Friday, June 9, 2023

They moved to a Buddhist retreat in rural America. Have they found happiness?

Ani Wangmo and I are being tailgated. We’re in a white pickup truck, and the man behind us is driving a mid-size silver Pontiac. There’s real risk: deer and armadillo are splattered all over the narrow, cliffside Ozark road. If we need to stop suddenly, there’s nowhere for the Pontiac to swerve. The car will drive into us, the oncoming lane, or off the cliff.

We’re on the six-hour grocery run that Wangmo makes twice a month for the practitioners who are in retreat at the Katog Rit’hröd Buddhist center in Parthenon, Arkansas. These practitioners cannot go into town: they’re immersed in a three-year, off-grid retreat to intensively practice and study Nyingma Tibetan Buddhism.

Wangmo, 46, is driving in her nun’s robes – all saffron and burgundy. She’s not under the speed limit, but the tailgater is our fifth of the day. He’s aggressive. Eventually, there’s a pull-off. Wangmo drives into it calmly. The Pontiac revs its engine as it passes, and the noise vibrates into the pickup.

“Thank goodness for that pull-off, gosh,” Wangmo says. “May everyone have a pull-off.”

Wangmo says the second phrase in the intonation of a loving-kindness meditation, in which a person directs kind-hearted thoughts towards others. It’s a type of meditation probably familiar to anyone who has used a meditation app, and its positive effects are increasingly well researched. In randomized control trials, those who practiced it for as little as six to 12 weeks showed decreased bias and telomere attrition – that is, they better maintained DNA regions associated with ageing. They also report experiencing fewer depressive symptoms, increased social connection and more daily positive emotions.

The effect Wangmo’s spoken meditation has on the two of us is clear: we’re not dwelling on the reckless dweeb in the Pontiac.

We pull back on to the road, cheerful.

The temple on the hill behind a large garden at the center. Photograph: Terra Fondriest/The Guardian

The first time I heard about Katog Rit’hröd, I was a few eggnogs in at a Christmas party. I asked the stranger next to me my favorite late-night icebreaker question: did he know anyone truly happy?

“Khentrul Lodrö T’hayé Rinpoche,” he answered, naming the Tibetan Buddhist scholar and monk who oversees the center.

The stranger turned out to be Nick Kolachov, who had done construction there. We ended up talking at length about his time at the center, where monastics and lay practitioners practice a traditional form of Tibetan Buddhism that originated in the eighth century. The majority of the residents are Americans who were introduced to Buddhism in a relatively secular way, such as a mindfulness class, or a lecture. They then committed thousands of hours to practice.

Nestled in the gorgeousness of the Ozarks, the center is remote – three miles down a dirt road with blind turns and across a low bridge that floods impassably up to 45 days a year. Nearby medical care is limited. Summers are sweltering, and the center’s tree-quilted acres are home to swarms of chiggers and mosquitoes, disease-carrying ticks and poisonous spiders. Many practitioners’ families are hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away.

Yet every few years since Katog Rit’hröd’s founding in 2007, another handful of people move into the center’s wooden cabins or purchase homes in the surrounding hillsides. During non-pandemic years, as many as 250 additional practitioners come to the center for two- to eight-week retreats, staying in the center’s community lodge or camping on the property by donation.

people walk outdoors next to gold structures
Buddhist practitioners arrive for morning meditation. Photograph: Terra Fondriest/The Guardian

Were they, as Kolachov was telling me, significantly happier for it?

With this in mind, I spent a week shadowing practitioners. I wanted to ask what motivated their involvement with the center – and whether it changed them in the ways they had hoped.

I meet Amadeo Gonzales in the center’s 1,600-square-foot main temple. The high ceiling is rimmed with windows that let in birdsong. Gonzales, who is in his late 40s, is one of the center’s main builders and moved here in 2013. He helped set the beams of cedar and Arkansas pine for the temple we’re standing in, and he’s either built or repaired every cabin, temple, shed and road on the center’s 290 acres.

We eat bagged lunches out on the temple patio. He tells me he was in his early 20s and living in Oregon when a friend invited him to a Buddhist practice group. “There was just something magnetizing to me about it,” he says. “As a young teenager, I had always been interested in philosophy. You know – what is the meaning? What is true?”

