beginning of Mila Center (Recollections, August 2017)

I think it was 1980, I was expecting, in a few days, to leave Kopan and head back to the US for the first time. I had no idea where I ought to be going or what I ought to be doing. I was called up to Lama Yeshe’s room and found him joyfully dancing about with his hand raised above his head holding a letter. He told me that now I had something to do. Peter Baker had just written that he had purchased a property in Vermont and would like to offer it up for a meditation center. Peter was one of the many westerners who washed up at Kopan and was inspired. He took on the task of bringing that inspiration home.

The property Peter found had been the jewel of Barnet, combining the panoramic view for miles up and down the Connecticut River and the drive connecting straight down into the center of town- sweet. But the state eminent domained it, put the highway right across that connection into town, which was its only road access, and then held onto the property for 20 years – after which they sold it on a quit-claim deed, which is to say – they were selling their claim to the property but if someone else came along to lay some claim to it – well, that wasn’t going to be their problem. During those 20 years the house and barns stood abandoned and gradually succumbed to the seasons and vandalism.

With access cut off, and all the other road frontage being cliffs ranging from 14 to 75 feet, there were only 3 bidders on the property when the state put it up for sale: the 2 neighboring property owners and Peter. Since no one but no one in their right mind would bid on a piece of property they couldn’t get to, the 2 neighbors placed low ball bids and were shocked when Peter walked away with it for something like100$/acre. He’d been a civil engineer and decided he could blast road access in through the low point in the cliffs.

When Peter dropped me off and went back to, hmm, I don’t remember where he was living but it was a couple hours away. There was no vehicle, no road access, no electricity, no gas, no phone, no running water, no intact windows, only one room where the roof was intact enough not to leak, and 1 1/2 feet of snow on the ground.

I made an assessment of raw materials at hand, found some sort of old burlap quilting in the barn, covered over some broken windows so I could heat up one room. Peter had left me with a chainsaw, an ax, a shovel, a hammer, and a little pressed sheet metal woodstove. Rudimentary as it was, I made fresh bread. I had a sourdough starter and used a fry pan on top of the tin woodstove to make English muffins. Those muffins were sort of wonderful. Still makes me happy to think of them.

Once I had a warm, dry room to work from, I set to thinking about how to begin. The first task I decided to take on was salvaging the small barn. Parts of the north side roof were absent and the tongues on the middle joists of the 2nd floor had rotted off so the middle section of the 2nd floor sagged several feet down into the room below. With a car jack and a post I tried to jack up the 2nd floor. The jack went up, up, up but the 2nd floor did not rise. Huh? What’s going on? Oh –instead of the 2nd floor rising, the 1st floor was dropping. The tongues of the 1st floor joists were also rotted, of course, and here I was adding load to them. It scared me, easy mistake to make, could have been fatal.

With that reminder of my vulnerability, reasoning that no one much knew I was there, without road access there weren’t going to be a lot of visitors dropping in, and Peter didn’t plan on coming by more than every few weeks – I figured I shouldn’t be employing the axe or chainsaw, too easy to imagine bleeding out up there after another ill-executed chore.

As I sat considering what could I do safely, I heard the church bells ringing and figured that must be the sign. I caught a ride to St Johnsbury on Monday, went to a second hand store, bought some Sunday-go-to-church clothes, and next Sunday I went to church. After showing up to church a few Sundays, a very sweet couple, Eddie and Louise, took an interest in me – the lone stranger in town- and invited me home to lunch with them. I used to take the 8 Mahayana Precepts before dawn a lot back in those days and I’d done it that morning but I figured I’d be serving the holy dharma better by taking lunch with them than by fasting that day.

You know how it is with Vermonters. Once they’ve let you in and decide you’re OK, then you’re just OK, not much more needs to be said about that. Eddie and Louise had already decided I was OK, I think, when I got around to telling them that I was a Buddhist monk. So at that point, it was just OK. They stayed close friends and supporters the entire time I lived there. Eddie came by and helped out often and when the gossip around the endless drip coffee urn at the local coffee watering hole would take a sour turn against us, well, he would get right the heck in there and defend us, and let me know about it later.

