Practicing patience 

No one ever said building a sacred Buddhist garden on an American Indian reservation would be easy

While driving north of Arlee in 1998, a Tibetan meditation master named Gochen Tulku Sang-ngag Rinpoche asked his student to turn right toward the "For Sale" sign at White Coyote Road. The property was 60 acres, an old sheep ranch: half table-top flat, half folded into the foothills on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Sang-ngag touched the ground with his hands and looked up at the sky and the valley rim of granite peaks. He had envisioned this landscape as a young boy in Tibet—a plot of American soil in the center of a topographic lotus flower where a garden of peace would counteract the world's suffering. It didn't take long for him to make up his mind.

"'This is it,'" the student remembers him saying.

One of Sang-ngag's American students, who prefers to remain anonymous, bought the property, its weathered farmhouse and barn. Another anonymous student purchased a second building, which was moved to Arlee on tractor trailers, for Sang-ngag and his wife to live and host teachings and ceremonies for his growing Montana sangha, a Buddhist spiritual community. In 1999, the Ewam School of Tibetan Buddhism registered as a religious nonprofit. And in November 2000, Ewam members began forming concrete Buddha statues in a plastic mold. Sang-ngag's dream of creating a garden of 1,000 Buddhas—a monument to compassion in a declining world—had begun.

Since then, Sang-ngag has kept a schedule of dizzying productivity. He has opened new Ewam centers in Taiwan, Hong Kong, India and Santa Fe, N.M. The Turquoise Leaf Nunnery, which he founded before coming to the U.S., continues to provide housing, work and a safe place for female Buddhist practitioners in Nepal. Two years ago, Ewam opened a "dharma center" above an herbal medicine shop on Missoula's Hip Strip.

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The Garden of 1,000 Buddhas, Sang-ngag's first overseas mission, has garnered attention from The New York Times, PBS and nearly every Montana media outlet. As of March, the garden had received $914,485 in private donations and logged 13,245 volunteer construction hours. In 2009, Sang-ngag announced to his Montana students the Dalai Lama had agreed to visit the garden upon its completion. The trip would mark the Tibetan Buddhist leader's first time in Montana.

Yet 13 years after the first statue was cast in concrete, the Garden of 1,000 Buddhas remains starkly incomplete. Despite a recent surge in energy—1,000 stupa statues have been erected and a gift shop opened—there are still pieces missing: unplanted trees, fallow flower beds and about 200 Buddhas shy of 1,000.

Though most members of the Ewam sangha are confident it will happen, the Dalai Lama's visit is indefinitely on hold. But what the visit represents, and why a group of Montanans would endeavor to fabricate from concrete a Buddhist sacred site on an Indian reservation in western Montana are questions more easily asked than answered.

•••

The story of the Garden of 1,000 Buddhas begins with a man's singular ambition—one that, if you believe in reincarnation, goes back many lifetimes. Sang-ngag was born in 1952 in the Kham region of eastern Tibet. His family practiced the Namchack lineage of Mahayana Buddhism, and from an early age suspected Sang-ngag was a reincarnate of a great Buddhist teacher. The story goes that when Sang-ngag was 3 years old, his family was harvesting hay when someone noticed Sang-ngag standing on a rock at the base of a cliff. When he stepped off the rock, he left footprints in the stone as if it were soft clay. "Because of this, people talked of there being a tulku [reincarnate of a great Buddhist master] in our valley," explains Sang-ngag on Ewam's website, "but no one was sure whose incarnation I was."

Eventually it was recognized that Sang-ngag was the sixth incarnation of Gochen Tulku, a Tibetan "wisdom holder," and Sang-ngag left his home to commit to Buddhist practice. In 1960, he attempted to escape to India but was apprehended by the People's Liberation Army, which was then in its 10th year of occupying Tibet. In 1969, as China's Cultural Revolution spread in Tibet, Sang-ngag was imprisoned.

click to enlarge The Garden of 1,000 Buddhas in Arlee has been under construction for nearly 13 years. When it is finished, Ewam members say the Dalai Lama will consecrate the site. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • The Garden of 1,000 Buddhas in Arlee has been under construction for nearly 13 years. When it is finished, Ewam members say the Dalai Lama will consecrate the site.

