Arkansas’s first environmental education state park interprets the importance of the natural world and our place within it.
There once was a log barn on property deep in Newton County. For close to a century, it stood its rocky ground in the mountains near Parthenon, slumping and rusting over the years, like so many old Ozark structures.
But this particular barn, close to the Little Buffalo River, is coming back to life. Here, on the far side of the world from northeastern Tibet, it is being restored and rebuilt — for rebirth as a Buddhist temple.
"That thing was dying," says Jim Westbrook, an architect and Buddhist who has helped work on it. "It was sinking into the ground."
Westbrook's father is an Arkansas Presbyterian minister. He cannot remember a time when he wasn't interested in theology and religion. After a stint in the Peace Corps in the '60s, he studied at the University of Arkansas and eventually worked there as an architect. By then, he says, he was "getting more and more interested" in Tibetan Buddhism.
When a Peace Corps friend told him about a month-long course at a monastery outside Kathmandu, Westbrook applied. "The gist of the letter I got back was, 'Don't come if you're not serious.' " He quit his job at the university, took off to spend a year in Asia, studied with a number of lamas — or teachers — in the region, and he's been a practicing Buddhist ever since.
After a career spent mostly in California and Wisconsin, he returned to Arkansas in 1992. He built a house for himself on Newton County's Mount Sherman.
Westbrook recalls when he and other Buddhists in northwest Arkansas heard that a monk from Tibet had selected Newton County as the site for a retreat center. He says, "We were impressed he had the good taste to find Arkansas."
Since Westbrook has listened to the monk teach, and the two have rolled up their sleeves to work together on the barn temple, his admiration has grown. He is one of several Buddhists in the area and from as far away as Little Rock who regularly attend Sunday meditation at the retreat center now being developed by the monk Khentrul Lodrö Thayé Rinpoche.
Khentrul Rinpoche (Rin'-po-shay), as he is less formally called, "has a real sensitivity to the amalgamation of the two cultures," Westbrook says. "And he has a vision. He's kind of a whirlwind. He's extremely erudite. And he has a gift for languages. He speaks Tibetan, of course, and Chinese. And now he's picking up colloquial English."
'Send a scholar'
In casual conversation, Westbrook and others at the center refer to the monk as Rinpoche, and I will do that too. He was not at the center when I visited. That's not unusual, as the monk travels almost constantly, visiting Buddhist groups across the United States.
But teaching is not Rinpoche's only work. He is also the abbot of Mardö Tashi Choling, a 200-year-old monastery in the Amdo province of Tibet. There are more than 300 monks and 100 children at the monastery, for whom Rinpoche, even from this distance, provides food, lodging, education and a temple.
Amdo province is famous for producing some of Tibet's most famous spiritual leaders, including the Dalai Lama. Rinpoche's monastery was one of many sites of learning and scholarship destroyed during what Buddhists mildly call "the unrest" that has marked Tibet for the past half-century. Mardö Tashi Choling is slowly being rebuilt, and Rinpoche has headed that effort since 1993 when, while still in his early 20s, he was enthroned as the monastery's abbot.
Less than a decade later, Rinpoche's responsibilities expanded. An aging Tibetan monk in California was worried that traditional Buddhist teachings were being diluted in this country by inadequately trained teachers. The monk wrote to fellow monks in Tibet, asking that they send a scholar from his tradition to deepen the understanding of Tibetan Buddhism in this country — and, ultimately, to replace him. Rinpoche was chosen.
Though needed as abbot, he was also a natural choice for the task. Though still young, he had studied dharma, the Buddhist path of discipline, for more than 20 years, with teachers at three monasteries in Tibet and India. He held the Buddhist equivalent of two Ph.Ds. He was recognized as a scholar at the highest level.
In a brief biography on the retreat center's website, Rinpoche wrote that his spiritual advisor in Tibet gave him "a very deep and insistent directive" to leave his home in the monastery and travel to the United States. Though Rinpoche knew little English, he felt he had "no alternative but to comply."
