Trouble in Shangri-La
The lama is a white guy. With a mostly shaved head and translucent blue eyes, he looks imperturbable on a gold cushion in front of a shrine that holds a fat, gold Buddha, flickering candles and offerings of flowers and incense.
He wears a sleeveless red silk vest over maroon robes.
Twenty-five students sit around him, attentive.
They have come from all over the metro area to the Rime Buddhist Center and Monastery on Kansas City’s West Side, seeking wisdom from Lama Chuck Stanford, who sometimes goes by his Tibetan name, Lama Changchup Kunchok Dorje.
In Stanford’s 12-week course, the Basics of Buddhism, students start by meditating on a raisin. (“First, we bring attention to seeing the raisin, observing it carefully, as if we had never seen one before. We are also aware of any thoughts we might be having about raisins, or food in general,” the exercise in the textbook instructs.)
Now, midway through the class, they know all about the dharma (the teachings of the Buddha) and concepts such as the Four Noble Truths:
One, life always involves suffering.
Two, the cause of suffering is desire.
Three, getting rid of craving can end suffering.
Four, craving can be eliminated by following the Buddha’s Eightfold Path. (The Eightfold Path is about doing everything “right” — right thinking, right speech, right conduct.)
The students talk about their efforts to practice Buddhist principles. One twentysomething guy talks about his frustrations trying to merge into traffic on Southwest Boulevard.
“Well,” Stanford replies with a smile, “I’ve often thought that if the Buddha had been alive today instead of 2,500 years ago, we would have had the Ninefold Path instead of the Eightfold Path.” He pauses, his timing comedic. “And the ninth fold would have been right driving.”
The students laugh.
Later, a longtime member of Stanford’s congregation, Teri Brody, will confirm one of Stanford’s special talents. “He’s got that showbiz personality,” she tells the Pitch.
Before he was executive director and spiritual leader of the Rime Center, Stanford supplemented his income doing card tricks and pulling quarters out of kids’ ears. Despite his talent for magic tricks, though, Stanford hasn’t been able to make tensions at the Rime Center disappear.
Last spring, several board members resigned, unhappy with the way Stanford was running the center and doubtful of his qualifications as a lama. Restiveness at the center continued through the fall.
The malcontents couldn’t help but take it personally when they picked up The Kansas City Star in January and saw that Stanford had written his monthly column about discord within congregations.
“If someone finds they simply cannot get along with the community or does not have faith and confidence in the pastor, rabbi or lama, they have an obligation to leave rather than to cause disharmony in the congregation,” he wrote on January 17. “The Buddha, in his infinite wisdom, placed an incredibly high value on a congregation getting along. He compared causing disharmony in a congregation to killing one’s parents.”
A few years earlier, it would have been hard to imagine Stanford as a spiritual leader. During the 1980s and ’90s, he ran a party-planning company in Merriam called Stanford Productions, supplying wacky carnival games — Sumo Wrestling, the Bungee Run, Human Bowling — for birthday celebrations and company picnics. He moonlighted as a magician — “Mr. Fabulous” — and performed as a stand-up comedian.
But even though he was a master of sudden transformations, Stanford had nothing on the guru Kusum Lingpa. According to his own Web site, Kusum Lingpa has supernatural powers that help him find spiritual messages that were supposedly hidden in the earth, water and sky more than 1,000 years ago by the enlightened Indian saint who brought Buddhism to Tibet.
When Kusum Lingpa appeared in Kansas City in June 1997, he announced almost immediately that he wanted to make Stanford a lama.
“I was astonished,” Stanford recalls.
Stanford says he didn’t feel ready to become a lama, but he did let Kusum Lingpa set up a shrine in his living room. When the Tibetan came to the Stilwell house that Stanford shares with his wife, Mary Stanford, he looked at a small shrine in their basement and shook his head. He shoved aside their couch and chairs and tables and began to assemble a big altar adorned with religious relics.
By the time Stanford met him, Kusum Lingpa had been making trips to the United States for three years. He had become the spiritual teacher of Hollywood director Oliver Stone, who helped set up a dharma center for Kusum Lingpa in Los Angeles, according to an April 2000 article published online by World Tibet Network News. Kusum Lingpa made several stops to speak at Buddhist centers on the West Coast.
