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On an Indian Reservation, a Garden of Buddhas

November 5, 2010

The New York Times
October 31, 2010

ARLEE, Mont. -­ On a rural American Indian
reservation here, amid grazing horses and cattle,
a Buddhist lama from the other side of the world
is nearing completion of a $1.6 million
meditative garden that he hopes will draw spiritual pilgrims.

Offering prayers to Yum Chenmo, the Great Wisdom Mother.

Mike Albans for The New York Times

"There is something pure and powerful about this
landscape," said Gochen Tulku Sang-ngag Rinpoche,
the 56-year-old Tibetan lama, as he walked down a
gravel road on a sunny fall day. “The shape of
the hills is like a lotus petal blossoming.”

Richard Gere has not been seen house shopping
here ­ yet. But on the land of the Confederated
Salish and Kootenai tribes, a 24-foot statue of
Yum Chenmo, the Great Wisdom Mother, has risen in
Mr. Sang-ngag’s farm field. Nearby, in his old
sheep barn, amid rubber molds and plaster, some
650 statues of Buddha sit in neat rows,
illuminated by shafts of light pouring in through broken boards.

It seemed the perfect setup for a clash of two
cultures when Mr. Sang-ngag, a high-ranking
Buddhist lama, came to this remote part of
Montana a decade ago, liked the landscape feng
shui and bought a 60-acre sheep ranch. At the
foot of the towering, glacier-etched Mission
Mountains ­ not unlike his native Tibet ­ he and
a band of volunteers began building a Garden of
1,000 Buddhas to promote world peace.

The arrival of the exotic culture here in cowboy
country, with multicolored prayer flags flapping
in the breeze, made some from the Salish and
Kootenai tribes uneasy, to say the least.

An unusual land ownership pattern was partly to
blame. While most Indian reservations are
majority-owned by the tribes, a 1904 law allowed
nonmembers of the tribes to homestead land. And
as a result, there are four to five times as many
non-Indians on the reservation as there are Indians.

Mr. Sang-ngag called his place Ewam Sang-ngag
Ling, or the Land of Secret Mantra, Wisdom and
Compassion. It turns out that it was sacred to
the tribes as well, a place where, oral
traditions hold, a coyote vanquished a monster
and drove out many bad spirits so the people could live here.

Julie Cajune, the executive director for American
Indian Policy at Salish Kootenai College and
other Indians began working to build bridges
between the tribes and the Buddhists. They
suggested that the Buddhists bring traditional
gifts, prayer scarves and tobacco, to the tribal council, which they did.

"Many people move here without recognition they
are a guest," Ms. Cajune said. "None of the
mainstream churches or the Amish have done that."

Buddhists in Japan, Taiwan and China have sent
money for Buddha statues. The Dalai Lama has
agreed to come and consecrate the Garden of 1,000
Buddhas after the project it is finished, perhaps in 2012.

But the patchwork of Indian and non-Indian land
holdings within the reservation remains
contentious. Some tribal members are worried that
groups drawn to the Buddhist garden will buy up
nontribal land, driving prices further out of the
reach of Indians, and ignore tribal rules and customs.

They point to the case of Amish families who have
bought farmland within the reservation, said Ms. Cajune, who is Salish.

"It’s ironic, but many Indian people can’t afford
to buy land on their own reservation," she said.
A typical acre for building a home here might
cost $30,000 ­ an enormous amount in rural and tribal Montana.

But Ms. Cajune said there was also an uncanny
kinship between the tribal and Buddhist cultures,
based on understandings of sacred landscapes, and
even notions of honor and respect.

The biggest driver of rapprochement here is a
shared history of subjugation and displacement ­
for the Tibetans, at the hands of the Chinese
(Mr. Sang-ngag spent nine years in a Chinese
labor camp) and for the tribes, by the American government.

"There is a shared vision of cultures being under
pressure and surviving," Mr. Sang-ngag said through a translator.

The heart of the 60-acre development is the
10-acre Garden of 1,000 Buddhas. When tribal
elders came and blessed it, the two groups found
they both used juniper and sage as purifying
incense for ceremonies, for example, as well as
similar prayer cloths and ritual drumming.

After much outreach by the Buddhists, including
asking permission from the tribe to have the
Dalai Lama consecrate the ground, Ms. Cajune
said, "I think local people are feeling more comfortable."

The sheep are gone from the green hills here now.
"They achieved Buddhahood," joked Mr. Sang-ngag,
as he walked through the garden, designed in the
shape of the dharma wheel, which symbolizes the
core teachings of Buddhism. The Great Wisdom
Mother statue contains sacred vases and holy
texts. Swords, guns and other symbols of war are
buried underneath, to symbolize a triumph over violence.

In the Buddha barn, meanwhile, is a Norton
motorcycle, which members here jokingly refer to
as the sacred chopper. It will be raffled to
raise money to finish the garden. About half the money has been raised.

Last week the Buddhists began planning with the
tribal officials about managing pilgrimages to
the site, a possible headache for the tribe.
"Some people want to keep the reservation a good, quiet secret," Ms. Cajune's
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