He arrived in the U.S. in 2002, and, with the help of an interpreter, began teaching Nyingma, one of the mainstream traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, wherever invited. Buddhists, like adherents to many eastern religions, do not proselytize. Rather, Westbrook says, since coming to the United States, Rinpoche has begun learning about Western religions.
"Buddha warned against sectarianism — exclusivism, the 'our way is the only way' view of other religions," Westbrook says. "The great Buddhist teachers always say sectarianism is poison. Rinpoche teaches in a very non-sectarian way."
Rinpoche's students say his English is good and getting better, but that when he teaches and wants to be very exact, he uses the services of his secretary and translator. On his website, he writes that he hopes his new work will "serve to benefit beings in this country, in Tibet, and the entire world by protecting many from suffering of body and mind, and spreading peace and happiness in all directions ... like the radiant sun that benefits us all."
Rinpoche's reputation as a clear teacher, a living example of the dharma, and an amiable fellow spread quickly. As Westbrook puts it: "I've known a lot of lamas, and I can say he's personable, highly educated, and a joy to work with. There are teachers and there are teachers. Some present the dharma in such a way that you get, not just information, but understanding. Rinpoche is one of those."
Before long, Rinpoche developed what many described to me as "a huge student base." He is the primary teacher at Buddhist groups, or sanghas, in Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, Oregon and Utah, and he visits many others.
He occasionally returns to his monastery in Tibet. But, though he remains abbot there, America became Rinpoche's home upon the death of the monk who invited him here — and this is where his story joins that of the barn.
'Look at Arkansas'
Knowing that he would continue to travel and teach for many years, Rinpoche nevertheless wanted a place to settle — a place to call home. He asked two of his students in Lafayette, La., to find him a place where he could build a retreat center, and where students eventually could come to him.
He did not want it to be on either coast. He wanted mountains, but not the Rockies. Someplace with rivers and caves would be good.
"People kept saying, 'Look at Arkansas,' " one of his students recalls. Finally, the couple checked out Newton County. They'd found a piece of land they wanted to show Rinpoche.
They took him to a mountainous, wooded site with no buildings on it. The 146 acres were nestled between a bluff and a creek. A short distance away, the creek joined the Little Buffalo River. Rinpoche liked the spot at once. He especially liked its caves.
Caves have played an important role in Buddhism as shrines and places of meditation for at least a thousand years. Buddhists admire the stability of mountains. It's a quality they seek for themselves.
They see caves as places where they can meditate "inside the earth." Remarkably, much of the Tibetan plateau has a cave-pocked limestone geology similar to that of the Ozarks.
The Louisiana couple bought land in 2007 and donated it to Rinpoche's nonprofit. Rinpoche spoke of it as becoming, not just his future home, but "the navel" of his work in the West.
The first thing he, Westbrook and visiting students did was to enclose a small cave a few hundred yards from the river with a façade of wood, glass and native stone. They topped the entryway with a traditional, upswept roof, painted wooden parts sacred red and saffron yellow, and flanked the new cave temple with lines of fluttering Buddhist prayer flags in red, yellow, blue, green and white.
Dan Grussing, a carpenter in his mid-50s who helped build the cave temple, says it will be used for specific teachings that Rinpoche deems appropriate for that environment — "teachings that will thrive in the energy of that cave."
As a young man, Grussing, who is originally from Indiana, was working on a master's degree in public administration, with plans to work for the U.S. Forest Service, when he became "fully immersed in Buddhism." He and a friend quit school and "never looked back," he says.
They traveled the world together, studying Buddhism and making retreats. Then, Grussing says, he "went out in the world for about 20 years." That is, he lived in Los Angeles, joined the carpenters union, and lived a rather conventional life as a Buddhist. That life led him to Khentrul Rinpoche.
