Native Village
Youth and Education news
 December 1, 2010, Volume

On an Indian Reservation, a Garden of Buddhas
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Montana: A Buddhist lama from Tibet is building a $1,600,000 meditative garden on the Flathead Indian Reservation, home to the Salish and Kootenai tribes.

“There is something pure and powerful about this landscape,” said Gochen Tulku Sang-ngag Rinpoche, 56.  “The shape of the hills is like a lotus petal blossoming.”

Mr. Sang-ngag is a high-ranking Buddhist lama. Many years ago he visited Montana and liked the feng shui of its remoteness so much that he bought a 60-acre sheep ranch.

With help from volunteers, Mr. Sang-ngag is building a Garden of 1,000 Buddhas to promote world peace.  A 24-foot statue of Yum Chenmo, the Great Wisdom Mother, has risen in his farm field. In an old barn, 650 Buddha statues already sit in neat rows.

Mr. Sang-ngag called his place Ewam Sang-ngag Ling, or the Land of Secret Mantra, Wisdom and Compassion. As it turns out, the land is also sacred to the Salish and Kootenai.  Oral traditions name it as the place where coyote defeated a monster and drove out many bad spirits so the people could live here.

But this exotic culture in cowboy country is making some tribal members uneasy. Land ownership is partly to blame. While Indians own most of the reservation lands, a 1904 law allowed non-natives to homestead.  Today, almost 5 times as many non-Indians live on the Flathead as Indians. Tribal members worry that groups drawn to the Buddhist garden will buy up non-tribal land. That would drive prices even further out tribal members' reach.

“It’s ironic, but many Indian people can’t afford to buy land on their own reservation,” said Julie Cajune, executive director of American Indian Policy at Salish Kootenai College. A typical acre for a new home might cost $30,000 — an enormous amount in rural and tribal Montana.

Maintaining tribal laws and culture is another concern when non-natives move ins.

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

The Buddhists, however, are unique. Cajune notes the uncanny kinship between tribal and Buddhist cultures. Each is based on understanding sacred landscapes, honor and respect.  Both share a history of subjugation, displacement, and discrimination. Tibetans faced theirs at the hands of the Chinese (Mr. Sang-ngag was in a Chinese labor camp for 9 years.) For the Salish/Kootenai, it was the American government.

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

Cajune and other Salish/Kootenai began building bridges between the tribes and the Buddhists. They suggested the Buddhists bring traditional gifts, prayer scarves and tobacco to the tribal council. They did.

When tribal elders llater came to bless the land, both groups discovered they used juniper and sage to purify and for ceremonies. They also shared similar prayer cloths and ritual drumming.

Ms. Cajune says this possible cultural clash has become a cultural reconciliation. “It’s two cultures honoring each other in peace. That’s a powerful story people need to hear," she said.

The Buddhists and tribal officials are now working together to manage pilgrimages to the site.  Mr. Sang-ngag says good karma, or spiritual energy, is ebbing from the earth, and the garden will help enhance it. “It’s designed to awaken the Buddha nature” of wisdom and compassion in anyone who gazes upon it, said Lama Tsomo, a student who lives nearby.

The heart of the Buddhists' 60-acre development is the 10-acre Garden of 1,000 Buddhas. The Garden is shaped like a dharma wheel, which symbolizes Buddhism's core teachings. 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.

Buddhists in Japan, Taiwan and China have sent money for Buddha statues. Nearly have the funds have been raised. The Dalai Lama will consecrate the Garden of 1,000 Buddhas when it's completed, perhaps in 2012.

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