On the first day of Losar, the Tibetan Lunar New Year celebration, the February sky hangs low and leaden over Columbus, Ohio. A steady downpour of icy rain has bogged down traffic, and members of Columbus Karma Thegsum Chöling are trickling in for what was supposed to be an 8 a.m. prayer retreat. They take off their wet boots and assemble in the basement of Congregation Tifereth Israel, a synagogue whose members have hosted the group since shortly after an arsonist’s trash bin fire in 2016 incinerated the 19th-century wood frame church that had been the group’s home for 26 years.
The fluorescent-lit room is outfitted with meditation cushions, thangkas, and long, low tables where students unpack ritual instruments and take prayer books out of yellow silk wrappings. A shrine is piled with Losar offerings, most traditional, some not: every item of food brought into Tifereth Israel must be kosher, so next to the tormas [ritual statues] and water bowls are stacks of packaged matzo, Kedem tea biscuits, and a bottle of Manischewitz Concord Grape wine.
One of the last to arrive, a few minutes past eight, is Lama Kathy Wesley, Columbus KTC’s resident teacher and a group member since its inception in 1977, when she was 23. Wesley, a third-generation Columbusite, is tall, with short, graying brown hair, wire-rim glasses and a wide grin. She wears a version of Tibetan robes designed for lay lamas and sensible shoes. “So sorry I’m late! Traffic!” she announces, shaking the rain off her parka. “But good for all of you for coming! The Tibetans say that what you do on Losar, you do for the rest of the year. So by coming to practice you’re getting a great start!”
By taking part in this Losar retreat, the members of Columbus KTC are furthering a process that has unfolded, and continues to unfold, across the country and all over the world. The transplantation of a practice tradition that speaks to the human condition, from ancient central Asia to a basement room in Ohio, led by a woman with a quintessentially American style, is really nothing out of the ordinary. It is happening for a perfectly mundane reason: people face the same suffering and turbulence of mind, and have the same desire for lasting happiness, wherever they are, and throughout time. Granted, this group, and this lama, have the privilege of representing the original point of contact between the Karma Kagyu tradition and the Midwest. And the roots of that hybrid are growing ever deeper.
Wesley’s entrance is a taste of the kind of unfettered enthusiasm I will come to recognize as her M.O. That morning, and at all the gatherings I witness where Lama Kathy is in attendance, she seems to be the happiest person in the room. She has a gentle, welcoming authority and a penchant for goofiness that infuses her teaching, which often involves explaining each step of a practice and its significance, as she does with the morning’s Green Tara invocation. Later that weekend, in the course of a refuge ceremony, she turns to the rows of Buddha and deity statues, waves at them and, in a cartoonish voice, squeaks, “Hi! These are your new friends!” Turning back to the refuge takers, she adds, “They really are your friends. They represent your own potential for buddhahood. What could be better?”
Wesley’s sense of humor and lack of pretense, even when describing arcane Vajrayana practices, has been an effective vehicle for presenting the dharma. It works because it is grounded in 40 years of intensive religious practice that began when she first encountered her teacher, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, in 1977. Khenpo Rinpoche, a scholar and meditation adept in the Karma Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, came to the United States in 1976 at the behest of the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa to help establish a center in upstate New York, near Woodstock. At the age of 94, he is still the head resident lama at the monastery, Karma Triyana Dharmachakra (KTD), and has been widely recognized for decades as an awakened master.
Their meeting was one of those seemingly preordained flukes that often mark the beginning of lifelong student-teacher relationships. At the time, Wesley had recently graduated from Ohio State with a degree in journalism and was working as a rookie reporter at the Newark Advocate, the local paper for a town about 45 minutes east of Columbus. While casting around for story ideas one day, she saw an ad for a lecture by a Tibetan lama and decided to cover it.
Khenpo Rinpoche had been invited to Newark by a resident Buddhist couple who’d met the 16th Karmapa in New York in 1975. The story goes that when the late Karmapa learned the couple was from near Columbus, he decided it must be an auspicious place to teach the dharma because its name suggested another major meeting of worlds: Columbus’s “discovery” of America. The Karmapa didn’t end up visiting until much later, but he sent his emissary, Khenpo Rinpoche, the very next year.