His brother, Namchak Khenpo, who spends much of the year in Missoula living in a tidy apartment a few blocks from the Good Food Store and teaching at Ewam's dharma center, barely remembers the time during his older brother's incarceration. But he vividly recalls the day Sang-ngag was afforded a brief visit with his family. "He came home and he wasn't dressed like a Tibetan person. He was wearing Chinese clothes," Khenpo recently said through a translator. "I was scared of him, and ran away from him. He told me it was okay, but still I was frightened."

In prison, Sang-ngag practiced Buddhist teachings under the tutelage of fellow inmates who were lamas. He studied powa (transference of conciousness at death), and the mahamudra meditation technique (awareness of mind at rest). He practiced lojong training and recited mantras, using a knotted piece of rope in place of the traditional strand of beads. On the Ewam website, Sang-ngag says that during this time he was "able to feel compassion instead of hatred toward my captors."

After 10 years, Sang-ngag was released and continued a life of Buddhist devotion. Eventually he became a Rinpoche, a title meaning "precious one," and decided to leave Tibet, a journey that would lead him to the U.S. When he departed, one of Sang-ngag's teachers gave him some parting words of advice. "Your primary spiritual lineage is that of Namchack," Dudjom Rinpoche said to his student. "So it is your personal responsibility to ensure that these teachings, which are dying out, continue. Don't let them down!"

•••

Among his Montana students, the story of Sang-ngag's childhood and imprisonment is allegorical—evidence of the powers of Buddhist practice. "Happiness is really how you experience things in your mind," says Linda Pritzker, the student who first drove Sang-ngag to the plot of land north of Arlee. "At first, he burned with resentment when he got to prison. But then he practiced these methods. He changed his experience."

Today, Pritzker often goes by Lama Tsomo, a title given to her by Sang-ngag in 2006, making her the first of his Western students to achieve lama-hood. Pritzker was born the middle child of a Jewish-American family from Chicago that founded the Hyatt hotel chain. Forbes 400 lists Pritzker as the 293rd wealthiest American with a net worth of $1.6 billion.

Pritzker began studying Buddhism in the early '90s as part of her interest in psychotherapy. Therapy, she says, is about "techniques for helping people be better, happier people." Buddhism is a "highly-refined set of tools to do the same thing."

Pritzker first heard Sang-ngag tell his story at a Buddhist retreat in Santa Fe in the mid-'90s. She saw him again a short while later at a retreat near her home in Boulder, Colo. Something clicked during the second encounter.

"I had found my teacher. It just felt right," she remembers. "Like when you know you're in the right room."

She dedicated herself to study under Sang-ngag, and over the course of several years began hosting him for classes at her Boulder home. After a retreat in 1998, Sang-ngag asked Pritzker if he could join her on her upcoming trip to Montana's Mission Valley where she was planning to move. She agreed, and a few days later they flew to Missoula.

•••

From Missoula International Airport, head north on Highway 93, up Evaro Hill and on to the Flathead Indian Reservation. Drive past the road sign that notes Arlee is a Salish word meaning "place of large diameter Aspen trees" and across the Jocko River, which from that point runs parallel to the road until you reach Ravalli. From there you are within a quarter mile of the Garden of 1,000 Buddhas before you turn off the pavement. The entire trip takes about 30 minutes.

click to enlarge Practitioners sit on cushions during a class at Ewam’s “dharma center” on the Hip Strip. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Practitioners sit on cushions during a class at Ewam’s “dharma center” on the Hip Strip.

