Rinpoche’s Garden 

How a reincarnated Buddhist lama plans to seed peace in Arlee

Next time you take Highway 93, look for the turn onto White Coyote Road about four miles north of Arlee. In addition to the street sign, you’ll probably see prayer flags, likely the only ones flapping from a utility pole in Lake County. Not far up the road is a 60-acre site Ewam sangha is converting into a bodhgaya, a place of enlightenment to serve as a pilgrimage site for Buddhists worldwide.

Behind the plan is Ewam sangha’s leader, Gochen Tulku Rinpoche, revered by his students as a reincarnated lama, or tulku, a teacher who’s transcended worldly suffering over the course of past lives but chosen nonetheless to return to the physical realm to show others the path he’s traveled. The way to do this, Rinpoche has decided, is to construct the Magadha Garden of 1,000 Buddhas—an ambitious project aimed at transforming a dusty stretch of prairie grass into a lush and ornate sculpture garden.

The garden aims to transform not only the land on which it’s situated, but also the men and women who work on it, visit it, or even simply find themselves in proximity to it. It will be, according to a Ewam brochure, “the very medicine that can heal all beings…a brilliant beacon that guides those beings to the peace of complete awakening.”

How a ceremonial garden in one of least-densely populated backwaters of the United States is supposed to bring peace to individuals, much less the world at large, isn’t readily apparent, but Rinpoche maintains that the garden possesses transformative potential, and that its construction constitutes a necessary response to worldly conflict and strife, one well worth the thousands of hours of labor and estimated half-million dollars it will take to complete.

“The merits or virtues of the world are declining,” Rinpoche says. “Negativity is on the rise, and building this counteracts that.”

There’s a fair amount of negativity going around these days. The war in Iraq is pretty unpleasant stuff. Then there’s Afghanistan’s burgeoning Taliban insurgency and the recent hot war between Hezbollah and Israel, with plenty of civilians on both sides caught in the middle. Africa is being ravaged by poverty, AIDS and the seeming indifference of the rest of the world. Colombia is in the same mess it’s been in for decades, embroiled in a three-way civil war between left-wing and right-wing paramilitaries and the government. Pick a spot on the globe and you’ll almost certainly be pointing at human misery. Often enough, you’ll find other humans responsible for it. What’s the garden going to do about it?

Comprehending the kind of causal relationship Rinpoche suggests requires abandoning, or at least supplementing, traditional Western conceptions of cause and effect. Communicating such abstractions in English is not Rinpoche’s strongest suit—he understands more English than he speaks, but he speaks very little. To help, he recently ordained a St. Ignatius woman, Lama Tsomo, his student for a decade, as a lama, or teacher, in the Buddhist tradition. Lama Tsomo was raised Jewish and once practiced Jungian psychotherapy professionally; she’s now Rinpoche’s “bridge to Westerners.”

“I don’t have the depth of perception or teachings that [Rinpoche] has,” she says, “so I can communicate with [Westerners] pretty easily.”

Much about Buddhism could easily seem strange to Westerners. Its theological foundations are not, perhaps, any odder than the metaphysical claims of other religions, but they are different, not only because the claims are less familiar than stories about heaven and hell or resurrection and salvation, but also because Buddhism embeds what Westerners call supernatural causation right in the midst of the material world. But, even as Buddhism rejects the traditional Western dichotomy dividing spirit and matter, it relies on a Western-friendly distinction between appearance and reality.

“It’s sort of like we have a windshield that’s really dirty and messy and it’s got all kinds of colors splotched on it,” Tsomo says. “We’re trying to look at reality through that. Of course, [what we see] is going to be warped and twisted and colored in all sorts of ways.” But eventually, by following Buddhist practice—what Tsomo often calls “skillful means”—“we can see reality as it really is.”

What the dirty windshield conceals is the oneness of all beings, the interconnectivity that can explain how Rinpoche’s garden might effect peace.

Just as a wave would be confused, Tsomo says, to think of itself as apart from the ocean, “we’re all made of this Buddha nature, that’s our true nature, and the other stuff that’s covering it over, the neurotic emotions and the habits of mind…we take that stuff to be our self, or our body to be our self, and that’s not really it. Our Buddha nature is truly it.”

And so Rinpoche’s garden is an attempt to align properties of the physical world in a certain way, in a kind of sacred architecture, to inculcate awareness of the interconnection of all things.

“From there,” Tsomo says, “it radiates out Buddha mind and infects anyone who sees it, or hears the prayer flags flapping around it, or somebody walking around that statue, or the birds flying by, or the wind blowing on the birds and people and animals after it has blown by the statue. These are all ways in which all sentient beings get infected by Buddha mind.”

The symptoms associated with infection by Buddha mind— the Four Immeasurables: loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity—help to explain how Rinpoche and his students expect peace to follow understanding.

