Abbot of Ewam Garden in Arlee Says Tibetan, Native American Beliefs Similar

Fellows 2015

By Rob Chaney

October 05, 2015

Also published by Missoulian

A cave in these hills an hour south of Kathmandu reaches all the way through the Earth to Montana.

"You feel something blessed inside," said Jemyeng Palmo, master teacher at the Turquoise Leaf Nunnery in Pharping. "You feel the blessings of Guru Rinpoche."

The small cave barely has room for six people to stand, and soot from centuries of candles blackens the walls. A rock just to the left of the door-sized entrance bears the impression of a hand. Tradition says Guru Rinpoche left it there after meditating, while on a journey spreading Buddhism through Nepal and Tibet in the eighth century.

One of the current leaders of the Nyingmapa School of Buddhism is Tulku Sang-ngag Rinpoche. He founded the Turquoise Leaf Nunnery in 1993. In June, he placed the final Buddha statue at the Ewam Garden of One Thousand Buddhas in Arlee.

About 70 nuns and teachers live at Turquoise Leaf, while nearly 1,000 monks study at the monastery next door. A large Buddhist shrine surrounds the guru's cave. But it in turn is surrounded by Hindu temples and shrines.

That's not so surprising in a nation whose 30 million people claim at least 60 recognized ethnicities, more than 100 languages and dialects, and a religious landmark of some sort literally around every corner. 


Matters aren't so overlapping in Montana, with just 1 million people inhabiting a landscape large enough to surround Nepal.

Nevertheless, Sang-ngag Rinpoche did choose a spot in the middle of the Flathead Indian Reservation, where the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have their own deep relationship with land. Lama Namchak Khenpo, the abbot of Ewam Garden in Arlee, said the Buddhist community has tried to be sensitive to that fact.

"Some places block out any other tradition or way of life – they are very rigid about that," Khenpo said. "Some places preserve their own way of life, but also welcome new traditions. The way we have come, I don't see us encroaching on what they're preserving or harming what they want to preserve. The way we look at things, we find very similar to the tribal traditions here.

"In the Tibetan traditional belief system, we value the surrounding environment – the hills, the trees, the river and the beings that live there. We value them a lot, and if that's in line with Native American beliefs, that's good."

Sang-ngag Rinpoche said he felt a powerful connection to the former sheep farm on Old Coyote Road when he first saw it in 2001. Through translator Sarah Plazas, he recalled how his plan came about.

"When driving on Highway 93, I had an exceptional feeling that I've been here before," Rinpoche said. "I asked the person driving, but he said I'd never been here before.

"The feeling was strong, so I looked into my past. I was certain I had seen this place in a dream when I was a small boy."

Rinpoche said Montana shares unusual characteristics with his Himalayan homeland.

Just as the Rocky Mountains mark the end of the Pacific Northwest rainforest and the beginning of the dry Great Plains, the Himalaya Mountains separate the jungles of Nepal from Tibet's high-altitude desert plateau.

The basin around Arlee holds even more significance.

"The way the mountains and valleys are formed, in Buddhist symbology, makes this very auspicious," Khenpo said. "The valley resembles the petals and stamens of a lotus flower. To the east, it's rocky and hard. The garden faces a mountain with the Salish Indian name 'Dancing Boy.' " 

Through Khenpo's traditional vision, the Rattlesnake Mountains resemble a line of jewels symbolizing great Buddhist lessons. The Salish Mountains contain the image of a red bird. The wall of hills forms a protective barrier in the shape of an upside-down turtle.

"It presents a view like the eight-petal lotus," Khenpo said, "and the sky is like an eight-spoke wheel."


The view off the courtyard of the Turquoise Leaf Nunnery sees a similar perspective from above. The Kathmandu Valley is ringed with mountains that dwarf most of the Rockies long before the real Himalayas even start. 

"The Pharping people are very hospitable," Palmo said of her school's location. "It was somewhat unusual to sell land to Tibetan people. But when they realized he (Sang-ngag Rinpoche) was working to restore the Namchak teachings, it became very easy for him to build here."

Missoulian reporter Rob Chaney is in Nepal this month, studying the connections between that country and western Montana, in cooperation with the International Reporting Project.