The road

Peter managed to score an antique surveyors transom and tripod through the Yankee Trader, one of those pre-craigslist newspapers in which one could place a brief listing for a few bucks. Once we had sited out the trajectory, Peter on the transom, me holding the measuring rod, he got a local farmer and his big beefy tobacco chewing sons who had some heavy equipment and an old timer who had a license to use blasting materials and we went at it. The 2 beefy boys and I ran the jack hammers all day every day until we had an area prepped to the blaster’s satisfaction, then he’d pack in the charges, climb up on to a prominence where he could see a good way up and down the highway, and when there were no cars in view, pushed his plunger. Boom.

Unfortunately for us, the bedrock was slate which had already been blasted to put in the highway and the current surface road along the bottom of the cliff, so the rock was full of man-made fissures and often did not contain the explosive force of the blast well. After a blast they’d get in there with that big machinery to clear away the broken up stone and – damn – not much breaking up had happened.

One time I think he got kind of frustrated and perhaps over packed the boreholes just a bit. There were some pretty good size rocks flying skyward and then – ooh, oooohhhh, ooooohhh no, no, NO, NONONO! – the rocks were coming down all the way across the other side of the highway. There was one big honker I saw come down in the grass divider between the north and south bound lanes. We ran out onto the highway as fast as we could to clear away the debris before some car hit it. When I went to retrieve that big honker from the median strip – it had buried itself so deep from the force of impact that I couldn’t even reach it.

That was the big excitement, after that he was a bit more circumspect. So we drilled and blasted and drilled and blasted for several weeks I think it was. Carved a road through that cliff and up through the trees, then laid gravel. Peter paid for all of this out of his own pocket. He bought the land, hired the crew, paid for gravel, and later paid to bring in electricity and phone lines, and construction of the septic leach field.

The very next spring, when there was still a foot of snow on the ground – we had a torrential rainstorm. The soil was still frozen solid so the rain sluiced right down that steep hill without sinking in at all.

There wasn’t much traffic on the highway back then, so we often would head down the old drive, hop the fence, dart across the highway since that was the shortest route to town. There was something I must have wanted from the store, so I bundled up and headed down the old drive only to find the stream so high and forceful that it had washed out the culvert under the drive, leaving a deep gully. I backed up and started down our new road – oh my- all the way across the bottom of the north mowing the water was like a wide shallow river streaming across the new raw road cut, washing out the section of road where it comes through the trees. We spent a cold, wet, and exhausting day salvaging the road and then I spent many days after that with shovel and wheelbarrow recouping gravel from where it had collected downslope and putting it back on the road because I knew Peter wasn’t about to pop for another road’s worth of gravel.

First Residents

Once the road was in, my dear friends Jeff Groman and Els Heyne arrived. Jeff was a college friend from my time at UNH whom I’d stayed close with, Els his Dutch wife. They had been living in his folk’s home in NJ and thinking about their next step and decided that I clearly needed some help so they came on up and stayed for months. Grome is one of those guys who can do most anything and do it well, and Els is similarly gifted. We rebuilt the roof on the house, put in large gardens, build cold storage for vegetables in the basement, replaced glass in the windows, installed a real wood cook stove with a hot water tank, completed the salvage of the small barn, got in electricity and phone and so on. And we began many trips to the town dump, which is where we met Charley Bagley.

Charley ran the dump. He became our closest friend and ally until he passed away. I loved Charley: big old boulder belly which usually went uncovered except in the middle of winter, a deep – at first almost unintelligible – Vermont accent, referred to all females as ‘mother’, big bulbous nose, corncob pipe, a beagle dog named ‘old man’ who rode everywhere in the truck with him. He was a wonderful man. A lot got done at Mila with salvage from the dump. He’d drive up in his pickup, drop the tailgate and announce: “Ayup, I tol’ em, just put it right ina back a’the truck, I’m taking it to the monks….”