In November 2000, when the first Buddha statue dried in a plastic mold, the land where the garden now sits was unkempt pasture and fallow alfalfa fields. The only visible structures were the old house where Ewam volunteers slept and ate, and a squat barn, which stored the detritus of ranching equipment and the tools for making Buddhas.

In a video produced in 2010 that plays on a loop during the busy season in the garden's gift shop, Sang-ngag explains the importance of the site: "Tibetans believe from the time the earth first evolved to the time it ends, 1,000 Buddhas will descend on the earth ... Right now we are in an era of decline, a period when the good fortune of all sentient beings is low. There is much war, disease and suffering ... If at this time we construct all these images of all these Buddhas ... we believe that this will help to reduce the negativities all around, bring peace and revive our good fortunes."

The video concludes: "It is believed that this garden will be one of the major pilgrimage sites on this continent."

The garden's design is based on the image of an eight-spoked dharma wheel. Each spoke represents the eight paths to enlightenment: understanding, speech, livelihood, concentration, mindfulness, effort, action and intention. When the garden is complete, 125 two-foot tall Buddha statues will sit on each spoke, staring contemplatively outward.

Outlining the 10-acre wheel is a perimeter wall, which today is topped with 1,000 stupa statues—ornate representations of the Buddha mind that look like play-thing-sized spires rising from lava rock bases. At the center of the wheel, where all the spokes meet, a 24-foot tall concrete statue of Yum Chenmo, the mother of all Buddhas, sits on a throne underneath a four-story pavilion. On clear days, sunlight glints off the pavilion's copper roof.

After the first Buddha was made in 2000, work began on Yum Chenmo. This was in the summer of 2001, months before the attacks on the World Trade Center. The base of the statue was filled with weapons (to signify an end to violence), and the throne she sits on was filled with prayers and blessings. The statue itself was hand-sculpted in place by artisans from Asia. Things were moving along, the progress ostensible; what was once a barren field outside Arlee became a field with a giant statue of Buddha's "Great Mother."

Then the effort stalled.

For nearly seven years, construction on the garden crawled at an undetectable pace. Ewam practitioners occasionally cast new statues and stored them in the "Buddha Barn," but any work that could be tracked from the outside halted.

Part of the issue was pragmatic. "Sometimes there was money, sometimes no," says Deborah Hicks, Ewam's media and communications director. "Sometimes there were volunteers, sometimes no volunteers."

But the problem was also existential. "As Westerners we're untamed for this type of work—working with my mind and what it means to dedicate yourself to something like this," says Hicks. "It takes a great amount of devotion."

click to enlarge Namchack Khenpo leads Ewam members in prayer in the absence of his older brother, Gochen Tulku Sang-ngag Rinpoche. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Namchack Khenpo leads Ewam members in prayer in the absence of his older brother, Gochen Tulku Sang-ngag Rinpoche.

Georgia Milan, one of Sang-ngag's first Montana students and an Ewam board member, remembers a day when she and Sang-ngag walked through the garden site where the statue of Yum Chenmo sat unpainted. "'Well, I guess this is as far as it's going to go,'" she remembers him saying.

In 2008, Sang-ngag, his wife and two young children left Montana for Santa Fe. Milan says he left because rural life had become a strain on his family, with the children needing to be driven into Missoula every day for school. There was also a burgeoning Buddhist community in Santa Fe, where he later opened another center.

"There's some saying in Tibetan Buddhism that you want your teacher to live two valleys away," says Milan. When Sang-ngag left Montana, she remembers feeling both abandonment and relief.

•••

In October 2010, The New York Times ran a story with the headline "On an Indian Reservation, a Garden of Buddhas." The story concluded that "a potential cultural clash has become cultural reconciliation."

Julie Cajune, executive director of The Center for American Indian Policy and Applied Research, remembers when she first visited the garden for one of Ewam's annual peace festivals. She was skeptical. "I guess sometimes gatherings like that, they seem like they don't accomplish a lot," she says. "I think it's good that people raise their voice, but working for peace requires a lot more than getting together and having fun."

