Across the Buddhaverse

Thirty years ago, a group of Boulder hippies, drunk monks and Naropa poets carved Shambhala Mountain Center out of the wilderness. Today they're close to realizing their kingdom on Earth.

WHY AM I TALKING?

On this damp summer morning, the question beams out from bulletin boards and bathhouse doors all over Shambhala Mountain Center. It's a rhetorical question, of course -- a Xeroxed Zen koan. Because right now, no one is talking much at all: The bumper stickers on cars in the parking lot are more expressive than many of the Buddhists and master meditators at the center today. On a bench beneath a large pine tree, two guys in suits play mute chess. In the dining hall, a breezy white tent filled with casually ominous warnings (BEARS have been taking from the refrigerator! If this happens to you, please be understanding!), a woman greets a friend by nodding benevolently and pointing to a button pinned to her shirt: SILENCE.

People come from all over the world to shut up at Shambhala -- from Australia, South America, New York, Greeley -- and methodically cut out the mental chitchat of their lives. A vast, leafy Buddhist mecca in the green-fuzz hills near Red Feather Lakes, the center sits on 600 acres of mostly undeveloped wilderness. Army-tent encampments lie in shanty-style neighborhoods across the land, which is carpeted with wildflowers and overrun by squirrels. Many spend months on this mountaintop with limited contact with the outside world, keeping it zipped through rituals, prayers, meals and meditations.

Phung Huynh
Follow the guru: Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche reaches 
out to Buddhists in the early days of Shambhala 
Mountain Center.
Follow the guru: Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche reaches out to Buddhists in the early days of Shambhala Mountain Center.

I plan to start with a more reasonable increment of time for my self-imposed vow of silence: five minutes. Inside one of Shambhala's many meditation tents, I take a spot on the floor, surrounded by about thirty people -- adults, teenagers, and a few kids who look as young as four. They've all got their legs folded and are staring softly ahead, toward a small statue of Buddha flanked by flowers. It's as if they're tuned into the same invisible movie screen, a spiritual drive-in. Aside from the occasional cough or sniffle, there's just a slight hum in the room -- a collective human frequency radiating from measured breath and focused concentration.

Suddenly, I want very badly to join the hum, so I run over the tip given to me by Barb, the friendly Shambhalan I met over breakfast: If you find your mind wandering, just repeat the word "thinking." Then stop thinking.

Turns out that this is much easier said than done. My first minute on the mat goes something like this:

Hm-mm. (Clear throat.) Okay. All right. Check me out! I'm meditating!

Thinking.

If the bears can open a refrigerator, surely they can find their way into the tent I'll be sleeping in?

Thinking.

Don't Buddhists believe in respect for all sentient creatures? Does that mean I can't swat at the swarm of canary-sized mosquitoes buzzing in my ears?

Thinking.

Seriously, what about West Nile? Is my cat going to pee on my bed while I'm gone? Why is "Addicted to Love" looping in my head?

Thinking, thinking, thinking.

After a few minutes, I might as well face it: I am a sucky meditator.

When I report this to Daniel Hessey, a Shambhala teacher who helped establish the center almost thirty years ago, he doesn't attempt to hide his amusement. Sitting at a picnic table near the meditation tent, he strums a guitar and smiles, emanating the sunny charm of someone who's spent a good portion of his life in the lotus position.

"That's an old Buddhist joke: 'I tried to meditate and nothing happened,'" he says, chuckling. "The point is about developing a healthy approach to developing your mind -- the way that you would do yoga or work at the gym. It's not meant to be some esoteric thing. It's not meant to revolutionize your life overnight. Like any genuine training, it's a gradual process. If nothing happens, you're on the right track."

In fact, Hessey explains, nothing much is meant to happen at Shambhala Mountain Center at all. That's the point: The place is a minimalist's amusement park, where the Matterhorn is in your mind.

But in its quiet way, Shambhala Mountain Center is one of the most happening places in Colorado -- a sacred site in a Western Buddhist community that germinated in Boulder and has exploded nationally over the past three decades.

There's plenty of energy in the stillness. It's just that people don't talk about it too much.


If Shambhala Mountain Center is Buddha's summer camp, Boulder is most certainly his adopted home town.

The guy's big here, like some kind of cosmic mascot. His gently smiling face is stuck to flagpoles and SUV bumpers across the University of Colorado campus. Two Tibetan gift shops on the Pearl Street Mall are flush with paintings and statues of him: He comes small or large, made of bronze, silver, marble or clay. Along 13th Street, Japanese, Chinese and Indian Buddhas peer out from shop and restaurant windows. Sometimes he's pot-bellied and mischievous; other times, he's slender and serene.

How did this austere avatar become such a celebrity in a landlocked, Western mountain town founded by rugged Christian miners and farmers? How did he get from the bodhi tree to the Flatirons?

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