Garden of One Thousand Buddhas

Looking down onto a wheel of dharma at Garden of One Thousand Buddhas.

Sunday evening we saved our visit to see the Buddhas till last because visitors are allowed till 8pm.

Buddhas? In Montana?

Ok, so sister-in-law Laurie told us that morning that we should check out the Buddhas. She had never been there, but while working as an RN on Rescue Helicopters, she had spotted it from the sky. (yes, Laurie is a rockstar) She said it was a place called Garden of One Thousand Buddhas. It’s open to the public even during a pandemic, which made us happy because so many other things were closed.

North of Missoula, on the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation, outside of the small town of Arlee, Montana, is the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas. Gochen Tulku Sang-ngag Rinpoche, a meditation master and scholar of Tibetan Buddhism, had a childhood dream about a peace garden in the mountains. As an adult, he came to this area to teach, and recognized the landscape from his dream. One of his students purchased the area from the tribe, and donated the land to Gochen Tulku. In 2000, volunteers went to work transforming it.

Entrance to the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas.
Large stupas near the entrance represent The Eight Great Stupas constructed during the Buddha’s lifetime, to commemorate eight major events in his life.

The place was easy to find, and had a parking lot with a trail to a large wagon-wheel-shaped garden. The Dharma Wheel is an ancient symbol from India representing spiritual change, the turning toward awakening. The eight spokes represent the eightfold path which teaches that true freedom comes from living in a non-harming and compassionate way. The entrance path leads you directly into the wheel if you like, or you can circle the outside of it. We walked directly to the center. On the spokes of the wheels are 1,000 Buddha statues, and around the wheel are 1,000 stupas.

Entrance to the Dharma Wheel.
The path leads you right to the center of the wheel, if you choose to follow it.
You find the 24-foot tall figure of Yum Chenmo, in female form The Great Mother, at the center. She represents the unity of wisdom and compassion.

In this faith, the statues are not worshipped. It is believed that in some cases, a particularly devout person can receive a blessing or rarely, contact, from a deity through these objects. Therefore, they are conduits, not gods. Buddhist texts name 1,000 Buddhas who are to redeem the world, and that’s where the number comes from.

Stupa, I learned while in Myanmar, literally means “heap.” I double checked that English translation and now I find that the Sanskrit word actually refers to a top knot of hair, which I think is an even better analogy to the stupas I’ve seen! In the Buddhist faith, a stupa is a sculpture that holds holy relics. The website describes their construction, “Each element, from the base to the tip of the spire, represents an aspect of the path to enlightenment, collectively symbolizing the mind of awakening. Each of these one thousand stupas also enshrine an image of the female deity Tara, serving as a potent reminder that spiritual liberation is equally the birthright of all beings.” My child was named for the Irish word Tara, and I did not know until later that it’s also the name of an important Buddhist character!

Looking from one spoke of the wheel, across to others.
The Buddhas appear to be identical throughout the wheel.
The stupas are also identical. The repetition of the shape makes compelling patterns.
I was enchanted by the patterns of sunlight and shadows.

Outside the northeast spoke of the wheel – directly across from the entrance path – is a small, lovely water feature. A little pond, fed by a little stream of water, with Koi fish and water plants. It is surrounded by statues and trees, and is quite lovely.

We had been noticing fluttering prayer flags on the top of a hill north of the wheel, and we struck out across the field. At the same time, a truck was rolling through, picking up freshly baled hay. We stayed out of the way of the workers, and eventually found a trail, which led us not just to the flag structure, but to more statues.

We had explored much of the garden by this time. We walked around portions of the outside, read information boards about volunteering and donations. The place is managed entirely by volunteers. The site hosts some cultural events and concerts, and there is an emphasis on accessibility to all people, some events specifically admission-free for that reason. I am glad to learn that there are cooperative events between the Buddha Garden and the Salish and Kootenai tribes, who see commonalities between faiths. In particular, tribal members note the goal of the garden to unite people and be welcoming to all people, which tribal members have said is important, especially in these times of division in our country.

The alternation of clouds and clear sky, along with the setting sun changed the look of the one thousand Buddhas during the hours we were there. It was never an uninteresting view.