In Tibet, Kusum Lingpa oversees a monastery in his native village, where thousands of nomads live in huts and practice their religion. “He’s kind of an old-world lama,” says Stanford, who calls Kusum Lingpa one of his main teachers.
Tibetans take the role of lama very seriously. “The Lama is viewed not only as a spiritual guide but as an actual embodiment of the Buddha himself,” Stanford explains in the Basics of Buddhism text he wrote for the Rime Center.
Normally, a prospective lama should study full time at a monastery for at least ten years (unless he has been recognized as a reincarnated lama), spending nearly all of his time with a qualified main teacher and passing regular exams. Some Tibetan Buddhists say that studying with a nonqualified teacher is actually dangerous to one’s spirit.
On his first visit to the United States, Kusum Lingpa drew attention to himself by following in the footsteps of the high-ranking lama Penor Rimpoche. In 1987, Penor Rimpoche made a controversial pronouncement recognizing a Brooklyn-born divorcée of Italian descent (who favored acrylic nails and black leather jackets and wasn’t a Buddhist) as the first female tulku — reincarnated lama. When Kusum Lingpa showed up in the United States, he stopped at her Maryland temple and announced that he recognized her as a reincarnation of the beautiful princess Mandarava, from the ancient kingdom of Zahor, a consort of the Indian saint who brought Buddhism to Tibet.
In the following years, Kusum Lingpa also made stops in Oregon, California, New Mexico and New York. Year after year, his list of engagements grew. “His Holiness is a force of nature, a living repository of Tibet’s most exalted spiritual traditions. He is not to be missed!” read one press release. But his unorthodox style and his unabashed requests for money began to stir discontent. Eventually, the Dalai Lama’s office stopped recommending Kusum Lingpa as a teacher.
“Kusum Lingpa had been a genuine spiritual teacher when he first arrived from Tibet. But lately there has been some controversy surrounding him. For that reason I would advise you to seek some other lama’s guidance in your spiritual pursuits,” a representative from the Dalai Lama’s office wrote in a December 2001 e-mail to one student.
In the spring of 1998, a year after his first visit to Kansas City, Kusum Lingpa came back and ordained Stanford as a lama.
Stanford had not applied himself to years of rigorous study. He hadn’t undertaken the long retreat — three years, three months and three days — that for many men is the culmination of becoming a lama. He hadn’t spent even a full year cramming with ancient Buddhist texts.
“I just did a lot of thinking,” Stanford says.
One of the tenets of the Eightfold
Path concerns Right Livelihood. The Buddha taught that a person should avoid making a career of proffering weapons, working as a slave trader or a pimp, slaughtering animals or dealing drugs.
But he never said anything about selling cool earrings.
In early 1999, Stanford and his wife decided to acquire a building where they could provide services and studies in Buddhism and Tibetan culture. They decided to make the center a Rime (nonsectarian, pronounced ree-may) center. One day while he was driving, Stanford spotted a beautiful, old, brick church with colorful stained-glass windows on Kansas City’s West Side. The building’s owner, urban developer Adam Jones, agreed to let the Stanfords lease it at a discount.
They opened the Rime Buddhist Center & Monastery there in late 2000 as an affiliate of Kusum Lingpa’s Thupten Chokor Ling Monastery in Tibet. Stanford appointed himself the center’s spiritual leader — but he also named himself executive director, which meant he would be in charge of raising money.
Those conflicting roles would lead to unhappiness.
At first, only six people attended — the vestiges of a group Stanford had run for four years, the Mindfulness Meditation Foundation. But Stanford and the center’s board of directors began implementing a strategic plan. Their goal was to increase the center’s membership to 200 by 2004. They estimated that about 25 percent of the metro area’s population consisted of “cultural creatives” — people who were open to meditation and Eastern thought. “The typical demographic for Western sanghas [Buddhist congregations] are white, middle-class and well-educated,” the board’s plan stated.
Stanford’s business background came in handy. The strategic plan’s “marketing and communications” section outlined numerous ways to draw new members: a large, yellow sign affixed to the side of the building; a Web site; fliers; a newsletter and ads in the Star‘s Faith section.
