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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."
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