ARLEE — Jetsunma Jamyang Palmo looks at home amid the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas, even though her regular home rests on the other side of the planet.
“I don’t find any difference in landscape,” the master teacher of Buddhist practices and philosophy said, surrounded by the flowers and statues of the public meditation space. “Any sacred or consecrated or pilgrimage site can influence a practitioner.”
The garden and its former ranch houses-turned-teaching retreats on the east side of Highway 93 north of Arlee has been attracting visitors from all over the globe since it was founded in 2001. It may seem out of place in the middle of the Flathead Indian Reservation, thousands of miles away from the Tibetan home of Nyingma Buddhism.
Its spiritual leader, Gochen Tulku Sang-ngag Rinpoche, chose the site based on a personal vision he had as a child in Tibet that was realized during a teaching visit to Montana.
Rinpoche also chose Palmo to the the primary teacher at the Turquoise Leaf Nunnery in Pharping, a major Buddhist center outside Kathmandu, Nepal. Her title, Jetsunma, means “venerable” in Tibetan and refers to her status as the first woman to receive full ordination.
She now serves at Ewam’s teaching center in Siliguri, India, a city in West Bengal, nestled in a nub of India between Nepal and Bhutan in the Himalaya Mountains. The center there opened its monastery and temple in January 2019.
The whole nation of Nepal could fit inside the boundaries of Montana. But it holds 30 million people and at least 60 recognized ethnicities, compared with Montana’s just-over 1 million residents.
That said, Montana is no stranger to multicultural coexistence. With eight Indian reservations representing 13 federally recognized tribes, as well as a history of international immigration, Big Sky Country has multitudes. Missoula even hosted one of the original Tibetan refugee relocations in the 1970s.
One of Palmo’s missions while in Montana is teaching a Buddhist treatise known as “The Lion’s Roar,” which explains how anyone has the potential to achieve Buddhist enlightenment. As explained on the Ewam website, “If they did not possess that potential … the rest of the Buddhist teaching would be an interesting but useless philosophy.”
She tries to come annually to Montana to teach for a month at the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas. Last year during the COVID pandemic, that visit had to be postponed as worldwide travel went dormant to control the spread of the virus.
“I was stranded in India,” Palmo said. “But we kept on teaching. We weren’t allowed to go outside the boundary of the monastery.”
Many of her students are taking a course that typically lasts five years. The pandemic interruption has extended that term, because the fifth year requires in-person training.
“It’s only for the serious practitioners who have received empowerment and instruction,” Palmo said.
Palmo’s assistant, Sonam Sangmo, said Ewam teachers saw a spike in interest online shortly after the COVID pandemic took hold last year. Many classes moved to remote formats. But the in-person contact is still appreciated.
“We welcome anyone who wants to have an audience with Jetsunma or Rinpoche if they’re present,” Sangmo said. “We’re not going to turn any students away. You don’t have to be a Buddhist for that — it’s just a human-to-human talk.”
One does have to make an emailed request to schedule such a meeting. The best address is firstname.lastname@example.org.