Lightning Strikes

The Noise of Silent Meditation (the Sound of Silence?)

I have been doing web searches on meditation in Westchester and discovered Pine Hill Zendo, "an authentic Rinzai Zen Buddhist temple situated right outside the hamlet of Katonah in Northern Westchester." This sounds interesting.

Also on the web is a discussion of the Zen Buddists' difficulties with the Town government.

This is so Westchester! People out here will storm town zoning boards to prevent things on the silliest pretexts. (I have honestly heard someone say, in a discussion of clearing a better path for pedestrians, that if the path were cleared, "someone might jog past my house" in a tone suggesting a passing jogger was a serious imposition on him.) So here a town zoning board bans assembly for silent meditation on the basis of noise!

Few cases better illustrate the arbitrary and even whimsical way in which local zoning boards often cavalierly reject petitions for special use permits than the case of Pine Hill Zendo v. the Town of Bedford, New York.

Pine Hill Zendo is a Buddhist temple, albeit a very small one. It is one of a handful of Rinzai Zen Buddhist temples in North America with a resident teacher, and consists of a meditation room in the home of John andAngela Mortensen. The room has been purified by a Buddhist abbot, and for a few hours four days a week, the zendo's eleven members gather at the house for silent meditation, brief liturgies and instruction.

. . .

In 1998, Mortensen was certified a Dharma teacher, the equivalent of becoming a Zen master in Japan. He and Angela began to search for a place for him to teach, but they were unable to find a location they could afford. Angela Mortensen then asked the town planning department what might be required for them to use their home for religious observances, and were told to simply go ahead. Pine Hill Zendo was formed, and for two years religious observances took place in the house without incident.

In the spring of 2001, however, a neighbor complained to the Town Planning Board, and the Mortensens were asked to apply for a special use permit that would allow them to use the home as a "church or other place of worship," although neither of those terms is defined anywhere in the Town zoning ordinance. The Zoning Board of Appeals held a hearing on the application on September 5, 2001, and a group of neighbors appeared in opposition. None claimed that they had been harmed or even inconvenienced by Pine Hill Zendo during the previous two years. One resident even testified that other neighbors told her they had never seen or heard anything, and didn't even realize the Zendo existed. Opponents simply speculated that traffic and parking problems might develop.

The ZBA rejected the application for a special use permit, citing "issues related to traffic and on-street parking," although on-street parking is permitted in the area at any time except for overnight hours during the winter months. And, incongruously, the Board cited concern over noise, despite the fact that the Zendo's primary activity is silent meditation.

On November 2, 2001 The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty joined the case. On November 6, 2001, Pine Hill Zendo filed suit [ Memorandum of Law in Support of Petition and in Support of the Motion for a Stay ] against the Bedford ZBA in the Supreme Court for the County of Westchester, New York, seeking reversal of the Board's decision. The complaint charged that the Board used an erroneous standard for determining whether religious activities are entitled to a special use permit. It also alleged that the Town's actions violate RLUIPA and the U.S. and New York Constitutions.


On April 8, 2002, the Town of Bedford agreed to a Stipulation of Settlement and Discontinuance in which it agreed: 1) to vacate the decision in which the ZBA denied the special permit; 2) agreed to issue a special permit; 3) specified conditions under which Pine Hill Zendo would be allowed to operate, including a limit of 12 persons gathered for worship and/or meditation at any one time, no more than 5 overnight guests, a limit of 6 one day retreats per year, and "all reasonable efforts" to encourage attendees to avoid on-street parking. The Town also agreed to pay $30,000 in attorney's fees and costs to Pine Hill Zendo.