We went home tired and happy. Tanner spotted a local celebrity from the road: a newborn albino buffalo in a herd beside the highway. He pulled over and I got one photo, but I won’t include it because in the photo it appears to be a fuzzy white rock. Then it laid down and was invisible to us. That night, Tanner and I stayed up too late again. This time going through stuff in his garage that my dad, and his bio dad, gave him recently. Mostly boxes full of photographs. I took them all with high hopes of organizing the lot. There are a million slides that need to be moved onto digital, for one thing. I also loaded the Jeep with tools of my dad’s that Tanner doesn’t need.

The next morning I said goodbye early to everyone. Tanner filled a cooler with moose and elk meat from his own hunting trips, and sent me on my way.

33 thoughts on “Garden of One Thousand Buddhas

      1. Something like that. It is the single most important mantra. If you recite it over and over again you may reach “enlightenment”. I tried to find a simple translation but zip. I can’t remember the total translation. Something about “all being in the jewel of the Lotus”. I’ll look again. At any rate: 🙏🏻

    1. I agree that it was unfortunate not to have a better capture of the young albino buffalo. I was happy to have spotted the white blob at a distance. But it’s hard to convey without a photo. Those old photos… whew. That will be a big task. The few we did look through were fun though. Old photos are always accompanied by memories.

    1. Yes, Jolandi! I neglected to mention that while I was writing, though I kept thinking it: that the landscape is remarkable. No wonder this place was chosen. Spectacular is the appropriate descriptor. It was peaceful, but a little charged with drama, I would say, because of the setting. I kept saying “Wow!”

  1. I read this earlier yesterday but the circus is in full swing so didn’t get to say how much I enjoyed reading this. It’s impressive how peaceful it feels. I read a series of books starting with Breakfast with Buddha by Roland Merullo. This reminded me very much of those stories. Who would have thunk it? All of that in Montana! It’s so beautiful. It makes me happy that you found that. I think the Native Americans and the Tibetan Buddhists have a lot more in common than most people realize. Would be fine discussion some day. 😉 Loved all the great photos you did get.

    1. Oops, I could have sworn I replied to this days ago. Sorry to hear there’s a circus in town!! ha ha. I’m glad you enjoyed this one. It was definitely the most remarkable thing about my trip to Montana and Idaho in August. Some of my favourite exploration memories are when I decide to check something out that I’ve never heard of before, and it turns out to be amazing. Years ago I followed signs to Shoshone Falls in Idaho. You never hear of it. I went expecting just a waterfall, and it is incredible. I personally thought it was more impressive than Niagara Falls. That was part of my delight at the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas – not expecting it at all. The setting was truly uplifting.

    1. Oh I’m glad you like it. I’ve never been to China, so I can’t say if there are things I found in common. I have traveled a little in East Asia and it’s pretty neat to have this huge and beautiful Peace Garden with Buddhas here in the U.S.

      1. If you liked the garden you should definitely travel to China and Tibet – stunning landscapes! I also showed the photos of the garden to my partner and he couldn’t believe it’s in the US!

      2. I will make it to both someday. I spent some time in Myanmar and Japan, so I have a little sense of some of the types of landscapes, like terraced rice crops, and many many shrines and buddhas. Thanks for the recommendation. 🙂

  2. What a beautiful post, So loved your narrative as you walked us through your experience, and your photos are amazing… I came to repay the compliment, from Marlene’s blog… I try to follow the eightfold path… Right thinking, right action…. etc….
    And have several Buddhas’s around my home and garden… Never have I seen so many in all one place, or in such a beautiful setting…
    Many thanks Crystal for sharing …. Truly enjoyed 🙂

    1. I am so glad for your visit Sue! What serendipity, to find a post that speaks to you, on the day you come for a look. Standing among 1,000 Buddhas is hard to take in, even while standing there. I feel lucky to have learned it is there, and to have had the opportunity to walk the grounds.

      1. I once went on a business trip to Sri Lanka Oh way back in the 90’s and even there where I saw many Giant Buddhas they did not move me as much as the photos you shared did… So thank YOU.. I feel it is a special place..

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