This was in contrast to other Buddhist groups in Kansas City, which include a Vietnamese center in northeast Kansas City, a Chinese Buddhist center in Overland Park and a Laotian Buddhist center in Olathe. Services are conducted in practitioners’ respective languages, and people find out about them mainly by word-of-mouth. A few English-speaking Buddhist groups meet at Unity Temple on the Plaza, and the small Shambala Center holds classes in Kansas City, Kansas. But the Rime Center has become the biggest and most visible Buddhist group in town.
At Sunday services, visitors peruse a table filled with flickering candles, colorful photographs of Tibet, gold statues and pamphlets about Buddhism. Musky incense curls through the air, and a CD plays the sounds of Tibetan monks chanting.
Members mill around in their stocking feet, talking in low voices and drinking fruity herbal tea before walking into the shrine room, picking up prayer books and settling in on red meditation cushions for Stanford’s dharma talk. The services begin with Stanford hitting a gong. The deep tone reverberates, and Stanford prostrates himself in front of the altar. With a faraway look in his eyes, he begins chanting in an otherworldly monotone.
The center attracts not only a few longtime Buddhists but also people Stanford calls “spiritual seekers” — people like Donna Jayne, who started attending the Rime Center about three years ago. Now in her fifties, Jayne developed an interest in Eastern religions about a decade ago.
“I went to a Sunday service with a friend, not really knowing what to expect,” she says. “I was really blown away by the service. It was just so touching. I don’t know why the Tibetans in town don’t come, I really don’t.”
Part of the Rime Center’s plan had been to raise enough money to be self-sustaining. So in the spring of 2001, the center opened a gift shop and began selling CDs of Tibetan monks chanting, colorful jewelry from India, woven purses, strings of malas (wooden prayer beads — “Blessed by H.H. the Dalai Lama,” $20), tapes of teachings, books on Tibetan astrology and bumper stickers: Free Tibet; Honk If You Don’t Exist; My Other Vehicle Is a Mahayana. The gift shop began bringing in almost $10,000 a year.
So what if peddling trinkets while encouraging people not to want things seemed a little hypocritical? The center needed money.
“The gift shop does bring people back to the center, because people have attachments and desires,” Teri Brody says. “And yeah, part of what we want to do is help people get rid of those. But that could take several lifetimes, so in the meantime, why not spend some money and promote the center?”
In July 2001, the Rime Center renovated a back room and raised enough money to bring in a young Tibetan monk, Jigme Wangchuck, from the Dalai Lama’s monastery in India.
By importing just a few speakers a year, the Rime Center had begun attracting members like Brody. A fifty-year-old family practitioner, Brody had been a Buddhist since she was in her twenties, when she started studying under a Tibetan lama in California. She moved back to Kansas City in the ’70s and met the Stanfords about ten years ago.
“I’m so grateful to have the center,” Brody says. “For a long time, I felt there was no one else of the same persuasion as me in Kansas City.” Brody attributes the success of the Rime Center to Stanford’s charisma and hard work.
Writing a monthly column for the Star‘s Faith section and serving on the Kansas City Interfaith Council with people such as City Councilman Alvin Brooks increased Stanford’s — and the center’s — profile around Kansas City. Before long, it seemed as if Stanford was being called on whenever anyone needed a Buddhist representative for a panel discussion or a speech. He was highly visible in public ceremonies after 9/11; and before the United States attacked Iraq, he was a guest on KCUR 89.3, discussing the imminent war with other religious leaders.
Regardless of their questions about Stanford’s qualifications as a spiritual leader, even many of his critics agreed that he was a dynamic director and had created a Buddhist oasis in the Bible Belt.
According to the second Noble
Truth, desire causes suffering. The Buddha taught that there are three kinds of desire: desire for sensual pleasure, desire to get rid of something and desire to become something.
Apparently, even the desire to run a nice Buddhist Center can cause suffering.
As the center grew, Stanford seemed to flourish in his role as Missouri’s only American-born lama.
He began wearing his red robes around town, and soon — after consulting with Kusum Lingpa, he says — he began giving “refuge vows” to people who wanted to officially become Buddhists.
Some people noticed a change in Stanford.
“He became more forceful — saying, ‘This is true, that’s true,’ invoking his authority as a lama. I didn’t think he had the qualifications to be a lama,” says Erin Templeton, a college student who became a Buddhist at age 16 after joining Stanford’s meditation group in the late ’90s. “But he didn’t seem to be hurting anybody, so I just thought, well, I’ll just keep my head down and see if I can get through the weirdness of it all to connect with other people at the center.” She joined the center’s board in April 2003. Stanford quickly nominated her for board secretary, and the other board members voted in favor.