Grussing moved to Arkansas soon after Rinpoche selected the land. The friend he traveled with has since come too. Grussing is vice-president of Rinpoche's nonprofit and represents Rinpoche when the monk is away.
"Rinpoche wants to keep this place simple," he says. "He wants only what's necessary to teach. He wants it to have as little impact on the environment as possible and for people to be content with what they have. He wants for the center to be sustainable and his students to be self-sufficient."
Soon after the land was donated, the nonprofit was able to buy 106 acres on a nearby ridge. That property will be divided into five-acre lots for Buddhists who want to live near the retreat or have a place of their own when they visit.
In 2009, when a 3.5-acre farmstead adjoining the land became available, that was purchased too. The farmhouse is now being converted into the dreamed-of retreat center. And the barn has begun its transformation — keeping its tin roof.
"If there's an old building Rinpoche can fix up," Grussing says, "that's what he wants to do. He wants to preserve the cultural feel of what's here. He wants to be as off-the-grid as possible and very careful that we don't pollute."
Grussing, who built his own small home on the ridge, oversees most of the construction. "We don't have a lot of manpower ourselves," he notes, "so we've done a lot of business with local tradesmen and contractors. I think we've had a positive economic impact."
The impact has been mutual. "I've been very, very impressed with the people who live around here," Grussing says. "I've lived many places, but never anywhere where I've met people like here. Their integrity, honesty and trust — I've been astounded. They look you in the eye, shake your hand and that's how you work together. The local guys actually prefer not to have contracts."
As to how "the local guys" view the Buddhists, Grussing says: "Their reaction to us seems open. They watch to see if we operate with integrity like they do, and if we do, they embrace us."
'Live with little desire'
Last October, at a ceremony attended by students from around the country — and briefly, by members of a Newton County horseback riding club — Rinpoche consecrated the land, naming it Katog Choling Mountain Retreat Center, or Katog Rit'hröd in Tibetan. He explained why it beckoned him.
"First, it is a quiet and remote environment, endowed with mountains, water, forests, practice caves and other naturally occurring supportive attributes," he said. "Second, it is complete with all the outer supportive elements for simple and unelaborate living with the capacity to provide basic sustenance of food, water and so forth. Third, for practitioners who come, their needs can be met simply, in accord with the two previous qualities, if they cultivate and live with little desire and greater contentment."
A couple who'd come from Hawaii for the blessing noticed that another nearby property, complete with a house and swimming pool, was also for sale. They purchased it and donated it, and Rinpoche now plans to make it a healing center.
As one woman who attended the consecration explained: "Rinpoche is very aware of the income level in Newton County and how many people need medical care. Among his students, there are many medical doctors and nurses, acupuncturists, and traditional healers. The resources available to him run the gamut. So he wants to take advantage of that for everyone here."
Despite so much activity, only about a dozen people actually live on the lands associated with the retreat center. And two of those, Rinpoche and his secretary, travel more than they are here.
Grussing's old traveling pal oversees the house that's slated to become the healing center. Two women have established themselves in separate, small houses, where they are making three-year retreats. Isolated and committed to meditation, they are supplied twice monthly with food that they have paid for in advance.
Three years ago, a family from Juneau, Alaska, bought a house on property across the creek so that they could live and raise their middle-school-aged son as part of Rinpoche's dharma center. They had planned and saved for the move for years.
Bob Briggs, a retired lawyer, went to Alaska with a team from the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund after the Exxon oil spill. There he met his wife, Kim Corrette, a registered nurse, who introduced him to Buddhist practice. In 2007, the two were part of a group of nearly 60 Americans who went with Rinpoche when he visited his monastery in Tibet.
Corrette says that being welcomed by the monks there gave her the sense that a "prophesy had been fulfilled." Their son, 12-year-old Tenzing, explains with relish that an ancient prophesy foretold that Buddhism would move to the west in a time of "steel horses and iron birds."
(The prophecy, which is said to date to the 8th Century, is often translated: "When the iron bird flies, and horses run on wheels, the Tibetan people will be scattered like ants across the world, and the dharma will come to the land of the red man.")