As he eats an almond butter sandwich, he explains how he’s seen Buddhism affect people who tend to approach things intellectually. “Logic plays a very prominent role in the Tibetan tradition,” he says. However, he feels there are limits to where logic can bring a person. In Tibetan Buddhism, he says, “compassion is the underpinning of the whole project.” He’s seen people who began practicing finally feel their intelligence was being applied to something meaningful.

Gonzales spent the morning with other practitioners, meditating and chanting in English and Tibetan. Practice takes many forms – but there are three core components. The first is calm-abiding meditation, which Khentrul Rinpoche later summarizes to me as “the process of calming the negative and discursive thoughts of the mind”. The second is contemplative meditation, a form of analytical inquiry in which one “seeks out what is true about the nature of our experience through logic and reasoning”. The third is that all practice be done with the motivation of bodhicitta – great compassion.

Khentrul Lodrö T’hayé Rinpoche. Photograph: Terra Fondriest/The Guardian

Researchers often compare the impact of different meditative practices to different sports: football players will develop much differently than ballerinas. Studies have linked the first core component – calm abiding meditation – to enhanced attention, decreased stress and improvements in performance. Another potential benefit: in one study, randomly assigned participants who did a three-month retreat that emphasized Tibetan Buddhist calm-abiding practices finished with higher telomerase activity – that is, higher activity of an enzyme that repairs DNA regions associated with ageing.

I follow Gonzales as he retrieves his tool belt from a cabin he’s been remodeling for the safety of an elderly practitioner. As we walk up a dirt road, I ask if his practice has any effect on his workday. He says he tries to “maintain the awareness of meditation” in his daily life – a practice referred to by many at the center as “living the dharma”.

“In a workday, there can be a lot of tightness,” says Gonzales. “Pressure. Scheduling. Feeling behind – or just a lot of planning.”

So he engages in contemplative emptiness practice – “emptiness” here meaning the recognition that everything is the result of complex webs of interdependence. We can see an ear of corn on the table and eat it, or we can remember it took farmers, truckers, soil, irrigation, bees – that it’s a collection of kernels, a cob, cellulose, atoms. We can feel a solid and inescapable anger, or we can step back and see its components and the conditions that led to it.

Gonzales says a feeling of spaciousness accompanies meditating on emptiness: “It lifts the tightness.” He says his overall practice has changed him. “I get less nervous, less anxiety,” he says. “I’m better organized. More friendly. Less – I hope anyway – less self-referenced.”

small house among trees
One of the ‘off-the-grid’ homes at the top of the mountain. The homes belong to practitioners who live there year-round or visit occasionally. Photograph: Terra Fondriest/The Guardian

Before moving to Parthenon, Gonzales owned a construction company in Alaska. The decision to relocate was difficult. “I was very happy, with a very good life,” he says. “It was meaningful for me, but I don’t know how much that extended beyond my immediate family and friends.” By the end of a summer working at Katog Rit’hröd, he realized helping to build the center would provide a greater sense of meaning to his working hours – and to his life. A decade later, he still feels he made the right decision.

The day we go shopping, there’s a buoyancy to Wangmo – the kind that leads people to seek her out. At the Walmart, she greets the three men who load the truck at curbside pickup by name. When we go to the health food store, a young woman approaches her to have a heart-to-heart. The banter she has with the owners of the local hardware store is rapid-fire and full of inside jokes.

I keep thinking of a striking meditation study in which the photographed faces of long-term meditators were rated as appearing “more comfortable in their own skin” and less neurotic than controls.

That’s why, when we take a break at a cafe and I ask Wangmo what impacts she’s seen from practice, I’m surprised when she quickly responds: “You learn not to hate yourself.”

She tells me about a job she had at a clothing boutique in California. “One thing we always noticed, when women would try on a blouse, jeans, whatever – they would always say, ‘I’m too big for these,’ instead of saying, ‘This is the wrong size.’ You would hear, ‘I don’t fit this,’ versus, ‘This doesn’t fit me.’” Wangmo says contemplative meditation helps her identify mental patterns like these.

