Buddhist festival reveals colorful side of Tibetan culture

The Missoulian
June 07, 2015 6:05 pm • By Rob Chaney

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A member of the Ewam Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism performs a "Black Hat" dance during the Tibetan Cultural Festival at the Garden of 1,000 Buddhas on Sunday in Arlee.

A member of the Ewam Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism performs a “Black Hat” dance during the Tibetan Cultural Festival at the Garden of 1,000 Buddhas on Sunday in Arlee.

ARLEE – The last Buddha is placed. The last flower is planted. But the Garden of 1,000 Buddhas has only begun to blossom.

To the enjoyment of about 100 spectators on a sunny June Sunday, members of the Ewam Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism danced, sang and even argued in celebration of the garden’s completion. As school spokeswoman Deborah Hicks told the audience, “You can be a meditative group today, but it’s meant to be pleasurable.”

Visitor Thomi Ellsworth of Missoula said she enjoyed the festive way of learning about Tibetan history.

“I was struck by the authenticity of the dances and the music and all the costumes,” Ellsworth said. “It was a great way to learn the meaning of the snow lion in the Tibetan flag.”

The Snow Lion Dance was the hit of the four-hour cultural demonstration, especially for the many children in the audience. While Ewam founder and spiritual leader Tulku Sang-ngag Rinpoche described the mythical lion as a protector and guardian of Tibet’s culture, it was far from fearsome.

In fact, two-person dance costume with the huge eyes and long teeth behaved more like a pampered pet with its human dance partner, who was wearing a traditional Tibetan “Long-life” had and colorful upturned felt boots. After some friendly stomping around, the two lay down for a meal of barley cakes and beer.

Other dances took a more formal or serious tone. The five members of the Dakini dance moved in slow, precise patterns to evoke their teachings of pacification, enrichment, magnetizing power, wrathful defense and supreme spiritual accomplishment.

“The dancers consider this a meditation practice,” Rinpoche said through translator Sarah Plazas. “It’s a form of liberation upon seeing. It pacifies sufferings and is very beneficial.”

While the female Dakini dance was aimed at inner thoughts, the male Dance of Wrathfulness and the Black Hat Dance were more of an external expression. Contrary to their titles, the two dances were expressions of protection from obstacles and preparation for coming new times, Rinpoche said.

After the dances, Ewam lama Carol Fitzpatrick said placing the last of the thousand Buddha statues, stupas and flowers was a great milestone after 15 years of work. But it was also the stage-setter for the next efforts.

“We’re now beginning to see what it will be like in 20, 30 or 50 years from now,” Fitzpatrick told the audience. That includes turning the historic farm buildings on the property north of Arlee into a home for resident monks and nuns at the garden and a teaching center for Buddhist practitioners. And a new, third project will be a community center suitable for future festivals as well as weddings or other events.

That effort will require lots of time and money, Fitzpatrick said. In the short term, the Buddha Garden is starting a weekly gathering on Saturdays to meditate and tend the flowers, followed by a pot-luck meal.

Toward the end of the festival, a group of monks engaged in a debate of Buddhist teaching that looked more like a slapstick comedy routine than a religious lesson. Hicks said the format helped make the lengthy lessons memorable and lighthearted, despite their seriousness.

Dozens of other tourists wandered around the large circular garden with its numerous resting spots and shrines. While the garden is open year-round, seeing it in June gives it a special appearance.

“I’ve been here before, but not for a celebration or event,” said Leslie McAffee of Stevensville. “Even with all the activity, it still has that same very peaceful feeling. But it’s completely different seeing everything in the garden in bloom. It’s breathtaking.”



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