Keith Brian Scofield selects a spot, lifts a stone and carefully drops it into place in the patio he is building amid the ancient Catskill Mountains in New York. Aided by two other men, Scofield fills the gaps with mortar and admires the smoothed-out results.

To Scofield, the patio is more than just decoration at the Zen Buddhist monastery to which a judge ordered him eight months ago as an alternative to a prison term on a heroin conviction. While the flagstones may represent pieces of his life coming together, the project is not complete.

The 31-year-old Sterling, Va., man calls his recovery from drug addiction a process, one that has a way to go. Despite regular spiritual counseling and the strict, ascetic lifestyle of the monastery, he says that shadows of his former life filter back to him during the long, quiet hours.

Now and then he misses "retreating to my own island" -- the privacy of his old apartment. "Community living can be intense at times," Scofield noted.

He's not yet comfortable with the strict vegetarian diet, though on his monthly visits to a New York State probation office he's permitted a cheeseburger.

And, on occasion, he still craves drugs.

"It's getting to be less and less," said Scofield, who had asked to be sent to Dai Bosatsu Zendo in hopes of filling a "spiritual void" in his life that had kept him involved with drugs off and on since age 13.

"About once a month I go through a doldrum. It's like missing an old girlfriend . . . even if the relationship wasn't all that good," he said.

Scofield thinks he has made big strides in eight months toward his goal of eliminating the need for drugs. Vice Abbot Junpo Dennis Kelly, himself a former drug user, agrees.

"I couldn't be more pleased," commented Kelly. "It's a slow process, but he can articulate changes in his attitude." Kelly described Scofield as "an exemplary student" of Zen Buddhist philosophy and "very, very dedicated to what he's doing." Kelly said his satisfaction with Scofield's progress has made him more willing to consider accepting other drug-dependent initiates.

When Loudoun County Circuit Judge James H. Chamblin handed down Scofield's sentence in December, he made it clear that "this is not something anybody can come in here and ask for."

The idea, suggested by Scofield's younger brother, advanced by Scofield's attorney and approved after much investigation, was hailed by sentencing experts as apparently unprecedented. It was opposed by the prosecutor.

Rising at 4:30 a.m., eating vegetarian meals in silence, meditating with eyes open, studying philosophy intensely and working long hours "is not something I'm doing to dodge time" in prison, Scofield said in an interview before he left Loudoun for the monastery.

His potential maximum sentence was five years, but because of judicial guidelines, time he could earn for good behavior and the six months he served awaiting sentencing, his additional jail time might have been much less.

But Scofield, who had previously begun five more-traditional drug treatment programs and completed three of them without significant progress, said he feared that he'd "relapse back to the same meaninglessness" and to addiction without a highly structured program of spiritual therapy. He accepted a two-year term at the monastery, knowing that if he violated monastery rules or left prematurely, he could wind up back in jail.

On Dec. 8, when his mother took him to the Buddhist enclave about 70 miles and 2 1/2 hours from New York City, he saw it for the first time.

"For all I knew, it could have been a shack on a mountaintop," Scofield he recalled.

Instead, he found a secure existence in a gorgeous setting near a lake at the top the Catskills, miles from the nearest town.

A carpenter and stonemason by trade, Scofield was assigned to build a patio at the entrance to the monastery this summer.

The 2,500-square-foot project "is going great," he said recently. Other than during "retreats" involving outsiders, at which times no talking is permitted for a week, he speaks with his family by phone regularly.

As the weeks roll by, his thoughts turn increasingly to the future. "I keep rolling it over in my mind," he said, even though he has more than a year to decide his next step.

Vice Abbot Kelly said he believes that Scofield might eventually enjoy going to prisons and talking with inmates "about changing attitudes, and therefore changing behavior," as part of the monastery's social work mission.

"I'm just playing it by ear," said Scofield, conceding that he'll "probably get nervous" as the second year winds up. He paused before adding, "I don't feel ready."