Having noticed that many Rime Center attendees would show up once or twice and then never come back, Stanford had found a volunteer consultant to help increase membership and implement a new accounting system. The consultant had suggested that Stanford expand the size of the board of directors and increase membership on the center’s various committees so that new people would feel they belonged. By that spring, the board had almost twenty members on it.
“For a while, it was almost anybody who walked through the door could be on the board, and that caused some problems, some growing pains,” Stanford says.
Despite Templeton’s misgivings, in May 2003, she and her then-fiancé, Patrick Lauer, who wanted to get married at the center, asked Stanford to perform their wedding. But as she became more involved, regularly driving from Blue Springs to attend meetings, Templeton began to have conflicts with Stanford. The disagreements started when Templeton brought up something that had been bothering her.
Although Tibetan Buddhism has some inherent sexism — women can’t become lamas, for instance — Templeton felt that the center itself was slighting women. She wanted to see women occasionally giving dharma teachings when Stanford was out of town. She argued that some of the prayers might be made more gender neutral. And she wanted the board to consider the possibility of bringing in a resident nun instead of a monk. She says Stanford sent her an e-mail telling her she was being divisive.
At least one woman agreed with him. “I thought that inappropriate,” Jayne says. “I consider it irrelevant. I’m a female in this life. I’ve probably been a male a thousand times before.”
Templeton says she convinced the board and some like-minded women to try to make changes, and she finally was invited to give a lesson one Sunday when Stanford was out of town.
But the atmosphere was deteriorating. One day a picture appeared on a bulletin board at the center: a photograph of Stanford in magician’s garb from his “Mr. Fabulous” days. Other members reportedly began calling Stanford “Lama Fabulous” behind his back.
As the center tried that spring to implement a new accounting system devised by the volunteer accountant, tempers flared and one board member resigned. “Chuck had always handled all the accounting, and the process just went awry,” says Andi Meyer, a Kansas City stage actress who joined the center after seeing the Rime Center sign as she was driving on Interstate 35. She joined the board in the fall of 2002 and had been elected to head the committee that made sure volunteers cleaned the center, emptied the trash and took care of routine maintenance.
“It’s a thankless job, and I think she was getting burned out,” says Matt Rice, board chairman. Rice abandoned his Southern Baptist upbringing for Buddhism four years ago. A good-natured security guard from Olathe, Rice had never led a board before. To mediate the disputes that kept erupting, he says, he tried to put a basic Buddhist teaching into action: “Be a better person, help people, and if you can’t help them, don’t harm them.”
But it wasn’t working very well. “Buddhism teaches you to work with your ego, because the ego causes all the suffering because of the attachment people have to their own personal views,” he says. “And when you see these things happening, you see the egos just blaring.”
Another tenet of the Noble
Eightfold Path is Right Speech. The Buddha taught that gossip, lies and harsh words should be avoided. But that concept might be hard to practice in this life.
In August 2003, board member Sue Wilson, who headed the committee charged with attracting and welcoming new members to the center, confronted Stanford with questions about the center’s finances. Rice had said the center was struggling financially (he tells the Pitch it still is), and Wilson wanted to know why Stanford had suddenly asked the board to pay him a salary. Also, twenty or so members were planning to follow Stanford on a pilgrimage to see the Dalai Lama in India this past February; each pilgrim’s airfare, lodging and meals would run about $2,500 — and Stanford wanted an additional $1,700 for himself.
When the Stanfords sold their party-planning business, they had made enough money to retire. And Stanford had recently started making a little extra money with a part-time job as chaplain to the Buddhist — and Rastafarian — inmates at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary.
But he sent an e-mail to board members that August explaining that he and his wife had spent $3,500 of their own money on a trip to India two years prior.
“The original trip Mary and I planned and organized two years ago was very successful but it was a tremendous amount of work,” Stanford wrote. “The trip required 200-plus hours of advance planning and the actual trip of more than two weeks turned out to be incredibly demanding work. Not only were we responsible for the needs and comforts of the fifteen on the trip, but the tour was also a buying trip for the Rime gift shop. Mary and I stopped and purchased product almost continually during the trip.”