​​She adds that being more oriented towards the wellbeing of others is a help in itself. “If you’re not meditating on your own issues – you know, poor me, everything sucks, I’m not good enough, I’m too fat – then it’s harder to hate yourself.”

people in a shrine with vibrant colors and flowers
Ani Wangmo and Caitlin Grussing prepare the shrine before the morning meditation. Photograph: Terra Fondriest/The Guardian

I ask how she was introduced to Buddhism. She replies: “A credit card company.” She worked in San Francisco as a customer service representative. It was 1999. Two colleagues – one Buddhist, one Christian – got into a debate about what Buddhism was. Curious, Wangmo started attending a meditation class. “It gave me a chance to step out of go go go San Francisco culture, and take time to breathe – which I didn’t find time to do in the rest of my life.”

When I ask if practice has changed her day-to-day moods, her voice suggests she’s realizing something on the spot. “I’m more content. I do have more joy,” she says. But her enthusiasm for practice comes from seeing markers of change in herself: “I know that I’m not the same person I was before I started.” No one I talk to at the center is focused on being happier; they’re focused on living more aligned with their values. They just happen to also be happier.

She gives the example of how she might react to a fender bender. “Before I started practicing – or early on – I would have gotten flustered. Maybe gotten out of the car and yelled at the other person.” After years of practice, she says, her responses to challenging situations rarely come from places of anger and reactivity; they’re based in compassion and patience instead. Which is why I’ve just watched her navigate tailgaters for six hours, unruffled.

people sit in temple
Ani Wangmo practices in the temple during a daily practice led by Khentrul Rinpoche. Photograph: Terra Fondriest/The Guardian

Wangmo moved here in 2020. She was, by that time, a birth doula and massage therapist. Then the pandemic came, making it nearly impossible for her to work. There was also the fact that she and her husband – a Buddhist practitioner with whom she is still close – had divorced the year before. They had been married for 13 years, and Buddhist practice had been a part of their relationship. After the marriage ended, she had no partner for practice. She realized she wanted to move to a Buddhist center.

She took her monastic vows after living at Katog Rit’hröd for a year. “I chose to become a nun because at 46 I don’t see myself choosing to start a family, and there’s that enthusiasm piece – about wanting to go deeper with the path.” She also remembers thinking: “Well, for heaven’s sakes. I’m already doing all the stuff anyhow. I might as well take those vows.”

“I’m always telling people: this is no utopia,” says Paloma Lopez Landry, who has translated for Khentrul Rinpoche at public events since his arrival in the US in 2002. “Everybody comes with all their human problems.”

Given the size of the center, when people aren’t actively working or practicing together, they still intersect frequently. There are disagreements. People sometimes get upset. “Each person has their own issues and sensitivities and challenges,” Landry says. “We have tools to work with each other, but it can be very challenging.”

woman works with flowers
Haley Kuntz works to refresh the shrine in the temple. Photograph: Terra Fondriest/The Guardian

I’m never told moving to the center is required for a better life – or that it necessarily even results in one for practitioners. “How much they’re able to work on their minds is what reduces suffering, more than the external circumstances,” Landry says.

However, practitioners do find support in the external circumstances. “It’s really supportive, striving alongside members of the community to improve as practitioners,” says Wangmo. Gonzales says he learns from people modeling Buddhist methods in very practical contexts, even in construction meetings: “There’s people here doing the things I’m trying to do – who are better at it than me.”

For all their overlap, practitioners are each on an individualized path of practice developed with Khentrul Rinpoche. “84,000 people, 84,000 methods” is a Buddhist phrase that is repeated to me during my stay, usually to explain that not everyone finds the same (or any) benefit in the same practice.

A minority of practitioners – the four currently in three-year retreat – are doing a highly regimented, centuries-old curriculum of practice and study. The majority dedicate a part of their days to formal practice, and then go on to integrate practice into their jobs and daily lives.

Khentrul Rinpoche walks toward the side entrance to the temple for morning meditation.
Khentrul Rinpoche walks toward the side entrance to the temple for morning meditation. Photograph: Terra Fondriest/The Guardian

Practitioners are self-directed in the work they do for the center. There are no managers, but there are a great many projects: new construction, repairs, the publication of prayer texts, website maintenance, a vegetable garden, keeping the center clean, running retreats. Nearly all center projects are done by volunteers, who are plentiful: Khentrul Rinpoche requires all long-term residents to have enough financial means to comfortably leave should they wish to – and functionally, this means many practitioners are retired. However, short-term visitors can stay at any level of donation, as long as they provide their own food and transit, and the center has no membership fees.

On my fourth day, Landry and I sit with Khentrul Rinpoche on the deck of his cabin, discussing the trajectory of his practice. Landry acts as our translator.

