Practicing patience 

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

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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.

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