She also remembers talking to other tribal members who were unhappy that "another religious group was buying land on the reservation." But, she says, Sang-ngag met with the tribal council several times in the early phases of construction and his efforts to reach out to tribal leaders went far to assuage Native concerns.

Cajune, a Salish woman, feels a connection with Sang-ngag. "There's a familiar history that we share with Tibetan people, so there's this affinity that you feel for someone that has experienced dispossession and cultural oppression," she says. "[Sang-ngag] always brings around the conversation to compassion and forgiveness ... I have deep admiration for people whose lives exemplify what they say they believe. I really see that with him."

But to say this unlikely cultural nexus doesn't invite complication is misleading. Even Milan, who used to work as a physician on reservations, remembers feeling conflicted when she heard about the garden's location.

"Certainly this is a magical place ... When [Sang-ngag] built that garden, he felt it had to be this place in the universe," she says. "From a very personal perspective, I was kind of dismayed. I thought, 'Oh no, not on reservation land!'"

click to enlarge A ritualized approach to Buddha’s teachings distinguishes Tibetan Buddhism from other sects. Above, Ewam member Charlie Pearl sits next to a ceremonial shrine. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • A ritualized approach to Buddha’s teachings distinguishes Tibetan Buddhism from other sects. Above, Ewam member Charlie Pearl sits next to a ceremonial shrine.

The majority of the reservation's population is already non-Native. Since statutes passed in 1904, non-tribal members have been able to buy land. Though most tribal members seem to agree that anyone could have bought the land on White Coyote Road, and a neighbor dedicated to peace and compassion is better than many, shards of discomfort remain.

Since 2005, Ewam has hosted annual peace festivals that feature musicians, Buddhists, environmentalists and a general hodgepodge of people sympathetic to Buddhist ideals. Portions of each festival are dedicated to tribal issues, and representatives from the Confederated Salish and Kooenai Tribes are given time to speak. In 2011, Pat Pierre, a CSKT tribal leader and Salish language teacher, spoke on a low stage with a flapping canopy tent behind him. His enthusiasm was tempered.

"We have land on our reservation right here that is lost to our people," he said. "That monument sitting over there [pointing at the statue of Yum Chenmo], I don't know how many of our people are going to worship that ... We got grounds up in St. Ignatius that are lost to our people, Ronan, different areas, where they build and say, 'This is it, I was called here to build this.' I didn't call them. Somebody called them."

Pierre, who could not be reached for comment, ended his speech with tolerance and disdain. "But we got it so let's take care of it. Let's make it something we can be thankful for. I'm not thankful for losing earth ground," he said. "This whole reservation used to be Indian Country."

Cajune remembers the speech well. While she thinks more good than bad will come from the garden, she understands Pierre's perspective. "I think for people in Pat's generation, all of the change is sorrowful, even if it's benign. That place will have an impact on this small community, because it will become a pilgrimage site ... I think it would be hard to have witnessed so much change that you can't recognize a place anymore."

The garden is not going away. The change is permanent and the two communities are now inextricably linked—sometimes even in unexpected ways. When Utne Reader published its "50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World" in 2009, Cajune made the list for her advocacy of American Indian education issues. On the cover was His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama.

•••

Today, with around 1.3 million practitioners in America, Buddhism is regarded as among the fastest growing religions in the United States (many hesitate to call it a "religion" since Buddha was not a god). In the 1950s and '60s, Buddhist teachers from Tibet led the dissemination of Buddhist ideas throughout the West (other types of Buddhism, like Zen, were also growing in popularity). It became a trend among the high-profile set.

Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder wrote about Buddhism, folding Eastern philosophy into the zeitgeist of the Beat Generation. In 1973, Chö¨gyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who had previously taught David Bowie in Scotland, opened Vajradhatu in Boulder, Colo., which acted as headquarters for his dozens of meditation centers around the country and world. His students included Allen Ginsberg and Joni Mitchell.

click to enlarge Deanna Johnson has been Buddhist for more than 40 years. She says the practice helped her cope with the unexpected death of her son. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Deanna Johnson has been Buddhist for more than 40 years. She says the practice helped her cope with the unexpected death of her son.

In 2010, after allegations of Tiger Woods' proliferative infidelity emerged, he invoked his Buddhist upbringing in a public apology: "Buddhism teaches that a craving of things outside ourselves causes an unhappy and pointless search for security," he said. "It teaches me to stop following every impulse and to learn restraint. Obviously, I lost track of what I was taught."

Today, it is difficult to determine how many Montanans consider themselves students of Sang-ngag. Ewam does not keep an official membership tally. At a recent class on compassion, taught by Namchack Khenpo at the Third Street dharma center, there were about 20 people in attendance. Of that, Hicks guesses about half were regular practitioners, while the other half she did not recognize (she adds that "anyone is welcome anytime"). She also reports, though, that of the more than $900,000 donated for the construction of the garden, only a few have been sizable sums, while more than a 1,000 individuals have made smaller contributions.

But Ewam is just one piece—albeit large—of Missoula's Buddhist community. Today there are nine official groups of Buddhist practitioners in town and each offers a different experience to its practitioners. Some, like Big Sky Mind, offer a fairly relaxed opportunity to try and practice meditation. Others, like Ewam, are more dogmatic, and observe rituals and ceremony. Still others, like the Open Way Mindfulness Center, fall somewhere in the middle.

Despite differences in approach, all of these Buddhist groups form around a central tenant: the human mind is cluttered and needs clearing.

David Curtis, founder of the Tibetan Language Institute in Hamilton and Missoula's Big Sky Mind group, calls the benefits of meditation profound. "The mind is a little bit like a glass of water with sand and we're constantly stirring the sand with the spoon," he says. "The first thing we do when we meditate is that we stop stirring."

Rowan Conrad, a director with Open Way and a Zen Buddhist practitioner for four decades, says there are differences between Zen and other sects of Buddhism. ("Like if you had the pile of money that's gone into the Buddha garden and gave it to us," he says, "we'd probably use it for a social welfare project.") But the core principals are the same, and they have less to do with religion than with science. He points out that medical professionals like Jon Kabat-Zinn extol the benefits of meditation on the mind. "Modern psychology is so excited because it's discovering Buddhist psychology," Conrad says, a coy smile creeping onto his face. "They think they've found something new."

The leader of Tibetan Buddhism shares Conrad's sentiment. In a 2005 New York Times op-ed, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, wrote, "If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality ... By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview."

Perhaps because it has so often been publicly co-opted by the rich and famous, Buddhism has a reputation as the spirituality of dilettantes. David Curtis, who used to teach Tibetan in Los Angeles before moving to Montana, says that perception is finally changing. "Twenty years ago, the Tibetan thing was quite exotic, and people would say, 'Wow, this is kind of cool.' But there's been a maturation," he says. "Where once people thought that it would be hip to adopt a Tibetan name and wear a Tibetan vest, now people are genuinely interested in transformation."

Deanna Johnson, who was a practitioner when she arrived in Missoula in 1973, doesn't know how she would cope without Buddhism.

On Oct.17, Johnson's son Bodhi died from complications with seizures while sleeping in the Missoula bedroom in which he was born. He was 31.

If not for her Buddhist practice, Johnson doesn't know how she would have dealt with the loss of her son. She says Buddhism taught her how to face otherwise unbearable emotions.

"When death happens you can become embittered and deranged. But you can use death and impermanence to compel you to deeper levels of understanding and acceptance," she says. "I feel very fortunate that I have all these incredible teachings. And now I get to practice."