“If everyone cultivates compassion,” Tsomo says, “then who would be left ever to wreak revenge or harm others? It is the ultimate key to peace.”

It seems plausible enough that walking the shaded paths of an immaculately tended garden resplendent with sculpture, flowers and moving water could cultivate, at least, peace of mind. Visitors entering the garden will see a 300-foot diameter circle with six spokes, each supporting a roughly equivalent fraction of 1,000 2-foot statues of Buddha, with a circumference lined by 1,000 stupas, meticulously constructed shrines containing sacred drawings, scrolls of mantras, fruit and jewelry. Already in place, in the center of the circle, sits a statuary Yum Chenmo, the Great Mother, a smiling, round-faced woman 10 feet high and seated on a 13-foot pedestal.

Hidden from the eye, embedded in the sculptures, are the objects to which Rinpoche and his students attribute the greatest power. These are relics, including ringsels, pill-shaped objects “left behind” in the post-death remains of highly realized beings. Amplified by sacred architecture, Tsomo says, ringsels can infect people with Buddha nature simply by virtue of the power of the person who left the relic behind. Ultimately, belief that garden architecture can fertilize spiritual growth requires belief in the gardener. And belief in Rinpoche involves foreign concepts of lineage and guru-student relationships without parallels in the Western lexicon.

“The whole concept of a relationship with a guru, of relationship with a lama, as a primary relationship is understandable in the East, but in the West that’s not part of our repertoire,” Tsomo says. Learning from a guru, she says, is just a matter of following someone with more experience.

“It’s a little bit like if you’re going to go on the mountain,” she says. “You could go all sorts of ways, but wouldn’t you rather go up the path that’s already been bushwhacked and nicely made, and follow somebody who has been on that path before? You just let them be your guide.

“The lineage holder,” Tsomo explains, “is the last and most recent link in a lineage that goes mouth to ear, mind to mind…that actually can be traced all the way back to the Buddha…We’re stuck on this channel of reality, and we can’t seem to find the channel changer and get to Buddha nature, but while we’re on this level we can meet with someone who is also on this level, such as Rinpoche, and he is connected, as I said, link by link, all the way back to the Buddha, who did join with Buddha nature.”

If trusting a guru to lead you to enlightenment by virtue of his lineal connection to Buddha nature engenders skepticism in the Western mind, Rinpoche welcomes it. Skepticism is what he expects from Western students, who approach Buddhism differently than do students from the East.

“In the East people have a natural devotion,” Rinpoche says. “It comes very easily and naturally without lots of doubt…this is their tradition, and so for them devotion is something that comes very easily, naturally.”

Skeptical or otherwise, Rinpoche finds his Montana students more willing to devote themselves to study than students living on the coasts, who, according to Tsomo, are prone to “hop from lama to lama, lineage to lineage.”

And when Western students do commit to studying and practicing Buddhism, Rinpoche says he finds them well suited to the endeavor, “because there’s a lot of examining, investigating. It’s not a blind faith thing at all.”

While Rinpoche and his students clearly invest a great deal of belief in the power of forces not readily apparent to an empirical mindset, they don’t require unquestioning belief of adherents. Buddhists, Tsomo says, “consider blind faith to be a really low-level kind of faith, something that could easily turn…The faith that comes through actually experiencing [Buddhist practices] and having contemplated them, that’s a much stronger faith that’s irreversible.”

Rinpoche first came to Montana in 1993, inspired by the impression that the natural world remained largely intact here. His trip took him through Arlee and the place, he says, immediately resonated with him, evoking a dream he’d had as a child about America. Driving around Arlee, he came upon the land that is currently home to the Ewam and its nascent Garden.

One of Rinpoche’s students purchased the land for him, the student says, because Rinpoche “wanted to bring Buddhism to the West, and I couldn’t think of a better person to bring it.” (The donor requested anonymity, explaining in an e-mail that “in the Buddhist understanding of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ karma, the ‘positive karma’ or ‘merit’ as we call it, is diminished if we get credit for positive actions. This being a BIG one, it would make a big difference to me in my favor if I didn’t get credit for it.”)

The house in which Rinpoche and his family reside is similarly the result of beneficence, donated by a family living nearby and moved intact to the Ewam property, which also sports a barn and a small outbuilding that one of the caretakers has converted to a residence. There’s also the sangha house, the residence of previous owners, where classes now take place, visitors sometimes stay and another of the caretakers lives. Expanding in a former pasture is the Garden of 1,000 Buddhas.