There was a memorable moment when Lama Zopa first visited Mila. Charlie came to meet him. He did not make any attempt to dress up for the moment, but I think maybe he did button up the front of his shirt as a sign of respect. After Charlie greeted Rinpoche, Rinpoche looked at me quizzically. I realized that Rinpoche could not understand a word Charlie was saying. That deep Vermont accent can take some getting used to. So I translated Charlie’s greeting and Rinpoche greeted him back.

Charlie looked at me quizzically; he had no idea Rinpoche was speaking English. So I translated Rinpoche’s greeting to Charlie.

So there I was, translating English to English, English back to English, a task I was well qualified to perform, being a native English speaker. Charlie told Rinpoche that he was thinking of coming to hear him teach. Rinpoche got something of a mischievous smile and said: “Tell him I don’t teach with my mouth.”

I couldn’t tell where Rinpoche was going with this but I duly translated it to Charlie who was as baffled as I was. “Huh? He doesn’t teach with his mouth?”

Then Rinpoche started tapping his finger on the side of his nose and told me to tell Charlie that he (Rinpoche) taught with his nose! “Tell him I (tap tap tap) teach with my NOSE!”

Once I translated it for Charlie, he burst out into guffaws. Ho Ho ho, he was shaking that long white beard and that boulder belly was bouncing. Finally he gasped out between laughs: “I know what he means…I had a cousin who was a hairlip…” and went back to laughing.

And that was it. One utterly bizarre exchange. Like live Monty Python.

Charlie did not manage to come to the teachings, which was a relief in some ways, since it meant I didn’t have to translate. Lama Zopa gave Charlie a framed picture of the Dalai Lama and Charlie kept it standing on his table, usually toward the far side and 1/2 buried amid the flotsam and jetsam which swirled in slow eddies around the table top, but it was always there when I would go to visit.

About the time Jeff and Els decided to head west to Bainbridge Island, Karen Gutowski and husband Geoff Smart showed up and continued the work of taming the place, making it livable. At one point we salvaged from the dump one of those little 1950’s pressed metal kitchen work tables. It was in good shape except the feet were missing so ends of the pressed metal legs kept cutting into the linoleum floor. I mentally scanned through the house and barn, trying to think of what I could use for feet and remembered that there was a small pile of rusty 20-some year old used bottle caps on the dirt floor in a corner of the basement so I went down and sorted out the 4 least bent and rusty ones. I left them on the kitchen table while I went searching for something to attach them with. Geoff, a cabinet maker with refined skills, had those rusty bottle caps in his hand when I returned and asked if he could throw them out?

“No! No!” I cried, “I need those.” Geoff dropped them back on the table and walked off saying, with a hint of disgust in his voice: “The only place I’ve ever been where you have to ask permission to throw away used bottle caps.” I think one would have needed to be a bit aspergian to be able to live with me comfortably.

Then Jerry, the British minister’s bad boy son, and his wife and child arrived. They were friends of Geoff’s (who was also British). Jerry was an artist. He is the one who painted the Monk Xing sign on the back of an old parking sign I had salvaged from the dump. I can say that it was my idea, but it was Jerry who had the skill to execute it. The silhouette was taken from a photo I had of Rinpoche.

Oh, and a local woman, who was pleased we had cropped up in Barnet, came and gave us a milking goat and milking stand. We named her Bikkuni and I learned how to milk a goat. She produced so much milk. When I got back to Kopan and told Lama Passang how much milk Bikkhuni produced every day his jaw just dropped and his eyes went wide. He had never heard of a goat producing so much. To this day I can’t stand the taste of goat’s milk.

That must have been the first Dharma Celebration. Remembering how cold winter mornings can be at Kopan, I’d collected team color sweaters for months and months from second hand shops and brought a great big Santa Claus bag full of red and yellow and orange wool sweaters; enough for every young monk to have a warm sweater. When we were leaving Kopan, Lama Passang asked if there weren’t any more sweaters maybe? so I gleefully gave him my sweater. Cut to our first retreat at Mila – a small group of us were preparing for 3 month Vajrasattva. I did not have a sweater. I was a little shocked – “How could it be that I don’t have a sweater?” I wondered, but it was too late to go out and get one. The snow on the drive was over a foot deep and we had dropped a poplar across the top of the driveway as an extra precaution to keep anyone from coming up and disturbing retreat.

