Geshe Ngawang Wangyal, aboard La Liberté, arrives in America, February 3, 1955. John Lent/Associated Press
Geshe Ngawang Wangyal, aboard La Liberté, arrives in America, February 3, 1955. John Lent/Associated Press

By some estimates, there may now be three million or more people in the United States who identify themselves as Tibetan Buddhists. Sixty years ago, there were precisely 587 of us who could assert that claim—and we were all Kalmyk Mongols.

Eighteen years before Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche—the charismatic tulku widely assumed to have brought Tibetan Buddhism to North America—set foot in the States, a small band of Kalmyks, America’s earliest Tibetan Buddhists, would establish the religion’s first temple in the Western hemisphere. Refugees from Stalinism and unlikely beneficiaries of America’s early Cold War maneuverings, the Kalmyks transformed an unassuming town in the middle of New Jersey into the epicenter for Tibetan Buddhism in the West.

The community’s most learned lama, Geshe Ngawang Wangyal, was the first Tibetan Buddhist lama in the United States to take on American students. His long list of accomplishments would include pioneering efforts in establishing Tibetan Buddhism’s intellectual bona fides in American academia and popular culture, making possible the successful escape of His Holiness the Dalai Lama from Tibet in 1959 under contract with the CIA, and finally, spearheading a two-decade-long undertaking to remove political proscriptions on American visits by the Dalai Lama, an endeavor that reached up to the highest levels of US government. Not many Western Buddhists know this story—or that the tradition’s first congregation here would have such an improbable yet discernable and documentable impact on Tibetan Buddhism’s future in America.

In the summer of 1952, Jersey Shore–bound travelers zipping down US Route 9 would not have noticed anything that set Freewood Acres, New Jersey, apart from thousands of similar villages throughout America. Nothing on its public face suggested that Freewood Acres had, over the previous winter, become a demographically singular community on this side of the world. The distinction was due, in part, to the decision by a band of about 200 Kalmyks to resettle there permanently (amid an already established Cossack community) shortly after their 1951 Christmas Eve arrival in America. These Kalmyks had avoided all but certain extinction because of their propaganda value in a spirited battle for global domination being waged by their once and current sovereigns.

 

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