What if there was a place nearby you could go to where your mind might feel boundless, your heart full and your feet more firmly planted on the ground? For many people, from Pagosa and beyond, the Buddhist retreat center, Tara Mandala, situated just outside of Pagosa Springs has been such a place since the day it was founded more than 15 years ago.
The center is less than 20 miles outside of Pagosa, up Burns Canyon off of Trujillo Road, and yet, remarkably, the center is much better known nationally and internationally, than it is known by Tara Mandala’s own neighbors in Pagosa.
Dugu Choegyal Rinpoche, a Tibetan meditation master and artist, once remarked about the place, “I have no doubt that Tara Mandala will be important, not only for America, but for the whole world.”
Tara Mandala was founded by Tsultrim Allione, one of the first American women ordained as a Tibetan nun in 1970 by the 16th Karmapa. After four years as a nun, she decided that she wanted very much to have a family and so she returned her monastic vows, married, and had three children.
But, as important as having a family was to Allione, she also had a deep desire to continue practicing the Buddhist teachings that had transformed her life. So, she devoted herself to finding ways to apply the ancient teachings she’d learned to her worldly life as a mother and wife.
“I realized that as a western woman, I needed to find the very essence of the teachings and apply them to things like washing the dishes at the kitchen sink. I knew I could find methods to develop the powerful teachings of equanimity, compassion and sympathetic joy in a very practical, everyday way,” Allione said.
In the midst of developing her own philosophies on melding eastern teachings with western life and psychology, and raising three children, she earned a degree in Buddhist studies and women’s studies from Antioch University.
Finally, as her children reached adulthood, she saw a chance to bring to fruition the vision she had at age 22 while living in the Himalayas, of building a Western retreat center — a place where the energy of the sacred feminine could help visitors find solitude and community.
Allione founded Tara Mandala in 1993 where she is now the resident teacher of a variety of practices from Tibetan Buddhist lineages. The center offers an extended summer schedule, brimming over with educational and restorative retreat offerings taught by Allione, as well as other renowned Buddhist and yoga practitioners from the world over.
Meeting Allione feels like putting on the softest sweater you own. There is a warmth and familiarity to her that could put anyone at ease. And the land, buildings and staff of the center that she has created have a similar quality of welcoming anyone and everyone who visits there.
For readers who have never been to the center, let me take you there in our imaginations, just for a moment. Drive down a long winding country road off of Trujillo Road and begin to feel a sense of alertness and curiosity. See long, tall prayer flags in many colors flying as you pull up to the front office. Climb the stairs to the top level of the office building. Enter in. Take off your shoes, clear your mind and feel welcome.
Downstairs, below the front office, you might find American volunteers or Tibetan women in the kitchen preparing delicious vegetarian meals for the staff and retreat goers who’ve honed their appetites on the hard, inner work they do during their practice.
Downstairs is the bookstore where you can purchase Tibetan and Buddhist art, books, jewelry, practice materials, shrine items, textiles and clothing, as well as a large array of wild-crafted herbal remedies and aromatherapy products handmade by resident herbalists from wild plants on and near the Tara Mandala grounds. Here too, you can get your hands on the two books that Allione has written on the subject of using Buddhist teachings to enhance everyday, western life, “Women of Wisdom,” and “Feeding your Demons, Ancient Wisdom for Resolving Inner Conflict.”
Now, let’s walk outside again and begin to notice the land on which Tara Mandala sits. A low mountain peak rises out of the center of the 700 acres that the center sits on. The peak is called Ekajati, the protectoress of the teachings, who symbolizes the oneness of all things. A Tibetan monk, known for his gift for geomancy, helped choose the sight to construct Tara Mandala’s three-story, eight-sided temple.
“The monk told us that this site is absolutely perfect,” said Tara Mandala’s executive director, Cady Holtkamp.
In Buddhism, Holtkamp explained, the four directions hold much significance, and each direction has a corresponding animal and color associated with it. From the temple, in each direction you look, there is a vista, the shape of which echoes one of the animals sacred to that direction.
