By Rich Klein.
Nestled at the foot of high mountain peaks, with acid-test-light-show skies, unpredictable weather, and authentically wild wildlife, Crestone is a place where life is pretty much defined by the strange and unusual.
But natural beauty is not the only thing out of the ordinary here.
Crestone is famously home to a variety of exotic spiritual and religious groups. Fostered by the land grant program of the Manitou Foundation, they are mainly Eastern in origin, with Tibetan Buddhism being the most widely represented.
Karma Thegsum Tashi Gomang, Vajra Vidya, Yeshe Khorlo, Pema Chöling, Yeshe Rangsal, Mangala Sri Buti, Dharma Ocean, Chama Ling, White Jewel Mountain, and the Center for Contemplative Research, are all rooted in the various traditions and practices of Tibetan Buddhism.
And over time, this concentration of Tibetan Buddhist centers has attracted a small and dedicated group of maroon-robed monks and nuns, Western adherents of a traditional monastic life.
But first, a little history.
Buddhism began its migration from India into Tibet during the 6th century CE and in the 8th century the first great seat of monastic activity, Samye Monastery, rose up out of the Chimpu Valley near Lhasa. Although the total population of Tibetan monastics in the past isn’t known, prior to the Chinese invasion in 1950 it is thought that as many as 500,000 monks and nuns lived in monasteries across Tibet, supported by a vast network of financial and political support drawing upon sources across all of Tibetan society.
Back to the present, even here in our secular, ultra-materialist, late-stage capitalist culture, the perennial call to leave behind the worldly life for a renunciate life of spiritual practice still rings out and is still heard.
I recently spoke with a few of the monks and nuns who live in Crestone, about how they came to choose the monastic life, how they came to be living here specifically, and how they sustain their monastic vows, practices and personal aspirations without the kind of support they might enjoy in a traditional monastic setting.
Each had taken vows at least 20 years ago, and many recounted similar initial experiences that went something like, “When I first saw the monks and nuns, I knew I wanted to be part of that”. It was a mysterious and radical calling to which they responded, in some cases shortly thereafter, while others took a longer and more winding path.
But each person I spoke with felt—and still feels—that their choice represented a lifetime commitment, the challenges of which they are willing to embrace or endure, to the best of their abilities.
Their formative experiences generally included some amount of time in an actual monastery, which generally entailed living elbow-to-elbow with a horde of other people, continually engaged in (or constrained by) the practices, rituals, and practical necessities of monastic life. Understandably, the rigors of living that way isn’t sustainable for everyone and perhaps less so for a Westerner with unusual or uneven training, compounded by a Tibetan language barrier, and the commitment of many years of study, practice, and service that life in an Asian monastery typically entails.
So in exchange for the exigencies of life in a crowded monastery, most of our pioneering monks and nuns actually live on their own, choosing to grapple with a completely different set of challenges, like surviving on limited means, having to cope with loneliness, or dealing with the insecurity of approaching old age without family or reasonable financial support, all the while maintaining a rigorous set of rules and rituals known to none but their fellow monastics.
“We don’t all have the same teacher, we’re not from the same lineage, we’re not necessarily from the same school of Tibetan Buddhism even, so everybody has different practices and there is no common liturgy that we can all use, all of which presents its own set of unique challenges to getting everyone together.”
~ Thubten Saldon
Some have decent fixed incomes to help them along, while others have found suitable paying work to make ends meet. There are also those who have very little support financially or otherwise. One nun lived high up on the mountain for a year with only a four-season tent and an expedition sleeping bag (though later in a proper yurt), and would send out emails seeking donations for firewood to keep her woodstove stoked and she and her dog from freezing to death.
“The unique thing about Crestone is that people—monastic or otherwise—we didn’t necessarily come here seeking to create community; we’re happy to have that sometimes, but also by nature we’re also happy to be by ourselves most of the time.”
~ Konchog Norbu
You might be tempted to view such an extreme lifestyle choice as the act of either a crazy person or a saint, but I can assure you it is neither. The monks and nuns of Crestone seem quite uniquely American in a way, carving out a niche for themselves in a frontier territory that offers no quarter, with little more to go on than their aspirations and prayers.
It’s instructive to remember that it’s only been about 50 years since Tibetan Buddhism was introduced to this country. Think about those 200 years it took from the introduction of Buddhism in Tibet to the building of the first monastery there.
This is the long game, how religions migrate from country to country and from culture to culture, eventually becoming their own fully established version of the original, in a new form but imbued with the essence and spirit of its source.
There exists in the West today no more than a handful of Tibetan monasteries where Western monks and nuns can be supported to live and practice full-time, and in their own language. Sravasti Abbey in Washington state is one notable such place, having a full-time resident population of at least 20 monks and nuns. Pema Chöling, here in Crestone, was established a few years ago with the help of the nun and well-known author Pema Chödron. A modest house on a quiet street, it has room enough for just a few to live, but serves as the meeting place for all the monastic residents of Crestone, a place where they can meet weekly or monthly, according to the requirements of the Vinaya, or monastic code, or just to be together.
“In Crestone, the fact that we can periodically come together and just be with one another is so psychologically uplifting. It’s sort of hard to explain to non-monastics, just how important it is to be around other monastics who are living the same life for the same reasons, and around whom you don’t have to explain yourself at all.”
~ Konchog Norbu
You might wonder why more monasteries aren’t being established in the West, and it’s a good question.
A big part of the answer is that after the Chinese invaded Tibet, they systematically destroyed over 6,000 monasteries (including Samye monastery) and forced thousands of Tibetans into exile in India and Nepal, including many of the most revered Rinpoches and Lamas, including the Dalai Lama. Since then, the work of rebuilding the traditional monastic system from the ground up, while in exile, remains the most consuming task facing the Tibetan Buddhist community today.
For us in the West then, patience may be called for. But that’s also why Crestone and its unique vortex of Tibetan Buddhist activity is so important.
Nestled in the foothills of mountains even a Tibetan might find comforting, it is a poignant symbol of potential renewal, and a hopeful reminder that one day Tibetan monastic institutions might flourish on these foreign shores.
In the meantime it is, as Konchog Norbu put it, strictly “a seat of the robes” proposition.
But what a precious proposition that is.