Wesley describes seeing Khenpo Rinpoche for the first time as “a total upheaval. Here was this incredibly wise and compassionate person with a gentle but powerful strength that you could just feel. I suddenly knew what I wanted to be when I grew up.” After interviewing him for the paper, Wesley asked some of her own questions about meditation and felt an instant recognition of his answers about the dharma. “People cry when they meet Khenpo Rinpoche. It’s a thing. I cried when I met him, too.” Two months later, she took refuge as a Tibetan Buddhist and became a founding member of Columbus KTC, the first of what are now 24 affiliate centers in the United States.
That sense of recognition, says Wesley, was both surprising and not—religion had always attracted her. Her father, an auto mechanic, and her mother, a part-time clerk at a drugstore, had raised Wesley as a Catholic, and she attended parochial schools. “I was a happy Catholic. I loved going to church and praying.” But by the time she got to college, her faith couldn’t satisfy her interior questioning and a growing need to find peace. “The church was a karmic seed for which I’m very grateful,” she says. “Who knows: maybe if I’d met a good Jesuit priest, like the current Pope, who could have helped me live my best life, I might still be a Catholic.”
In the beginning, KTC was a loose and revolving group of five to ten people, convening in living rooms to study, meditate, and chant together. Under Khenpo Rinpoche’s direction, Wesley began the Karma Kagyu tradition’s form of Ngondro, a set of preliminary practices that require the completion of hundreds of thousands of prostrations, prayers, and mandala offerings: it took her five years to finish. As the group grew, to 15 and then 20, Khenpo Rinpoche asked her to teach meditation. By 1990, with Wesley as administrative director, KTC consisted of 30 regular members and was ready for a permanent home, so KTC purchased the church in West Columbus.
In 1993, Khenpo Rinpoche inaugurated the first traditional Tibetan three-year retreat in the US, at a specially-built hermitage called Karme Ling in Delhi, New York. For Wesley, there was no question that she would undertake the retreat, in spite of the fact that she worked full-time and was married. “I’m one of those people who doesn’t realize I can’t do something, so I do it.” Wesley’s husband of 45 years, Michael, a US Postal Service employee at the time, gave his blessing. “Marriage is a choice you make every day, even several times a day,” says Wesley. “Mike was willing to keep making that choice.”
Though the three-year retreat was a new project for KTD, Khenpo Rinpoche made sure it cleaved as closely as possible to the thousand-year-old traditions on which it was based. “Basically, we lived like monks and nuns, except with no interruptions,” says Wesley. “We were in our rooms for ten hours a day, practicing.” And every night of those three years, the retreatants slept sitting upright in the traditional Tibetan meditation box. Summing it all up, she says, the experience “taught me how to practice for the rest of my life. It taught me that the only thing I have is my mind, and that the state of my mind in the present moment is what matters.”
“It was very intense,” recalls Jemi Steele, a teacher in Colorado Springs who was part of that first group. “But there was a lot of humor, and when one person was having a hard time, the others would support her.” (Men and women lived and practiced in separate quarters.) Steele remembers that Wesley’s playfulness—wearing striped socks to pujas, hanging a picture of Mr. Rogers in her room, singing show tunes—was a great energizer. “Kathy was always bursting into that song from the show Kismet—“Stranger in Paradise.” She was game for anything. Rinpoche would put things on our plate and we had to figure them out. And Kathy would say, ‘OK! Let’s figure this out!’ She had a very can-do spirit.”
When she finished the retreat, Khenpo Rinpoche asked her to assume the role of resident teacher for Columbus KTC and gave her three rules to follow. “First he told me, ‘If someone asks you something and you don’t know the answer, tell them ‘I don’t know but I’ll find out.’ Don’t ever forget those three magic words: I don’t know.’” In Wesley’s earliest days of teaching, that meant countless letters to Rinpoche, and countless letters back. “I became a recitation device—repeating what Rinpoche taught me. The more I repeated it, the more it stayed inside.”
The second and third rules were “Don’t put on airs; be natural.” Check. And “Stay with the list.” The list was a roster of topics and texts that still form the curriculum for study at KTC. The responsibilities that lay ahead were daunting, says Wesley, “but I thought, if Rinpoche had confidence in me, if he knew I could do it, then I could do it. I’m not an enlightened being, therefore it’s not going to be easy and I’m going to make mistakes.” An assistant to Khenpo Rinpoche offered some parting advice that Wesley quotes to herself daily: “‘You’re not a big deal. The dharma is a big deal.’ That was huge for me. I live by that.”