Much of the labor of building it is supplied by Dorje, a volunteer who lives on the property in a sheep barn he converted to a one-room dwelling, and other volunteers who arrive to work for hours or days at a time. Funding comes from donations. Sponsorship of one of the garden’s Buddha statues costs $150, and donors from Montana and elsewhere have made both one-time and ongoing pledges of support. Occasionally special fundraising projects are undertaken, like a CD of mantras and incantations put to music recorded by Rinpoche’s attendant Tsering Wangmo—one of five she recorded during six weeks of massive civil unrest in Nepal—with proceeds donated to the garden.

The garden’s ultimate impact may be spiritual and esoteric, but the effort going into its construction is concrete and physical.

Rinpoche’s belief that the garden can bear the fruit of its promise stems not just from his pedigree, but from real-world experience implementing what he’s learned. He was a student before he became a teacher, and he evinces affection for those who’ve taught him, and not just those whose intentions were to help. Rinpoche’s brand of Buddhism emphasizes not just avoidance of emotions that cause internal strife, but using those emotions to foster their positive analogues. So he counts even his tormentors among his teachers, and there have been plenty of those.

Rinpoche was 7 years old when Chinese Communist soldiers arrived in his Tibetan province in 1959. The Chinese presence, he says, forced him to conduct his studies, of Buddhism and general literacy both, in secret. As he matured, he joined a group of lamas who convened to conduct private ceremonies. When they began practicing openly again, Rinpoche—then in his early teens—was arrested and sentenced to nine years in prison. During that time he says he was mistreated by guards and pressed into forced labor. But he also met teachers, imprisoned lamas, whose secret tutelage helped see Rinpoche through.

Rinpoche doesn’t speak much about his imprisonment, and when he does he refers to it as an opportunity to use the teachings and practices of Buddhism to discover in the experience of captivity the virtues of Buddha mind.

He chuckles telling a story about jockeying for position during prison lineups, laughing at the memory of how the prisoners elbowed and angled to line up in the middle, rather than at the front or back, since inmates closest to the guards were most likely to be beaten.

Forced to destroy groves of ancient trees during a period of compulsory labor—an action that ran counter to the ethics in which he was being instructed—Rinpoche says he experienced compassion instead of turmoil, reflecting not on the harm he was being compelled to inflict but instead on the “impermanent nature of everything.”

When the Buddha attained enlightenment, Rinpoche says, he gave partial credit for the achievement to a cousin who was always sniping and running him down. In doing so, the troublemaker offered the Buddha an opportunity to practice the virtues that allowed him to reach enlightenment.

“It is,” Rinpoche says, “like a small fire that the wind comes to blow on that then gets big…The ones who bring harm to us are actually the ones who inspire us to practice more.”

Rinpoche has had benevolent teachers as well. One such was Khyentse Rinpoche, whom Gochen Tulku Rinpoche met when he left Tibet for Bhutan following his release from prison and a year of pilgrimage. At the mention of the name of his “very close, close root teacher,” Rinpoche jumps up from the dining room table around which we’re sitting and jogs over to an adjoining shrine to stand below a portrait of Khyentse Rinpoche on the wall and point, beaming.

It’s strikingly incongruous to see a 54-year-old man smiling like a child and pointing to a picture on the wall, but the tableau echoes some of the devotion evident in the relationship between Rinpoche and his own students, who sometimes drop by his house unannounced to steal a moment of company or travel long distances to hear his teachings.

For Westerners, whose typical education involves dozens of temporary teachers, the 14 years Rinpoche spent under the tutelage of Khyentse Rinpoche seems immense. After serving seven years as a teacher of scripture and five more as the Vajra Master—or main lama—of his mentor’s monastery, Rinpoche set out to become a teacher in his own right. He bought land outside of Kathmandu, Nepal, and started his own monastery, now home to about 50 monks. A women’s retreat center and nunnery soon followed. All of it required financing and Rinpoche looked to the United States. He was invited to visit the country by Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche, a Tibetan lama who had already founded numerous centers and meditation groups throughout the Western United States.

One such was the Chagdud Gonpa Amrita in Seattle. Living at the center was a family of five Westerners. The father was himself a lama and the youngest of the children, a daughter named Melong Yeshe, would become Rinpoche’s wife and the mother of their two sons, age 3 and 7, named Sherab and Pema.

To hear her tell it, Melong wasn’t much of a Buddhist growing up. She was, she says, “very rebellious” and “kind of wild,” citing the waist-long dreadlocks she was wearing by the end of the summer after she finished high school. She had also begun to feel, she says, “unsatisfied with the prospects of my life.” For counsel, she turned to her family’s teacher, Chagdud Rinpoche, and experienced a “complete change around of my mind” and a turn toward the teachings of her youth. On the advice of her teacher, Melong went to a Buddhist retreat. She cut off her dreadlocks and, she says, “had an awakening. Everything that wasn’t important anymore kind of fell away and my life really changed drastically…I started to practice and that was what was important to me, and then I connected with Rinpoche.” This connection deepened her commitment to Buddhism, leading to “focused and disciplined” study of the Tibetan language that aided both her newfound spiritual commitment and her budding personal relationship with Rinpoche.

