Ask the Bon Dzogchen master Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche whether setting is an essential aspect of spiritual practice, and his response is unequivocal: “The building and the environment are both very important for our inner personal development and spiritual development.” Hence the key role they have played in the development of Serenity Ridge, Tenzin Rinpoche’s retreat center in Shipman, Virginia, which is also the headquarters of Ligmincha International, founded to preserve and disseminate Bon Buddhist teachings and Tibetan culture. “In both the exterior—the colors, the paint—and the interior decoration, I wanted the buildings to look Asian/Tibetan, to support a Tibetan wisdom tradition,” he emphasizes. Bon is Tibet’s oldest indigenous spiritual tradition, and Tenzin Rinpoche—a geshe (equivalent to a PhD) and former monk—was one of the first teachers to introduce Bon to Westerners. Having come to the US in 1991, he had already established a small Bon center in Charlottesville, Virginia, when he began looking for a permanent place to hold retreats. He was drawn to the Blue Ridge Mountain area “for its spirit and energy”—and its resemblance to Tibet and northern India, where he was raised. But much of rural Virginia is spiritually and socially conservative, wary of outsiders with unfamiliar practices and views. After the first property that the search committee pursued fell through, they regrouped and found a place in Nelson County, which had already welcomed several spiritual groups.

The property seemed ideal: 19 wooded acres, along with a few modest buildings and spectacular views. It remained for Tenzin Wangyal to check it out. “Before I came to Serenity Ridge the first time, the weather had been a bit dramatic—a lot of rain, water almost up to the bridge. The day I went, the rain stopped, the water went down, and when I arrived at Serenity Ridge, there was a full rainbow shining there. I felt an instant connection. Without looking any further, we decided to make this our home and a home for the Bon tradition in America.”

It was an inspired choice. The initial 19 acres acquired in 1997 have since expanded to some 90 acres through a joint purchase with an environmental group. With the addition of several new buildings, the center now resembles a small Himalayan village perched on the ridge that gave it its name.

The previous owners’ 1970s redbrick ranch house became Lama House, quarters for Tenzin Wangyal and visiting lamas. A nearby “mother-in-law” cottage was redeployed as an office to coordinate the retreats and workshops hosted by the center throughout the year. A storage shed on the premises was repurposed as the gompa—Tibetan for temple or meditation hall—with altars, thangkas, water offering bowls, and other ritual trappings replacing the tractor and lawn mowers.

Photograph by Salvador Espinoza

The first structure the Bon community built from the ground up was Garuda House. Linked to the gompa by a covered loggia, it is organized around a classic Tibetan-style pavilion with a shrine room housing rare manuscripts and an outdoor balcony from which a conch shell horn is blown to summon meditators to practice. Wings on either side contain living quarters for retreatants. Constructed in stages from 1999 to 2007, Garuda House, like the gompa and office, is faced in wood siding painted red—another traditional design element. The upswept roofs of the wings evoke the wings of the garuda, a mythical birdlike creature that is a protector deity in Bon and a symbol of primordial nature in Bon dzogchen teachings.

The heart of the community now is Kunzang Khang, a monumental, 12,000-square-foot, three-story building that opened to great ceremony in April 2019. Kunzang, Tenzin Rinpoche explains, “means ‘good for all,’ accommodating all ways and means, all approaches.”And all activities. The building houses a dining hall and kitchen, a place for socializing, a meeting-room-cum-practice-area-cum-performance space, a rooftop meditation deck, and offices for Ligmincha International. There is also a state-of-the-art recording studio: Tenzin Wangyal has been recording teachings since 1999 and podcasts on YouTube as well as on Ligmincha’s Facebook channel. “Good for all” also refers to the center’s open-door policy: when not in use for Tenzin Wangyal’s retreats, Kunzang Khang is available to other spiritual groups, including The 3 Doors, his spinoff nonsectarian meditation program.

The heart of the community now is Kunzang Khang. Kunzang, Tenzin Rinpoche explains, means “good for all.”

John Massie, a landscape architect and longtime student of Tenzin Wangyal, designed Garuda House, the gompa, and Kunzang Khang. He pushed for a simpler, more contemporary design for the new building, “but Tenzin Wangyal kept telling me, ‘No, I want it to look more Tibetan!’”

If the aesthetic at Kunzang Khang is determinedly ancient Tibet, the infrastructure is strictly 21st-century America. A cadre of licensed carpenters, plumbers, and electricians installed cutting-edge lighting, heating, and cooling systems, and every effort was made to use green materials. The dining chairs are recycled—a gift from a hotel in Charlottesville that was redoing its dining room. Consistent with the Ligmincha ethos, which relies on donations and volunteer labor, many of the decorative elements were created by sangha members. One couple turned their living room into an art studio to fashion ninety or so fabric-covered acoustic panels for the dining hall ceiling. Tenzin Wangyal’s Mexican sangha sent mandalas to hang in the entrance hall, and two visiting Bon lamas painted traditional Tibetan symbols around the front door. The door itself was a custom design donated by its manufacturer, a student in The 3 Doors Academy, The 3 Doors’ signature two-and-a-half-year program. Another sangha member gold-leafed a panel for the door.

The arrival of Kunzang Khang set off a flurry of building at Serenity Ridge, including a meditation garden and a stupa—a reliquary—donated by a sangha member in honor of her late husband, a former monk. Visiting lamas painted the stupa and made the traditional 100,000 tsa-tsas—miniature clay sacred objects to seal inside it.

Sangha members who lend their time and talents to such projects at Serenity Ridge view their efforts as spiritual practice. It’s all part of completing what Tenzin Wangyal refers to as “the mandala,” a reference to the sacred geometric form—a circle or square symbolizing the universe—in which a Tibetan monastery is traditionally laid out. Completing the mandala with a new, larger temple up the hill from the existing gompa will be “a kind of offering,” Tenzin Wangyal says. John Massie adds, “The process is very Tibetan. I think of all those old monasteries I’ve visited in Nepal, India, and Tibet. They were built over time.” 

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