Every convert dharma group is a study in syncretism. Each has its own blend of regionalism and orthodoxy, shaped in turn by the style and personality of its leader and core members. Columbus KTC is no different (and for the time being, part of that syncretism is a kosher altar). It doesn’t take long to see how Wesley’s accessibility and plainspokenness have made Columbus KTC the way it is today. And because the center is currently homeless, Wesley’s engagement with her students and the structure she imposes are more important than ever. “What makes this place work is that there’s a very clear path for students to follow and they get a lot of support,” said Eric Weinberg, who runs the group’s prison dharma program and sits on its board. “That, and the fact that Kathy has this great big heart.”
Weinberg’s introduction to KTC ten years ago was emblematic of Wesley’s approach to new students. After decades of meditation and practice in a series of traditions, from Christian mysticism to Kundalini, Weinberg dead-ended. “I was just incredibly unhappy. My wife could see it, my kids could see it. I was in a box and I didn’t know how to get out. I needed lineage, bad.” After attending a retreat taught by Tai Situ Rinpoche, a Tibetan master in the Kagyu lineage who was visiting Columbus, Weinberg decided to look into KTC. He called and left a message, asking to talk with someone about meditation, “but I didn’t really expect a reply,” he recalls. “Kathy called me right back. I told her all about my practices and what I’d done in the past. She said, ‘Well, I don’t know anything about any of that, but I think I can help you. There’s just one catch: you’ll have to start from the beginning.’”
The beginning at Columbus KTC is a graduated introduction to the Buddha’s teachings as interpreted by the Kagyu lineage, with lots of scaffolding built in. New students are paired with a mentor, who meets them outside the regular weekly services and meditation classes and helps them read through their first Kagyu dharma book (Weinberg is one of those mentors). “We usually start with basic shamatha [concentration practice], but we have to meet people where they are,” says Wesley. “Sometimes a person comes through the door and we’re chanting ‘Om mani padme hum,’ the mantra of universal compassion, and they’re like, ‘Wow. This is fantastic.’ It’s like a karmic peg for that person. So we let them go with that. You have to have the flexibility to help people where their interests are.” Wesley will even make house calls, to give instructions for such practices as the Medicine Buddha mantra, a healing visualization, or tonglen, a technique for spreading compassion.
Of the myriad practices in her personal repertoire, the bookend to her daily rituals is shrine practice. “That act of tending at the beginning and the end of the day is a powerful symbol of one’s commitment to oneself,” Wesley explains. “It’s a commitment to a type of spiritual self-care. That gives you confidence in your self-worth. You’re making offerings to the Buddha in front of you, but really the offerings nurture the Buddha that’s inside of you. When I took refuge, Rinpoche said that’s how you begin and end your day—with shrine tending. So I teach it to everybody who takes refuge.”
A hallmark of Tibetan Buddhist compassion practice is identification with other beings—anyone you encounter could have been your mother, your brother, your child, so whatever they’re going through is relevant to you. Wesley often quotes an aphorism from Khenpo Rinpoche: “People don’t come to the dharma because they’re having a good time. They come because they’re struggling.” To help a student “get at that struggle,” she says, “I try to find the question behind the question. Sometimes someone is asking a super-technical question about some philosophical point of dharma, but what they’re really saying is ‘I’m afraid. I’m afraid that bad things are going to happen to me or that my bad habits are going to get the better of me.’” Once that inner question is articulated, “we work collaboratively. We’re going to go after that thing because if we don’t, it’s going to stay in your way.”
Her own struggles, the ones that brought her to dharma practice 41 years ago, are the same ones she grapples with now: “Anxiety and my emotions. I still get bowled over by my emotions. I’m quick to lose my temper.” It’s hard to picture Wesley getting snarky, but it happens, she admits, “when someone says or does something dismissive, or that suggests that I’m stupid. It brings me right back to that playground in sixth grade.” On one occasion she felt provoked and said something “too harsh” to a student, and the memory of that still torments her. “I told Khenpo Rinpoche what I’d done, and he told me, ‘Don’t ever do that again. Be patient and be a good listener.’ My role is primarily as a listener, and I was trained as a listener, but I needed to hear that.”
