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Tulku Sang-ngang Rinpoche, a Buddhist teacher from Tibet and creator of the Garden of 1,000 Buddhas in Arlee, says the planned visit from the Dalai Lama to consecrate the garden will create a positive influence across Montana. Photo by KURT WILSON/Missoulian

When Tulku Sang-ngang Rinpoche speaks of the significance of welcoming the Dalai Lama to the Garden of 1,000 Buddhas in Arlee, he frames the discussion not in terms of hosting a celebrity visitor, but rather in terms of making your life better.

“His Holiness (the Dalai Lama) for us is the embodiment of compassion, the reincarnation of the Buddha of compassion, so his mere physical presence will have the capacity to bring about peace and compassion in the region,” said Rinpoche at a news conference on Friday where the Dalai Lama’s visit, tentatively scheduled for late 2011, was formally announced.

Rinpoche, a Buddhist teacher from Tibet, has devoted his own life to bringing about peace and compassion in the world. At Friday’s event, he spoke of the long road that brought him here to western Montana, where he founded the Garden of 1,000 Buddhas with the intent of creating an international pilgrimage site for Buddhists, as well as people of all religions and spiritual practices.

“Whether you are from the east or west, your head is black or blonde, we all share the same values in the sense that all of us truly want happiness and peace,” said Rinpoche, speaking through translator Karma Tenzin of Butte. “If you pay attention, all the religions basically teach the same principles of loving and compassion and kindness.

“The idea of the garden is that it’s a place where people of different faiths, different backgrounds can come together and … collectively accumulate good merit so that the world around us can be a better place.”

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Located on 60 acres of land just north of Arlee, the Garden of 1,000 Buddhas is still a work in progress. Prior to Rinpoche’s talk, organizer Georgia Milan explained that the site will ultimately comprise 1,000 cast-concrete statues of the Buddha Shakyamuni arrayed around a 500-foot circular garden connected by eight spoke-like paths to a 25-foot statue of Yum Chenmo, or great mother, at its center.

“This will be one of the major pilgrimage sites in America,” said Milan. “To have a place of such spiritual promise, Rinpoche teaches that just the wind that blows over this garden will spread positive impacts all around.”

Before that happens, much in the way of resources needs to be gathered. Milan said that the first three phases of construction at the garden, which organizers hope to complete this summer, will cost approximately $160,000. The overall cost of the garden is expected to be approximately $1 million.

“If Rinpoche had chosen to live in New York or San Francisco, this garden would have been finished years ago,” said Milan, addressing the fundraising and volunteer effort that organizers of the garden face. “But he said this is the place, this is where the pilgrimage must be.”

Rinpoche said he has faith that the necessary funds can be raised now that construction of the garden is in full tilt. Already, more than 500 of the Buddha statues have been built by volunteers working at the site in Arlee and at a “Buddha Barn” in Missoula, at 1800 Trail St.

“Funding has been challenging, but since word spread about his Holiness coming here it has gained momentum,” said Rinpoche, adding that his group “will continue fundraising efforts and keep building momentum and hopefully things will be OK.”

Once the garden is complete, the Dalai Lama – the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists – will come to give his blessings and officially open the garden to the public. Though the date of that visit depends on the pace of the garden’s construction, organizers hope it will take place in late 2011.

Rinpoche noted that he expects the visit will draw “a diverse crowd.”

“Whenever his Holiness visits the United States, he always gets an overwhelming response, stadiums and halls always booked in advance,” said Rinpoche. “Apart from inaugurating the garden, he will give religious teachings, so it will attract a lot of diverse people. Some of his international students from other parts of the world will be here at this time.”

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