The couple’s decision to start a family wasn’t exactly premeditated, but Rinpoche interprets the development as part of his path, a view Melong has come to share. Placing even marriage and family in service to a higher purpose accords with Melong’s description of life with a lama: “selfless, always selfless. We’re not like an ordinary couple looking to retirement…We don’t have these normal plans because we’re just working for the Dharma”—roughly translated, the way of higher truth. “Basically Rinpoche’s concept is that with every action it’s his intention to benefit” all sentient beings. Marriage to a lama, Melong says, has been a spur to her personal development, though she’s self-effacing in assessing her progress. “I humbly try and be the best I can,” she says. “I feel that I am just climbing very slowly…and I think also being married to a lama, it’s a steep path.”

The benefit of Buddhism, in her experience, is as an alternative to Western culture’s most common currency.

“If you want all beings to find true happiness then you need methods to do that. It’s not something that we can buy…that kind of instant gratification is not going to help us…it’s not going to be something out there that we can find. It’s something inward that we have to find.”

Rinpoche’s students say their Buddhist practice provides benefits both as a spiritual path and as a framework for dealing with day-to-day life.

Elizabeth Dunn, a Stevensville veterinary technician, describes her practice under Rinpoche’s guidance as “daily life…a way of being.” Raised as a Catholic, she finds it appealing that “no other being has power over you. There’s no fear.”

For Florence physician Georgia Milan, studying with Rinpoche has provided perspective on her own life and upbringing. “When I look at Rinpoche [and others] who have been through such horrific experiences, but radiate such love and compassion, it makes me incredibly humble for how fortunate my life is. You would think they’ve never had any adversity in their life.”

As a physician, Milan was particularly struck by the peace of mind she noted among Buddhist practitioners in eastern Tibet while providing medical care there.

“Even faced with great physical suffering, I did not witness any mental suffering. Here, of course, it is just the opposite.”

Tsomo even credits Rinpoche’s instruction with giving her the power to quit smoking.

“I was satisfied enough by practice,” she says, “in both my physical body and in fullness of heart, to give up smoking. I had something better.”

Rinpoche would like to see more hearts grow to such fullness. That hope is what his plans for the garden amount to. Fostering a connection with the universe that suggests a different way of interacting with other beings. Individual changes that aggregate as noticeable shifts in the shared social and political life of a community. An echo of the old saw about being the change you wish to see in the world.

Rinpoche tells a story of the time he went on a pilgrimage, meditating in a cave of great spiritual significance to Tibetan Buddhists. When a layman from eastern Tibet arrived to pray, the man put money in front of Rinpoche and asked him, “Please pray for the long life of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.” Then the man added, “and also pray that all of the Chinese Communists die and that all of the suffering they imposed comes right back on them.”

When Rinpoche finished meditating, he asked the man if he had prayed that the Chinese would suffer. The man replied yes, calling the Chinese demons. Rinpoche replied, a touch of mischief in his voice in the retelling, “Hmmm. If they’re demons, and they did this to you, then if you wish those things on them, doesn’t that make you a demon?”

In Rinpoche’s story, the man saw his error and vowed to change his ways. Rinpoche—who takes his oath as an American citizen next month—demands of his Western students the same compassion and equanimity toward those who cause harm. He also hopes to seed such equanimity among his soon-to-be fellow citizens.

Already Rinpoche’s garden has played host to two installments of an annual Festival of Peace, featuring speakers who promise that violence will never beget anything but violence until some victim refuses to respond in kind. On Sept. 11, the fifth anniversary of the day President George W. Bush has labeled the start of the war on terror, Rinpoche plans a ceremony to refocus the events of five years ago through the lens of Buddha mind and its accompanying virtues of loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity.

An invitation to attend the ceremony comes at the end of a 90-minute lecture on a sweltering evening in a stuffy classroom, and Rinpoche’s translator, like many of the dozen attentive listeners, looks worn. Rinpoche issues the invitation and the translator repeats the gist of it, though not its essence:

“On 9/11, which is a Monday, we are going to be doing a night of prayers for the victims of 9/11,” she says.

An audience member who understands Tibetan interrupts the translator, interjecting, “and the perpetrators.”

The translator takes an audible breath as she realizes her omission. “And the perpetrators, exactly, thank you,” she adds emphatically. Then, sighing, she says more quietly: “After all that teaching…”

Even for the devout, even on the heels of a lengthy lecture on the habits of Buddha mind, regarding violence’s victims and perpetrators with equanimity does not come easily.

Maybe Rinpoche’s garden will make it easier to walk that path, or at least to imagine what such a path might look like.

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