Still, a lot changes in four decades of practice. “What’s different now,” Wesley says, “is that I have learned that my emotions really are clouds in front of the sun, and they don’t define me. They’ve become more workable.” She credits, as much as anything, working with the lojong slogans, the 59 brief mind-training aphorisms that date back to 12th-century Tibet. “They taught me that I could get out of my own way and have a more constructive relationship with my emotions.I don’t have to feel terrorized and hopeless because of them. I still have my moments, but I have tools.” And they’re the same tools she shares with her students, in Columbus; at KTD, where she is a frequent guest teacher; and at the many KTC centers around the country where she is invited to teach each month.
Wesley and her husband still live in Newark, which, like Columbus, is a rustbelt town finding its way forward from deindustrialization and the Great Recession. Its greatest claim to fame—greater even than a former industrial headquarters in the shape of a giant picnic basket—is the extraordinary Newark Earthworks. These ceremonial mounds were built by the Hopewell civilization between 100 and 500 CE and are believed to have been the largest earthen enclosures in the world, though no one knows exactly how their makers used them.
When I visit Wesley’s home in a neighborhood of modest one-story houses, she greets me with her signature humor: “Welcome to the 1950s!” The place does have a retro air, furnished as it is with abundant knickknacks, Wesley’s favorite recliner, and a multitude of taped-up notes bearing reminders she writes to herself. The only evidence that a Buddhist lama lives there, apart from tables covered in books and papers related to KTC business, is Wesley’s shrine room. The converted bedroom is a touchstone place where she practices each morning and night before a china-cupboard-turned-altar.
Reclining in her chair and swinging an orange prayer wheel on a Saturday afternoon, she recounts the details of the fire that destroyed the physical home of Columbus KTC. It was a profound teaching in impermanence and generosity. Wesley was giving a course in Mexico that week when she received an email saying there’d been a “serious fire” at the center, and by the time she reached KTC’s director, Kim Miracle, all Miracle could say was “It’s gone.” “Thangkas were vaporized, the statues scorched, and 40 years’ worth of books and recorded teachings were destroyed,” Wesley remembers. But as often seems to happen when a sacred site is destroyed, certain precious objects remained miraculously intact: the blue-and-yellow Karma Kagyu flag that flew from the church steeple was unscathed, even though the roof had erupted in flames.
“There was that pang of loss,” says Wesley, “but almost instantly all the silver linings began to appear.” Namely, an outpouring of hospitality and support. “We didn’t realize how many people were interested in what we were doing, or how many friends we had,” says Wesley. The Mayor of Columbus called the next day to offer his regrets and assistance, and within a few days, an ad hoc community of supporters organized an interfaith prayer meeting that drew 150 people in the parking lot of the burned center. “I was borne up by this outpouring of good will.”
Another silver lining was the word from Khenpo Rinpoche that KTC should construct a new center on the site of the old one. That means a purpose built facility, designed by a pro bono architect, that Wesley and her board hope will serve as spiritual touchstone on the city’s west side. They are dedicated to helping the historically troubled and underinvested area whose residents are now threatened by the displacement that comes with gentrification. They will continue their long tradition of offering free meditation classes and other services. But before KTC can break ground, the group needs to raise enough money to build—they are still more than $600,000 from their goal—and for now, Wesley must function as a development director and real estate developer, in addition to teaching the dharma.
On the way out of Newark, I stop to see the Hopewell Mounds. Following Wesley’s directions, I come upon an all-but-hidden parking lot, empty, at the end of a quiet residential street, leading to a lookout platform. The icy rain is still falling, and a golf course undulates over and around the earthworks, so at first sight, the mounds don’t even register. Suddenly, though, they take shape in my field of vision, like enormous, prehistoric beasts that had been camouflaged until this moment by their own stillness. They form long ridges and a mysterious hexagon; they are immense and beautiful and alive.
Lama Kathy had urged me to see the Hopewell Mounds. Everything is impermanent— everything arises and passes away—“but the mounds are still there, and they’re really cool!” she said. It dawns on me as I look out over the golf course, encrusted with frost, that there’s a fitting symmetry in the fact that Lama Kathy and Columbus KTC emerged in the same region as these structures. They each embody a syncretism: an ancient religion, layered with a new culture’s ideas and artifacts, which will someday disintegrate and pass away. And like those mounds, the Buddha’s teachings are something enduring that shapes us, if we slow down enough to take them in. We’re not a big deal, Wesley would say, but the dharma is.
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