Buddhist monastery finds home near Decorah

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The layout of the Ryumonji Zen Monastery near Decorah is similar to the traditional Japanese layout for monasteries. Using local, recycled wood and other building materials donated, the monastery uses no nails in the support beams. Instead the pieces interlock together to create a support system. (Photo by Silvia Oakland)

In the rolling hills of northeast Iowa, amid fields of cattle and corn, sits a simple, cream-colored building.

The gravel road leading to the dwelling climbs an incline. A weathered wooden sign surrounded by flowers and tall grass reads “Ryumonji Zen Monastery.”

A Buddhist monastery, the only one of its kind in the state.

Buddhism, an Eastern religion that began in India, follows the teachings of the Buddha Siddhartha Gautama. It focuses on participating in good to reach enlightenment. The religion has grown in Iowa, reflected by an increasing number of temples or centers, an IowaWatch review found.

Outside of Decorah, the monastery, this rural cohort of Eastern spirituality, began its first round of construction in 2000 and the first building, the temple, was completed in 2004. More than 180 students have come through since.

The idea for it began in, of all places, Minnesota, Iowa’s northern and larger neighbor.

Shoken Winecoff was in Minnesota and intended to build a center in Iowa, he said. After a decade though, the original site sat empty, untouched. Winecoff went off to Japan to train.

“The priest there that I was connected with said, ‘If you can’t build there, you know, build it someplace else,’” Winecoff said.

The name “Ryumonji” comes from the three Japanese characters meaning “dragon gate and temple” and has ties to the Chinese legend of fish overcoming the waves of life to become fearless dragons. A poster detailing the story lines the walls of the monastery dining room, where communal meals and conversations are held. 

The practice of Soto Zen Buddhism revolves around the practice of meditation and balance within oneself. Winecoff recalled his ties to Christanity and how others he had studied with remained Christian while also practicing Buddhism. He came to Buddhism during a divorce and re-evaluation of his life.

“My theology was really changing to a more incarnational theology. Buddhism doesn’t talk about God or no God. When asked, the Buddha said neither God nor no God. He was more into seeing oneness with each other. And the focusing on whole life is interwoven, interconnected,” he said.

The Ryumonji Zen Monastery near Decorah is the only Buddhist monastery in the state, an IowaWatch review found. (Photo by Silvia Oakland)

Sustainable, purposeful building

The monastery itself displays interconnectedness.

Back in 2000 after the advice from the priest, Winecoff wanted to build the kitchen and living quarters first to reassure people who came that they would have a place to eat and sleep. But his teacher encouraged him to build the temple first. 

The monastery at the time began as a zen center in a house in Decorah until Winecoff had found the 40 acres of land that would be donated to help establish the monastery.                                      

After having conversations with people attending the zen center, Winecoff found a donor who wanted the land to be used for sustainable and purposeful uses. 

“This building was all built on recycled lumber, so we were constantly scraping things together,” Winecoff said.

In addition to the lumber, the monastery uses geothermal heating and cooling and solar panels. 

The dining room features tables and chairs along with couches and a small table with tea, sugar, honey and hot water.

Two black and white cats greet visitors and make their way to the kitchen, where monks and trainees can be found in the afternoon making snacks before their afternoon sessions in the other wings of the monastery. 

The layout of the monastery resembles the traditional layout of those in Japan, including the use of wooden nails to connect and support the beams of the building. Buddha Hall, the place where lectures, services and ceremonies are held, features a traditional altar to the Buddha that has incense and other offerings. Next to the door leading to the Soto building there is a bell to signify when it’s time to enter or leave. 

In the Soto building, raised beds also serve as a place of meditation during public sittings and for the monks in training. Another altar remains in the center of the Soto building with a Buddha that watches over the room. 

Outside of the Soto building is an entry gate, which symbolizes the transition from one’s life to monastery living. The bell tower that is rung to announce the different times of day neighbors this gate and overlooks the valleys. 


Training center

Ryumonji is the only Buddhist monastery in Iowa and has allowed over 15 monks to achieve dharma transmission, meaning their teachers have seen they have the ability to carry on the tradition of zen. 

Myoko Laura Demuth is one of the monks who studied at Ryumonji and achieved dharma transmission in 2016. She serves as the co-director, alongside Lee Ekai Zook, of the Decorah Zen Center in Decorah, Iowa, and works along with Winecoff and the rest of the monastery staff to host Soto Zen sessions. 

Demuth described what her typical schedule at the monastery looked like: long days of studying, following a rigorous schedule and fulfilling needed roles. That means waking at 4:30 a.m., nine meditation sittings, an afternoon work period, and other duties.

“It’s a different life when you don’t pick and choose always what you’re going to do with your time. You do what the schedule is, is telling you to do, but you’re also enacting this with the whole song or the community so you’re upholding one another’s practice,” Demuth said.

It’s not lost on the monastery leaders the irony of being located near a strong Christian community. Winecoff lived in Decorah a few years before the monastery opened and is well-known, Demuth said.

“I think Decorah identifies pretty strongly with being Norwegian. I think they also, because of Luther College, and so many different people and ideas coming through the college, I think it’s really an open-minded community,” Demuth said. “I think the monastery has been very welcomed.”

Silvia Oakland is a 2021 Wartburg College graduate and a summer 2021 reporting intern for IowaWatch – the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism. While at Wartburg, Oakland served as editor of the Wartburg Trumpet for two years and is the 2021 Pat Pisarik Journalist of the Year. She is currently on a year of service in Washington, D.C.