The Johnson family plans to donate money to create a garden in honor of Bodhi on Ewam's Arlee property, next to the Garden of 1,000 Buddhas. She hopes construction on the Bodhi Pagoda will begin this summer.

•••

By 2009, the garden looked much the same as it did for the past eight years: a giant statue of Yum Chenmo sitting alone and gray like a weathering vestige of fizzled ambition.

But then Sang-ngag called with news: During a brief meeting in Washington, D.C., the Dalai Lama had agreed to visit Montana to consecrate the garden upon its completion.

Media descended on Arlee. Local and regional papers ran stories about the garden and the Dalai Lama's first trip to the Treasure State, and donations poured in from people around the country and world. Not only Ewam sangha members and Tibetan Buddhists, but people sympathetic to the effort from around the country (it's rumored a Catholic woman from Boise gave $100,000).

"That's when it got serious. It took that level of commitment," says Milan. "My first thought was, 'Oh, we really got to do this.'"

Since the news broke of the Dalai Lama's impending visit, the garden has transformed. Volunteers have painted Yum Chenmo in bright, primary colors, landscaped a water garden in honor of Sang-ngag's teachers into the slope of a hill and erected 1,000 stupa statues on the perimeter wall.

click to enlarge Today, the Garden of 1,000 Buddhas is nearly complete, though there is no date set for the Dalai Lama’s visit. Above, visitors leave offerings at the garden’s entrance. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Today, the Garden of 1,000 Buddhas is nearly complete, though there is no date set for the Dalai Lama’s visit. Above, visitors leave offerings at the garden’s entrance.

Hicks says the support has been overwhelming at times. "People believe in what the message of the garden is all about," she says. "Anything that is this important just never dies."

Ewam volunteers dedicated the entire month of July 2012 to making progress on the garden. They moved Buddha statues from the barn to their perches on the spokes of the 10-acre wheel, and placed stupas in painstaking uniformity.

On the last day of the event, the North American representative for the Dalai Lama consecrated the stupas. He met with CSKT tribal leaders and discussed the possibility of hosting a symposium on indigenous land issues during the Dalai Lama's visit. He walked with Ewam members through the garden. During a ceremony in the shade of a large tent, the representative led the audience in prayer and gave a brief speech.

Next to him, in a simple frame, was a photograph of the Dalai Lama.

•••

When talking about the Dalai Lama's visit, Ewam members use the word "when" and not "if." What the visit means to the garden and members of the Ewam sanga, though, varies with whom you speak. Georgia Milan sees it several ways. She doesn't feel the Dalai Lama will change the "nature of the garden," and believes the attention he might draw to an indigenous land issues symposium would be the greatest benefit.

"For me, Georgia Milan, it's different. My ego has told people His Holiness has accepted, which he has, and he's going to come," she says. "My ego says, 'Well, I'm a person of my word and I'm going to make sure he comes.' But in the end, does it really matter? No, it really doesn't."

Today, there is still no finish date for the Garden of 1,000 Buddhas, but for the first time in nearly 13 years, a completed product can be easily imagined. Who will visit, what it will mean to those who do, and how it will change the town of Arlee remain unanswerable questions.

Equally indiscernible are the intentions of Sang-ngag. After charging a group of Buddhist converts with the task of building a holy site on an old sheep ranch in a rural Montana valley, he left. It makes Milan wonder. "We've been students for many years, and we still forget the basics," she says. "But there's something in our hearts. We're wild yaks, but we're strong as wild yaks, and we're stupid as yaks and [Sang-ngag] has the patience to be a yak herder."

Maybe, she says, completing the garden was never the point. "I think that the bottom line is whatever path is going to get you to enlightenment is the best. Maybe we wouldn't have sat down and meditated, so [Sang-ngag] made this really big project and saw us worker bees flitting around, and said, 'Let's have them work on it, and they will be a benefit to all beings.'"

Maybe completing the garden was never really important. Maybe the practice was in the task and the burden of the garden was Sang-ngag's lesson.

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