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.
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.
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!
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.
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.