The day retreat began an intrepid UPS driver plowed his boxy brown truck up that precipitous driveway in the deep snow, lifted the felled tree from across the drive and drove up to the front door to deliver a thick, red LL Bean’s rag wool sweater. From Dean Alper.

Oh, and this is a good one. During the first Dharma Celebration I had a chance to ask Tsong Rinpoche to come teach at Mila and he accepted. The afternoon before he arrived there was a thunder storm. The lot of us were milling about in the kitchen when lightning struck the house. “BOOM.” The room next to the kitchen exploded with light. We were all looking at each other saying: “Whoa! Did you see that!? What was that!?” The lightning had travelled down the metal chimney flue and, dead-ending at the woodstove had lit up the room.

I ran out, got a ladder, climbed up on the roof in the rain – no damage anywhere.

Then it happened again.

Then again.

And again.

Lightning came down and lit that room up 4 times in the space of an hour and left no damage.

Town Council

At one point Peter and I went to some sort of a town council meeting to introduce ourselves so they wouldn’t have to rely on rumor to decide what they thought of us. We hoped to avoid being automatically lumped together in their minds with the other large and flourishing Dharma center in town which was not entirely too popular locally. The folks on the council were pretty suspicious at first. We told them that it must not seem quite fair that 2 Buddhist retreat centers should crop up in their quiet little town in rural Vermont. We told them that we’d been thinking about what sort of things might bother them and one was that, being a church, we’d be tax exempt and in a small town, tax base is important. The way we figured it, people coming to stay at Mila would be using the roads same as anyone else, so we were open to working with them to come up with our share. They started to warm up and asked us to tell them what Buddhism was about so I taught the 10 non-virtues/10 virtues that evening. It was sort of thrilling. Something wonderful happened when one of the council members asked “Yes, but what about your daily life?” I remember opening my palms to her with a shrug and a smile and replying “This is the advice for one’s daily life.” There was a palpable shift in the room; it was the moment the words gained meaning. She got it, I could see it go in, and because of that shift in her, others got it too. Practical spirituality, not something out there imagined, big, or special – something simple: paying attention to being kind and being careful. Living the golden rule. I think they stopped thinking of us as a bunch of invading nuts. The 10 non-virtues are so sweetly basic and meaningful to anyone who thinks about them.

It was like that for me when I first arrived to Kopan, sitting in the meditation tent with Rinpoche going on and on and on about the best, the greatest, the most powerful teaching, the one that….and he went on building up the suspense (oh what is it going to be? where is this going?) up, up to the punchline: “the great bodhicitta.” I wrote it down in my notebook, probably underlined it too. He did this day after day, laying out the superlatives, building up, up, up and the punchline would be…”the great bodhicitta.” Yeah, yeah, that is what you said yesterday and the day before… And then he’d do it again until one day it arose in mind: “Oh! Wait a minute – I get it! There isn’t something else, this is what I need to pay attention to.” I’d been waiting for him to move on to something interesting.

Peter and I did not work together as well as we might have. I was bloody well salvaging and straightening bent nails, tapping the town dump for raw materials, employing all my skills to avoid using cash resources yet I felt Peter kept acting like I was a spendthrift. In retrospect, I expect that, although I wasn’t asking for much, Peter had already laid out so much by this time he had to guard his remaining resources. It wasn’t like he was independently wealthy- he’d worked hard and saved. Neither of us was willing to put a price on Dharma teachings and neither of us had a skill set for fund raising which basically meant we were burning through Peter’s savings. I didn’t know how to fix the situation so I did what I knew how to do: I left.

During my first visit to Vajrapani (paid for by Peter, I should point out), when Lama Yeshe was teaching 6 yogas, I asked Lama to let me leave Mila. I could see he was planning to tell me to stay, but when I broke down in tears he relented. Considering the story of Milarepa and his challenges, I can now only wonder what wisdom I might have gained if I’d managed to stay.