Practicing patience 

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

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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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