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Wonderwell Mountain Refuge—A Flowering of Buddhism in America

By Harsha Menon
Buddhistdoor Global | 2015-10-16 |
Wonderwell Mountain Refuge. Photo by Wonderwell Mountain RefugeWonderwell Mountain Refuge. Photo by Wonderwell Mountain Refuge

As I arrive at Wonderwell Mountain Refuge for a weekend stay, it is immediately evident that while Wonderwell is a place of meditation, it is also a place of great activity—from the people working in the rock garden to those cooking in the kitchen, each person is working with a strong sense of purpose. I feel that everyone is truly invested in his or her work, clearly stemming from a sense of ownership and belonging. . . . 

Located in the small rural town of Springfield, New Hampshire, Wonderwell was established by the Natural Dharma Fellowship, an organization of Buddhist practitioners from across New England “dedicated to the joy of awakening.” Founded by Lama Willa Miller, a Dharma teacher for many years, and rooted in her own Buddhist training, the Natural Dharma Fellowship focuses on the transmission of the Tibetan traditions of Mahamudra and Dzogchen. A not-for-profit organization, it consists of local practice groups as well as intensive retreat and student and teacher training.

Having completed two three-year retreats herself under her teachers Kalu Rinpoche and Lama Norlha Rinpoche, Lama Willa is perhaps unusually qualified among Western Buddhist teachers to head such an institution. “My own training is primarily retreat training,” she says. “And I believe that in order to really deepen in meditation practice, you have to do some retreats.”

Lama Willa had established what she calls a “rhythm” of retreats for the Natural Dharma Fellowship, which was originally without a permanent base for retreat practice. “We were having at least four retreats a year . . . the retreats were getting longer, they were getting a little more frequent, and we were renting a place in the Boston area, doing some camping retreats, all the while looking for a space of our own,” she explains. “I really believe in the power of sacred space, so we really wanted to find a sacred space where we could build a community and people could connect to the power of place and to the power of community in place. In the monasteries [where I trained], I experienced the power to create lifelong relationships in the power of the Dharma, so I wanted that for my community.”

Lama Willa Miller. Photo by Sharona JacobsLama Willa Miller. Photo by Sharona Jacobs

Lama Willa had been keeping an eye out for land to build a retreat center for her sangha for seven years, spending two of those years actively searching by scanning notices on the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) real estate portal for properties in New England. “I would spend two hours every Sunday looking—it was a ritual—and praying for a retreat center to appear,” she shares.

When she finally came across the sale listing for Wonderwell, just two hours north of Boston, she was astounded by how suitable the property was for her needs. “At first I didn’t really believe it. It just seemed impossible,” she says. Situated on 25 acres of forest land, the building has 19 bedrooms, multiple bathrooms, and a large hall that is perfect for large group practice. Going to view the property for the first time, although she saw that the structure had not been well maintained and that there were many small things that needed to be fixed, she knew it was the right place.

Lama Willa quickly informed her sangha that she felt the property would be a tremendous blessing, and funds were raised from within the sangha to purchase it in September 2011. While at the time the Natural Dharma Fellowship was rooted in Cambridge and Boston, there were members of the community scattered all over the American northeast, so having a permanent base in New England would provide the sangha with a place where they could come together.

Lama Willa feels that Wonderwell is her Dharma home—her home away from the home she has near Harvard University (where she earned a doctorate in Religion and is now a visiting lecturer in Buddhist Ministry at Harvard Divinity School)—and she says that the other sangha members feel that, too. “As soon we got this place [Wonderwell], as soon as we began bonding and building, the relationships began flourishing,” she says. “There is something about being together and meditating together again and again in the same place that builds a certain type of relational bond that is so nourishing and profound and stabilizing.”

Berry Shepard, Wonderwell’s retreat manager for the last two years, agrees that this has been achieved. “You can feel the level of consecration of the temple space. You can feel it increasing in sacredness,” she declares.

Lama Willa Miller looking out to the mountain from Wonderwell's meditation hall. Photo by Harsha MenonLama Willa Miller looking out to the mountain from Wonderwell's meditation hall. Photo by Harsha Menon

Of course, Wonderwell has not always been a center for Buddhist practice. The majestic house was built in 1911 by the Stoddards, a couple from Washington, DC, as a summer getaway. Mrs. Stoddard was a pianist with the Washington DC Philharmonic, and Mr. Stoddard was a Cadillac dealer. Wonderwell was a place to which the couple would escape, often filling it with their many DC friends. Mrs. Stoddard built a music hall at one end of the building that she used for summer concerts. Today, this is Wonderwell Meditation Hall, where the community gathers for Dharma talks and meditation.

Back then, the property had no running water, and water would be pumped from a well in front of the house. In 1933, the area around Springfield experienced the worst drought in the state’s history, during which all the wells in the town dried up except the well at the house, and so the property was renamed “Wonderwell.” Other owners followed the Stoddards before Lama Willa’s purchase four years ago. She says that there were “. . . several incarnations of the land and the building; the building has been already loved.”

When I mention my initial impression to Lama Willa, she agrees. “Many people own a piece of Wonderwell, in a sense of owning care. This is an opportunity for them to care about and to pour their energy of love into a little corner of this place. Many people are doing that. So, for example, someone is pouring their love into the garden, another is pouring their love into the library, and another is pouring their love into the mandala garden. Other people are pouring their love into the woods by trail keeping, [others] by tiling the bathrooms. There is all this little coming together of love, of bodhichitta [awakened mind and heart]—it’s amazing to watch it unfold.”

In addition to monthly practice weekends for the sangha, Wonderwell provides several programs that are open to the public. There are Monday night meditations, daily sunrise meditations, and a program called “Dharma Sunday,” which comprises a Dharma talk, meditation practice, and a community potluck. It is also possible to practice Buddhism at the center under the guidance of one’s own Dharma teacher. Wonderwell also donates food to a nearby food bank.

Wonderwell's abundant vegetable garden. Photo by Berry ShepardWonderwell's abundant vegetable garden. Photo by Berry Shepard

The abundant vegetable gardens and fruit trees at Wonderwell provide a bounty of opportunities to participate in the care of nature. As I walk past the blueberry patch and head towards the woods for a contemplative hike, I am struck by just how normal everything feels at this Buddhist retreat center somewhat incongruously placed in the middle of rural New England, built and sustained by the sincere intentions of a group of dedicated Buddhists. This genuinely American Buddhist mountain refuge, once built for entertainment, now provides a place for serious practice and exploration of the Dharma.

Like its verdant gardens, I hope that Wonderwell will grow and flourish for many years to come.

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Wonderwell Mountain Refuge
Natural Dharma Fellowship

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