In the east, Holtkamp pointed out a jagged ridge line like the teeth of a tiger. Look south, and, with very little imagination, you can make out the image of a dragon’s back. Turning toward the west, there is a soaring hill of red soil that corresponds to the Buddhist red bird of the west, and away off in the north, there is a gentle rolling rise in the shape of the turtle that is sacred to the north. For people who live at Tara Mandala, and for the Tibetan monks who come to visit, this beautiful temple is sitting just exactly where it was meant to – both protected and liberated by the land surrounding it.
Luckily, the temple itself is exquisite enough to match the beauty of the site on which it sits. For a year now, since construction began, three master carvers from Bhutan and Tibetan master painter Lama Gyurme Rabgye have been carving and painting the temple, known as the “Secret Treasury Temple” into a work of wonder. It must be seen to be fully appreciated. The colors, the detail, the intricacy, the care that went into every inch of the temple, adds another level of mysticism to this already breathtaking place.
Such craftsmanship is clearly the work of inspired men. I asked the master painter, Lama Gyurme, about the detail in the lintels, or beams, that crown each window and door of the temple. Each is painted with a distinct scene from Buddhist astrology or deity that corresponds to the direction in which the lintel is facing,
I asked Lama Gyurme if he has a particular direction that most inspires and guides him in his work as a painter.
“I am inspired by the center way, the middle direction,” he answered.
Indeed, when you look at any of his paintings, this middle muse is evident — the symmetry and balance in all of his work seem to radiate out from the center, both literally and on a more numinous level.
Outside the temple, you can walk for hours on the labyrinth of foot trails that wend all over the center’s land. From one high ridge on the grounds, you can look out and see Chimney Rock, another sacred place.
“From the beginning we’ve worked closely with the Ute tribe in blessing this land,” Allione said.
Buddhism and Native American traditions have a lot in common, she explained. For example, working and living in harmony with the land are important to both belief systems.
Beneath each building constructed on Tara Mandala land, is buried a large urn filled with symbolic relics. They are offerings to the land, said Holtkamp, as a way of both asking permission to build there and giving thanks for the welcome the land is providing.
It is this kind of intention, and mindfulness in all things that happen at Tara Mandala, that have helped it to grow, in just fifteen years, from empty land with a couple of meditation yurts, into an internationally acclaimed center for gathering, learning and practice.
Allione hopes that as the infrastructure of the center develops, so too will the relationship between the center and the community of Pagosa.
“It is good that Pagosa Springs supports diversity,” Allione said. “Tara Mandala is a great resource for anyone interested in Buddhism, or meditation or yoga. And the art and craftsmanship here is incredible, this place is really a gem for Pagosa people to be proud and excited about. It is very unique.”
Allione and the staff at the center hope to reach out more than ever before to Pagosans, to share with them the beauty and opportunity that Tara Mandala affords. They plan to again offer weekly public teaching and practice sessions for anyone who wants to participate. And they welcome local inquiries into any of their spring and summer retreats.
Yoga buffs in Pagosa should know, for example, that this summer, renowned yoga teachers Sarah Powers and Shiva Rea will come to Tara Mandala to teach the classes, “Insight Yoga,” and “Moving Through the Mandala,” respectively.
Tara Mandala exudes the notion that anyone, from any walk of life, can benefit from the ancient teachings on offer at the center.
“Human beings have cultural differences, but our minds are all the same,” said Allione. “We all want to avoid suffering, but so much of what we do in the pursuit of happiness brings suffering to others and ourselves, and there is no way this can ever bring happiness.”
One of the ancient teachings that Allione has rendered into something that makes sense to the western way of life can be translated as: “Proficiency means you do it even when distracted.”
“This means,” explained Allione, “that just as a skilled rider does not fall off the horse even when conditions are difficult if the rider is well trained; if you have practiced mind training enough, it will naturally and effortlessly arise in adverse conditions. So, if you train your mind in compassion with people or situations that are easy, then when someone irritating or aggressive comes into your life, if you have trained enough you will be able to handle it. Compassion will naturally arise.”
To learn more about Tara Mandala, visit their Web site taramandala.org, or call 731-3711.