Nonduality: The Varieties of Expression Home

Jerry Katz
photography & writings

Search over 5000 pages on Nonduality:

Click here to go to the next issue

Highlights Home Page | Receive the Nondual Highlights each day

#2584 - Thursday, September 14, 2006 - Editor: Jerry Katz



A very nice article about a garden of 1000 Buddhas in Montana: 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.”






Rinpoche’s Garden by Jason Wiener


How a reincarnated Buddhist lama plans to seed peace in Arlee (Montana, U.S.A.)



Next time you take Highway 93, look for the turn onto White Coyote
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


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
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


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


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


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


“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


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


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


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


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


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


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.

top of page