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.
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.
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."