Khentrul Rinpoche says he started on his current path of Buddhist practice at 17. His father had drowned in a river near their home in Tibet. Lamas came to perform funeral rites. The grief from his loss, he says, created the type of moment in which personal change was especially possible. As he watched the lamas, he found himself deeply moved. Several were his age: “Sixteen, seventeen-year-old monks were there doing the practices. I saw them, and I thought, ‘I want to be like them, do what they’re doing,’” he says. “I was so drawn because their behavior was according to the dharma – not how ordinary teenagers would behave.”

I ask whether he feels the inner peace or wellbeing that long-term meditators are sometimes said to possess. He tells me he sees those things as nice “side-effects” of practice: “My mind is more open, it’s less disturbed, has more wellbeing. But those aren’t the practice, nor are they the goal,” he says. “The actual path is the cultivation of positive qualities.” He names a few. There’s compassion – “the depth to which we want others not to suffer, and the actions that come with that.” Loving-kindness – “ideally, towards all beings, and that moves you to action”.

Tibetan prayer flags hanging from the trees at the center.
Tibetan prayer flags hanging from the trees at the center. Photograph: Terra Fondriest/The Guardian

On a separate afternoon, crickets and American Airlines hold music are the soundtrack for a conversation I have with Landry on her cabin’s deck. Pre-pandemic, Landry and Khentrul Rinpoche traveled eight to 10 months a year to visit the 20 international meditation groups he oversees. They’re gradually resuming their itinerant schedule, and Landry’s luggage has not made it back from a recent trip. She’s on call No 5 in her attempt to have it delivered.

Between stages of the phone tree, she relaxes into her deck chair and we discuss the impacts of her practice. She uses the luggage as an example of how feeling less anger or annoyance doesn’t translate to passivity: “I think a lot of people think that to be proactive and to take action, you have to be upset,” she says. “That’s a misconception. You can take more effective action without getting upset. ” Landry sees her practice as building capacity for action, not decreasing it: “As you work on your mind, you expand your capacity to help others without getting burned out, without getting fried, without getting angry.”

In studies of compassion-oriented and mindfulness-type meditation, even a few weeks of practice increases people’s capacity to take helpful action. They become more likely to give up their seat to someone with crutches, include someone who is ostracized in a game of catch, donate money – and, in one study of preschoolers, share more of their stickers. Additionally, nurses, doctors, medical students and teachers in such interventions report fewer symptoms of burnout, depression, and anxiety – increased rates of which have long been linked to poorer outcomes for students and patients.

water surrounds small rocks in a river
The road to the center crosses the Little Buffalo River with a concrete slab. Photograph: Terra Fondriest/The Guardian

On my last day, Caitlin Grussing meets me at the dirt-road turnoff to the center. It’s been raining, and I’m unsure whether my car will make it across the low bridge. Grussing glances towards the car’s undercarriage, and with an expertise that comes from living here for 12 years, assures me it’ll be fine.

Alongside her job as a home health aide in a nearby town of 547 people, she volunteers in the center’s garden, is on their accounting team, helps with publishing their prayer texts, acts as chant leader when Khentrul Rinpoche travels, and fills in other jobs as needed.

Grussing shows me the vegetable garden, and we walk by Gonzales and another resident, Dan Grussing, Caitlin’s husband. The trim is fully in place on the center’s new handicap accessible bathroom, and they’re deciding how to lay out the sidewalk between it and the temple patio. Neither has done a similar job before, so they’re trying to determine what will best combine convenience with attractiveness – right angles, zigzags, diagonals? We stand there for several minutes, brainstorming.

woman looks up among windows
Caitlin Grussing cleans at the center. Photograph: Terra Fondriest/The Guardian

Khentrul Rinpoche walks by. They ask for his opinion, too. He is their spiritual teacher; when he enters a room, as is traditional, every adult rises out of respect. He suggests an option they rejected unanimously – perhaps the most vehemently – several minutes before. He continues on his way. They double-check their reasoning and reject the option again.

They continue brainstorming a few more minutes, but it’s a decision that will be made in concrete, and each idea has an aesthetic, efficiency or accessibility issue. Gonzales says he’ll sketch some options, possibly send them to an experienced landscape architect he knows for suggestions.

There’s a general confidence they’ll figure it out – they just need to work a bit more.

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