Two Buddhist nuns also live here. They use the title "ani," the Tibetan word for "aunt," as a prefix to their Buddhist names due to the belief that the Buddha's aunt, or ani, was Buddhism's first nun.
Ani Drolma moved to Arkansas from Eureka, Calif., where she worked for a clinic as a medical transcriptionist. She still holds the same job, with the same clinic, working now via the Internet. Drolma lives and works in a single room in the sangha house, but she also oversees the center, especially its commodious kitchen.
Recent rains, which recently flooded the creek, blocking access to the house, have also driven ants into it, a bit to Drolma's dismay. As she is Buddhist, and therefore strives to cause no intentional harm to any being, bug spray is out of the question. So Drolma has posted notes around the sink asking those who use the kitchen to store all food and dry all dishes and counters as part of her effort to "Help relocate our ant guests."
Drolma wears the maroon robes and close-cropped hair expected of Buddhist nuns. Each element of her robe is symbolic. Her shorn head symbolizes renunciation. Drolma explains, "It means that you have no more attachment to your looks." She says that her transition to Buddhist nun was profound enough that, after being ordained she "went through a half-year of psychological reorientation as to who I was."
Her family had some re-orienting to do too, after they first saw her in her robes and with shaven head. "My mother pretended there was nothing different," Drolma says. "Then she told our relatives, 'That was the stupidest thing I've ever seen.' " After a pause and in a softer tone, she adds: "My brother said it warmed his heart."
Around Jasper, the presence of Ani Drolma and the area's other nun, Ani Tendron, has prompted some reorientation, as well. Drolma recalls her first visit to Miller Hardware, where, she says, "Everyone froze. I think they were in a state of shock." A quiet, professional woman, Drolma took in the situation and told a clerk, "Now, I'd like to look at your routers."
Nevertheless, Drolma says, "Everyone's very polite, maybe just a little disengaged. They tend to look askance. The kids are a lot more oblivious to me, especially the teen-agers."
Tendron and Drolma wear the robes in part, they say, "so that others will see the possibility of being a Buddhist monastic in the West." Yet there are times when it's just not practical to adhere absolutely to Buddhist traditions. One of those is when you want to get from here to there on foot in the Ozarks — when you want to go hiking. On such occasions a nun can opt to change out of the robes.
"I don't think we're legal when we take them off," Tendron laughs. "We're just Westerners trying to get through the woods."
Tendron's house is a few twisting miles from the center. She drives a pickup truck with a bumper sticker that says, "My other vehicle is the Mahayana."
Mayahana represents one of the two major traditions of Buddhism today; it's usually translated as "the great vehicle." But when local people ask a friend of Tendron's what her sticker means, he sometimes says, "Big truck!"
Drolma hopes that the fledgling retreat center "is the beginning of a Buddhist university, with many qualified, authentic Tibetan teachers." Already, the center holds a shedra, an intense educational program, for two weeks of the year. Drolma hopes the center will evolve into "a quiet little place where people do three-year retreats, and shorter retreats, and where there are teachings — and someday a year-long shedra, with lots of monks teaching."
The idea of retreats, like the practice of meditation, is central to Buddhist life. Buddhists meditate as a form of mental training in the belief that, as one monk put it, "although outer conditions are important contributive factors to our well-being or suffering, in the end, the mind can override that."
The goal is liberation, Buddhists say. Meditation is the method. Much as physical training strengthens the body, mental training through meditation allows a person to develop the mental states that foster healing from old wounds, growth beyond self-imposed limits, and a life that's beneficial to self and others.
The retreat center exists to offer Buddhists — and those interested in learning more about Buddhism — an opportunity to step away from their regular lives, however briefly, and explore what it means to practice. Drolma explains, "You can learn to watch your mind and recognize when you're having a disturbing or negative emotion, and you can kind of step back, and you don't have to react. You're not always looking outside yourself. You're looking at your own mind."
