Practicing patience

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



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Cajune, a Salish woman, feels a connection with Sang-ngag. "There's a familiar history that we share with Tibetan people, so there's this affinity that you feel for someone that has experienced dispossession and cultural oppression," she says. "[Sang-ngag] always brings around the conversation to compassion and forgiveness ... I have deep admiration for people whose lives exemplify what they say they believe. I really see that with him."

But to say this unlikely cultural nexus doesn't invite complication is misleading. Even Milan, who used to work as a physician on reservations, remembers feeling conflicted when she heard about the garden's location.

"Certainly this is a magical place ... When [Sang-ngag] built that garden, he felt it had to be this place in the universe," she says. "From a very personal perspective, I was kind of dismayed. I thought, 'Oh no, not on reservation land!'"

A ritualized approach to Buddha’s teachings distinguishes Tibetan Buddhism from other sects. Above, Ewam member Charlie Pearl sits next to a ceremonial shrine. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • A ritualized approach to Buddha’s teachings distinguishes Tibetan Buddhism from other sects. Above, Ewam member Charlie Pearl sits next to a ceremonial shrine.

The majority of the reservation's population is already non-Native. Since statutes passed in 1904, non-tribal members have been able to buy land. Though most tribal members seem to agree that anyone could have bought the land on White Coyote Road, and a neighbor dedicated to peace and compassion is better than many, shards of discomfort remain.

Since 2005, Ewam has hosted annual peace festivals that feature musicians, Buddhists, environmentalists and a general hodgepodge of people sympathetic to Buddhist ideals. Portions of each festival are dedicated to tribal issues, and representatives from the Confederated Salish and Kooenai Tribes are given time to speak. In 2011, Pat Pierre, a CSKT tribal leader and Salish language teacher, spoke on a low stage with a flapping canopy tent behind him. His enthusiasm was tempered.

"We have land on our reservation right here that is lost to our people," he said. "That monument sitting over there [pointing at the statue of Yum Chenmo], I don't know how many of our people are going to worship that ... We got grounds up in St. Ignatius that are lost to our people, Ronan, different areas, where they build and say, 'This is it, I was called here to build this.' I didn't call them. Somebody called them."

Pierre, who could not be reached for comment, ended his speech with tolerance and disdain. "But we got it so let's take care of it. Let's make it something we can be thankful for. I'm not thankful for losing earth ground," he said. "This whole reservation used to be Indian Country."

Cajune remembers the speech well. While she thinks more good than bad will come from the garden, she understands Pierre's perspective. "I think for people in Pat's generation, all of the change is sorrowful, even if it's benign. That place will have an impact on this small community, because it will become a pilgrimage site ... I think it would be hard to have witnessed so much change that you can't recognize a place anymore."

The garden is not going away. The change is permanent and the two communities are now inextricably linked—sometimes even in unexpected ways. When Utne Reader published its "50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World" in 2009, Cajune made the list for her advocacy of American Indian education issues. On the cover was His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama.


Today, with around 1.3 million practitioners in America, Buddhism is regarded as among the fastest growing religions in the United States (many hesitate to call it a "religion" since Buddha was not a god). In the 1950s and '60s, Buddhist teachers from Tibet led the dissemination of Buddhist ideas throughout the West (other types of Buddhism, like Zen, were also growing in popularity). It became a trend among the high-profile set.

Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder wrote about Buddhism, folding Eastern philosophy into the zeitgeist of the Beat Generation. In 1973, Chö¨gyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who had previously taught David Bowie in Scotland, opened Vajradhatu in Boulder, Colo., which acted as headquarters for his dozens of meditation centers around the country and world. His students included Allen Ginsberg and Joni Mitchell.

Deanna Johnson has been Buddhist for more than 40 years. She says the practice helped her cope with the unexpected death of her son. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Deanna Johnson has been Buddhist for more than 40 years. She says the practice helped her cope with the unexpected death of her son.

In 2010, after allegations of Tiger Woods' proliferative infidelity emerged, he invoked his Buddhist upbringing in a public apology: "Buddhism teaches that a craving of things outside ourselves causes an unhappy and pointless search for security," he said. "It teaches me to stop following every impulse and to learn restraint. Obviously, I lost track of what I was taught."

Today, it is difficult to determine how many Montanans consider themselves students of Sang-ngag. Ewam does not keep an official membership tally. At a recent class on compassion, taught by Namchack Khenpo at the Third Street dharma center, there were about 20 people in attendance. Of that, Hicks guesses about half were regular practitioners, while the other half she did not recognize (she adds that "anyone is welcome anytime"). She also reports, though, that of the more than $900,000 donated for the construction of the garden, only a few have been sizable sums, while more than a 1,000 individuals have made smaller contributions.

But Ewam is just one piece—albeit large—of Missoula's Buddhist community. Today there are nine official groups of Buddhist practitioners in town and each offers a different experience to its practitioners. Some, like Big Sky Mind, offer a fairly relaxed opportunity to try and practice meditation. Others, like Ewam, are more dogmatic, and observe rituals and ceremony. Still others, like the Open Way Mindfulness Center, fall somewhere in the middle.

Despite differences in approach, all of these Buddhist groups form around a central tenant: the human mind is cluttered and needs clearing.

David Curtis, founder of the Tibetan Language Institute in Hamilton and Missoula's Big Sky Mind group, calls the benefits of meditation profound. "The mind is a little bit like a glass of water with sand and we're constantly stirring the sand with the spoon," he says. "The first thing we do when we meditate is that we stop stirring."

Rowan Conrad, a director with Open Way and a Zen Buddhist practitioner for four decades, says there are differences between Zen and other sects of Buddhism. ("Like if you had the pile of money that's gone into the Buddha garden and gave it to us," he says, "we'd probably use it for a social welfare project.") But the core principals are the same, and they have less to do with religion than with science. He points out that medical professionals like Jon Kabat-Zinn extol the benefits of meditation on the mind. "Modern psychology is so excited because it's discovering Buddhist psychology," Conrad says, a coy smile creeping onto his face. "They think they've found something new."


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