There once was a log barn on property deep in Newton County. For close to a century, it stood its rocky ground in the mountains near Parthenon, slumping and rusting over the years, like so many old Ozark structures.
But this particular barn, close to the Little Buffalo River, is coming back to life. Here, on the far side of the world from northeastern Tibet, it is being restored and rebuilt — for rebirth as a Buddhist temple.
"That thing was dying," says Jim Westbrook, an architect and Buddhist who has helped work on it. "It was sinking into the ground."
Westbrook's father is an Arkansas Presbyterian minister. He cannot remember a time when he wasn't interested in theology and religion. After a stint in the Peace Corps in the '60s, he studied at the University of Arkansas and eventually worked there as an architect. By then, he says, he was "getting more and more interested" in Tibetan Buddhism.
When a Peace Corps friend told him about a month-long course at a monastery outside Kathmandu, Westbrook applied. "The gist of the letter I got back was, 'Don't come if you're not serious.' " He quit his job at the university, took off to spend a year in Asia, studied with a number of lamas — or teachers — in the region, and he's been a practicing Buddhist ever since.
After a career spent mostly in California and Wisconsin, he returned to Arkansas in 1992. He built a house for himself on Newton County's Mount Sherman.
Westbrook recalls when he and other Buddhists in northwest Arkansas heard that a monk from Tibet had selected Newton County as the site for a retreat center. He says, "We were impressed he had the good taste to find Arkansas."
Since Westbrook has listened to the monk teach, and the two have rolled up their sleeves to work together on the barn temple, his admiration has grown. He is one of several Buddhists in the area and from as far away as Little Rock who regularly attend Sunday meditation at the retreat center now being developed by the monk Khentrul Lodrö Thayé Rinpoche.
Khentrul Rinpoche (Rin'-po-shay), as he is less formally called, "has a real sensitivity to the amalgamation of the two cultures," Westbrook says. "And he has a vision. He's kind of a whirlwind. He's extremely erudite. And he has a gift for languages. He speaks Tibetan, of course, and Chinese. And now he's picking up colloquial English."
'Send a scholar'
In casual conversation, Westbrook and others at the center refer to the monk as Rinpoche, and I will do that too. He was not at the center when I visited. That's not unusual, as the monk travels almost constantly, visiting Buddhist groups across the United States.
But teaching is not Rinpoche's only work. He is also the abbot of Mardö Tashi Choling, a 200-year-old monastery in the Amdo province of Tibet. There are more than 300 monks and 100 children at the monastery, for whom Rinpoche, even from this distance, provides food, lodging, education and a temple.
Amdo province is famous for producing some of Tibet's most famous spiritual leaders, including the Dalai Lama. Rinpoche's monastery was one of many sites of learning and scholarship destroyed during what Buddhists mildly call "the unrest" that has marked Tibet for the past half-century. Mardö Tashi Choling is slowly being rebuilt, and Rinpoche has headed that effort since 1993 when, while still in his early 20s, he was enthroned as the monastery's abbot.
Less than a decade later, Rinpoche's responsibilities expanded. An aging Tibetan monk in California was worried that traditional Buddhist teachings were being diluted in this country by inadequately trained teachers. The monk wrote to fellow monks in Tibet, asking that they send a scholar from his tradition to deepen the understanding of Tibetan Buddhism in this country — and, ultimately, to replace him. Rinpoche was chosen.