Former mayor of Aspen creating N.Y. think tank |

Former mayor of Aspen creating N.Y. think tank

Allyn Harvey
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Former Aspen Mayor John Bennett has been shuttling back and forth between his home in Emma and Garrison, N.Y., for much of this year as he attempts to create, from scratch, a think tank of international renown.

Bennett is supervising a staff of five that is overseeing the conversion of what was once a monastery into the Garrison Institute, which is envisioned as a retreat for some of the world?s foremost religious scholars and leaders.

?The mission of the Garrison Institute is to apply the wisdom of contemplative traditions to the issues of civil society,? Bennett said.

Asked what that means, he replied by listing the three major activities that will underpin the institute?s mission.

?First,? he said, ?we will examine the major policy issues facing the nation and the world. It?s like many other think tanks. But what makes the Garrison Institute different is it will do so from a spiritual perspective, bringing together spiritual and secular leaders on issues like peace, war, the environment and education.

?Second, we will host spiritual retreats for leaders from many different religions. They?ll be led by highly respected teachers and their senior students.

?And third,? he concluded, ?we plan to build a sizable library and electronic archive for senior fellows, scholars and residents at the Garrison Institute.?

The institute occupies a 150-room former monastery on the banks of the Hudson River surrounded by 95 acres of woods and fields. The site is an hour train ride from Grand Central Station. The building is stone and brick, the dining room is distinctive for its wood paneling, and, Bennett said, the cathedral is grand.

Bennett was asked to be the founding executive director by Diana and Jonathan Rose, part-time Aspenites and friends of the Bennetts. The Roses live in Westchester County, N.Y., and have been visiting Aspen, where they have a house, their entire lives. So far, the couple is the Garrison Institute?s sole source of financial support, Bennett said.

Bennett?s qualifications for the job go beyond his long run as mayor. In 1999, he was named vice president, Aspen, at The Aspen Institute. His job there was to create connections between The Aspen Institute and local residents. His most significant success was coming up with a version of the Great Ideas Seminar, which immerses participants in the writings of some of history?s most influential thinkers, designed for the ?working local.?

Bennett left The Aspen Institute in the winter of 2000-01, after it became apparent that the initiative lacked support from senior administrators and some directors.

The first official event at the Garrison Institute will be a spiritual retreat led by Gehlek Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher whose students have included poet Allen Ginsberg and composer Philip Glass. In May, the institute and former local businessman Ed Bastian will co-host a weekend symposium, “The Way of Contemplation,” that was first held in Aspen this past summer.

The first of what Bennett is calling the ?Spirit 21 Dialogues? is also scheduled for May. The dialogues are envisioned as a series of interfaith dialogues between spiritual leaders, focusing on areas of violence throughout the world where people are killing each other in the name of religion. Bennett said he has already met with leaders from three major religions about the dialogues and plans to meet with more in the coming weeks.

?I’m very excited about that one,? he said. “It’s about increasing tolerance where religious violence is out of control. Religion is so often a cause of violence. This is an attempt to use the leverage, and the wisdom of spiritual leaders to try and counteract the violence.?

Bennett credits three locals ? Father Thomas Keating from St. Benedict?s Monastery, Betsy Fifield and Merrill Ford ? for helping him conceive and organize the Spirit 21 Dialogues. ?They?ve been very helpful helping me think this through,? he said.

The job may well require Bennett and his wife, Janie, to move back to New York full time.

?We’re still here, but they want me to move back full time. I would always consider Aspen my spiritual home and would keep my house here,? he said.

[Allyn Harvey’s e-mail address is]

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