September 9, 2013

Exploration: Montana’s Garden of One Thousand Buddhas. ~ Jenna Penielle Lyons

I’ve spent a lot of time here during the roughest times of my life, and some of the happiest times in my life have been spent here too. 

It felt like the right place to go.

It looks like a Dharma wheel from the air: a Montana-made mandala. I had the chance to fly a Cessna over it with a monk and the love of my life last year. And then I wrote a paper about it. Now, I want to share it with all of you, and I hope you make it here someday.

Though barns, horses, and an Indian reservation surround the Ewam Garden of One Thousand Buddhas, it has been designated as an International Center of Peace with one of its purposes being the preservation of Tibetan culture—to educate those who may never travel to India, Nepal, or Tibet.

Prior to the site’s construction in 2000, Gochen Tulku Sang-ngag Rinpoche, master of the Nyingma school of Buddhism, chose the precise location of the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas (outside of Arlee, MT on White Coyote Road) because it emulated a vision he had as a child.

The Garden of One Thousand Buddhas is of particular interest through a Tibetan Buddhist geographical lens because its surroundings mimic many of the aesthetic characteristics of Tibet itself.

Buddhism, when attached to a place, affords said place an element of transformability; the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas in Arlee, Montana is an example of a place transformed into a replicated Tibet, and this transformation is possible because of geographical similitude and the symbolism of Buddhism.

Symbols are most successful—even archetypal—when they can be experienced on multiple visceral, tangible, and psychological levels.

However, in order for a symbol to be successful through war and peace, it must exhibit some sort of continuity; on the most foundational of levels, a mandala is an arrangement of deities visualized in sets of four, eight, sixty-four or more and laid out along the axes of cardinal vectors around a central point.

Acting as the analog to the apex of the linear connective of a lotus blossom, the mandala model applies equally to the universe as a whole, to the country Nepal, to each city, to each temple and shrine, and, tantrically, to the worshiper’s own body.

In essence, the symbol of the mandala translates on every level imaginable.

Picture a lotus blossom itself, the blossom within the mandala, the Dharma wheel, and the blossom within the body of a practitioner.

The Dharma wheel, the lotus blossom, and the mandala of this sacred space transcend geography.

The eight spokes radiating outward from the hub of the Dharmacakra, or Dharma wheel, represent the analytical mind, the hub itself represents discipline, morality, and monastic conduct, and the rim represents meditation itself. The direction the eight spokes radiate toward represents the Noble Eightfold Path, the rim turning toward awakening; the wheel in its fullest expression is a representation of wisdom.

And, if one looks at a Google maps image of Lhasa, the blueprint city of Tibetan Buddhism and its architecture, he or she will see that the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas bears an uncanny resemblance to the Lhasa city center.

More intimately, one usually doesn’t think of his or her body as a living and functioning Dharma wheel. But, your body is a Dharma wheel!

Exhibiting purity and emptiness surrounded by Montana’s famous big sky and circumambulatory ridgelines, the flat ground off of White Coyote Road was an ideal place for the construction of this center of worship; the appropriateness of Arlee for the center’s construction is most evident from the left seat of an airplane.

However, like most concepts in Tibetan Buddhism, other perspectives are applicable; the visualization of the body of the Buddha is the transcription of his physical body, by extension, into a meditative place—seated.

These meditation practices are executed in advanced tantric practices and involve various stages—each corresponding to the three kayas, which are levels of construction symbolizing enlightened mind, body, and speech.

It is crucial to descend from our aerial outlook in the photo above in order to analyze the symbolism and physical attributes of the meditative seated position, particularly as evident in the construction of a stupa.

In the seated Buddha form, note the skyward direction of the crown as an aperture, the reservation of the throat, the steadfastness of the heart, the emphasis on the navel center, rigidity of the spine and the foundational nature of the root: there are twenty-four sacred places in the body as a mandala.

There is an extensive body of knowledge as to the association of the body with the wheel. In the body, there are 72,000 nadis, or channels, which manifest like lotus petals or the spokes of a wheel.

Specifically in the meditative seated position, a practitioner observes and manipulates the inextricable relationship among the channels of the body—the nadis—and the icons of architectural Tibetan Buddhism.

This level of imprinting—one which reveals endless geographical, mathematical, aesthetic, physiological, and emotional layers—is the reason for the belief system’s success in many parts of the world, and Montana is no exception.

And if understanding Tibetan Buddhism (on any level) is difficult at the moment, visiting this peaceful place will help.

I’ve seen an entire community come together to make this project possible and to enjoy it together.

There are constant festivals, meditations, and retreats happening there. A persistent influx of diverse and eclectic individuals stream into the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas from all parts of the world.

Bike riders stop there. Monastics trickle through on a regular basis, and a regular group of volunteers makes sure that the garden stays beautiful and maintained for everyone to enjoy.

If you haven’t seen the lush lavender gardens in the foreground of timbered mountains, the bright white rows of stupas, and the gorgeous Prajnaparamita statue in the middle of the Dharma wheel,  I would encourage you to make the pilgrimage to Arlee, Montana.

The people are kind. The view is stunning. And the karma is bountiful.

You won’t be disappointed, and you might feel the inner peace that I have felt so many times.

For more info about Ewam Garden of One Thousand Buddhas, visit this website.


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Ed: Catherine Monkman

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