The southern Utah community of LaVerkin, near Zion National Park, is a modest little town inhabited mostly by descendants of Mormon pioneers. It’s a place where “Democrat” is a bad word, and Pioneer Day is celebrated with perhaps more zeal than the Fourth of July.
One recent morning, however, the front door of a well-kept LaVerkin home opened, and out onto the tidy lawn spilled a radiant assemblage of a dozen or so maroon-robed Tibetan Buddhist monks. The traveling group hailed from the Drepung Loseling monastery in India, and they had come to give teachings to a small but dedicated sangha that has sprung up in this conservative desert region.
The credit for the success and growing popularity of this sangha goes primarily to one local woman, Midge Henline. Although Henline had been curious about Buddhism for a number of years and had read numerous books, she’d never really pursued her interest until one fateful day in 1999, when she spotted two Tibetan Buddhist monks shopping at a Wal-Mart store in nearby St. George. She got up her courage and approached them to ask if they offered teachings.
That chance meeting eventually led to the founding of the Thupten Choling sangha, which now hosts traveling Buddhist teachers and provides a forum for their teachings. The sangha holds gatherings in a meeting room that Henline built onto her home, and the teachers stay in newly constructed guest quarters.
Since that chance meeting in Wal-Mart, Thupten Choling has grown from the germ of an idea into a dedicated group of about fifteen members who meet every other Sunday in Henline’s home to meditate, discuss Buddhist readings, and share tea and snacks afterward in Henline’s kitchen. Several times a year, visiting monks from the states and abroad give dharma teachings, drawing an attendance of thirty or more.
Thupten Choling’s studies have so far been an eclectic mix of Tibetan Buddhist teachings, from the user-friendly Western candor of Pema Chödron and Robert Thurman to a daunting list of translated texts suggested by Geshe Thupten Dorjee, a scholar in the Gelugpa tradition who lives and teaches at the Fairhope Tibetan Society in Alabama. Geshe Dorjee took the Utah sangha under his wing after a visit last year, and has provided guidance and teachings. At Dorjee’s request, Lobsang Nyima Ganden Tripa, former head of the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism, gave Thupten Choling its name.
Henline is typically humble about the evolution of her home into a thriving center for spiritual study. She says she has been fortunate to learn about teachers through word of mouth, and attributes the sangha’s emergence to the generous support of its members and the kindness of those who come to share their wisdom. When she began studying Buddhism on her own, she knew that somehow, eventually, she would create a place where people could gather and share dharma teachings. Even before she encountered the lamas, she had met Tibetan monks through Mystical Arts of Tibet, a traveling arts education program sponsored by Drepung Loseling. Last year, she traveled to India herself to visit their monastery.
One motivation for creating the center in her home was the paucity of local resources for learning about Buddhism. “Even the bookstores didn’t have much,” she says. And while Thupten Choling is nestled in the heart of a close-knit Mormon community, Henline says the reaction to the sangha has been nothing but positive. “My Mormon neighbors are interested in the monks and their beliefs, and in the plight of people in Tibet.”
Thupten Choling continues to gather donations to pay the expenses of visiting teachers, and has raised funds to help support a new health clinic that opened in December 2002 at Drepung Loseling. Meanwhile, the sangha will attain nonprofit status this year, another small but significant step on its path to the future. “Who knows?” Henline smiles, with a twinkle in her eye. “The Drepung Loseling Institute in Atlanta also started in someone’s living room.”