'Settle your mind'
"You learn that you're not a puppet of your mind, and so you don't get caught up in the superficial. Developing a focused mind is a skill, and anyone can develop it. What makes the Dalai Lama so powerful is the focus of his mind. That's what the awakened mind — the enlightened mind — is: the mind that's completely settled in its own nature."
Buddhists see a metaphor in the rivers around them. Storms can stir the water. But, says Drolma, as with water, "the longer you can sit and settle your mind, the more it clears. Sediments settle to the bottom. The mind sinks into more and more profound states." As Drolma puts it, when one's mind is "not constantly being whipped about," the resulting clarity permits the "beautiful qualities" of compassion, generosity and patience to emerge.
Yeshe, the center's other monk, is the son of New York Quakers. He entered college to become a naturalist, worked as an environmental educator, then returned to school to study Eastern medicine, which he practiced in Oregon. He says that from the moment he became involved in Tibetan Buddhism, he "felt called to the path of a monk."
Yeshe was part of the group of 70 or so that accompanied Rinpoche to Tibet in 2007. "It was great to be around those monks," he says. It was there that he was ordained. Yeshe followed Rinpoche to Arkansas because "he is the only teacher who has laid out the whole path for me and given me a very clear explanation."
Yeshe finds it remarkable that, at exactly the time he came here, with the blessing of the land last October, the couple from Hawaii found and contributed the property that Rinpoche plans to make into a healing center. When that happens, he hopes to work there.
To support himself now, though, he works full-time in Jasper at a facility for developmentally disabled people. He wears "lay clothes" to the job instead of his monk's robes because he wants to "give people a chance to know me and trust me, and the robes would have created a barrier."
"Right now, I'm basically mainstreamed," Yeshe explains. "Can you imagine if I worked in a bank and wore robes? It would be too strange for people. But I keep aspiring to a job where I can wear my robes."
At work, Yeshe also goes by his pre-monk name, Ken Davidson. "I call it my Social Security name," he says. "It's for taxes and all my legal stuff. Right now, it's also my work persona."
Yet Yeshe realizes that Jasper is a small town, and that anyone who didn't already know he's a monk is likely to after this article. "Everything has to move slowly," he says. "I'm here to integrate with the people and culture. I'm not here to build a wall between me and the community."
So there is assimilation all around. Via e-mail, I asked Rinpoche's secretary and translator, Paloma Lopez Landry, to relay a few questions about that to him. What, for instance, has been the most difficult part of adapting to life in the U.S.?
"Too many concepts about everything," he responded via Landry. "This makes life overly complicated and takes a long time to do simple things."
And the easiest?
"There are so many things. But if I have to choose one, it's freedom." (In parentheses, Landry wrote "human rights.")
Finally, I asked what, if anything, Rinpoche would like for the people of Newton County to understand about him. He replied:
"I'm a lone Tibetan monk far from my homeland, monastery, family and friends. Since my arrival in Newton County, everyone who I have met I have felt has been welcoming, kind, friendly and helpful. I wish to thank everyone for this kindness."
On Wednesday, May 18, Khentrul Rinpoche will give a talk in Fayetteville. For the announcement, he wrote: "Consider how human desire turns into overwhelming greed, destroying in gradual stages the planet and our lives, in turn undoing the livelihood and sustenance of all future generations."
The question to be addressed, he says, is: "Within this infinite universe, how can we as humans abide without harming our small planet and ourselves?"
A current of excitement runs through the mountains here, like the buzz from the saws in the colorful new barn temple. Jim Westbrook, the architect, almost expresses it.
"I think I have the same feeling everyone here has," he calmly says. "We can't believe our good fortune. Rinpoche travels a lot, but he calls this place home."
Khentrul will teach a four-day retreat at Katog Katog Rit'hröd May 21-24, (Schedule and contact information at http://katogcholing.com/rinpoche.php.)
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