Stanford then turned to the issue of a salary, noting that his work as a lama was a 40-hour-a-week job. “It has always been the board’s and my intention that as the center grew and achieved profitability, the center could begin to fairly compensate me for my service, as any faith community must do for its pastor, minister or rabbi,” he wrote.
Some members thought Stanford deserved to be paid, having put in hours of volunteer time and thousands of dollars of his own money into the center.
At the same time, the Rime Center’s resident monk had decided to move on after his two-year commitment ended, and the center — which was supposed to serve as a monastery — needed to find a replacement. After Rice worked for months to find a monk who would agree to come in exchange for food, a place to stay and a stipend, Rice says board members suddenly realized that the center did not have enough money to pay for the visitor. They were forced to rescind the offer.
Despite the center’s financial difficulties, Stanford asked the board to pay the man who had made him a lama, Kusum Lingpa, for a speaking engagement the Tibetan had, for the second year in a row, canceled at the last minute. After much arguing, the board narrowly voted to send $1,500 to Kusum Lingpa.
Last August, Meyer says, she and Stanford had a falling-out when Stanford refused to allow Meyer to buy discounted cleaning supplies, even though the board had approved the purchase. After all the discussions about tight finances — and Stanford’s regular Sunday requests from the altar for donations — Meyer says she had been trying to save the center some money when Stanford abruptly decided she shouldn’t purchase the soap and bleach.
The discussion degenerated into a yelling match. Meyer says Stanford yelled at her, but gossip around the center had it the other way around. “I heard she was cussing and screaming and saying things you just don’t say to a lama,” one member tells the Pitch.
Stanford and Meyer went to a mediation session. Meyer says that went nowhere.
And the unpleasant discussions about the role of women at the center continued. At a September 2 board meeting, a male board member, Jon Dilley, brought up the topic, and Templeton, Meyer and two other women discussed it, according to the meeting’s minutes. Then Meyer resigned from the board, saying she was quitting on the advice of Jigme Wangchuck, the former resident monk, and Champa, another monk who sometimes teaches Tibetan-language classes at the center.
After Meyer left, the board called a private meeting to discuss Stanford’s abilities as spiritual leader. Stanford was not invited, but he showed up anyway, says Wilson, who attended. “In that meeting, another very active member said, ‘Chuck, I remember the days when you said, “I don’t even know how to be a lama. I shouldn’t be a lama.”‘ And Chuck just absolutely flipped — he was yelling and shouting and saying, ‘How could you say that? That is so insulting,’ and he stomped out and then stomped back in — actually he wasn’t even supposed to be at the meeting, let alone running the meeting, and that was pointed out to him, so he backed off,” Wilson says.
Finally, the Stanfords decided to have a retreat to resolve the chaos. Board members would stay in cabins at the 300-acre Lake Doniphan Conference & Retreat Center near Excelsior Springs, perform team-building exercises in the woods and contemplate the beautiful lake covered with yellow American lotus flowers.
“At the retreat, we really came back together,” Jayne says. “We realized we really, really like each other and we’re a family.”
Stanford tells the Pitch that the
Rime Center’s problems were caused by the kind of personality conflicts that occur in any religious group.
“You can’t find a spiritual community that hasn’t had its problems,” he says. Everyday tensions were exacerbated by the failed experiment of opening the board to too many members — some of whom were young and had never served on a board before, he says. But, he adds, he did his best to mend relationships.
“We feel so sad that they’re unhappy,” Stanford says of the former members. “I have no ill will toward them.”
Stanford says he has always tried to deal with members calmly and respectfully, but there will always be people who, for whatever reason, don’t get along with a spiritual leader.
“I don’t expect everyone to like me. Maybe they don’t like the way I part my hair. Maybe they don’t like my personality. I understand that. But I can’t help who I am.” Besides, he adds, the current board must be satisfied with him, because they haven’t fired him.
But the board members who have kept him on don’t include several who left last November, after Stanford asked everyone on the board to sign a document stipulating that they would treat everyone — including him — with respect. Stanford says the agreement was not meant to force them not to disagree with him, but he says some of them took it that way.
Since resigning from the Rime Center’s board, Dilley may be one of the few members who has handled his disagreements with Stanford in a way that would have pleased the Buddha. He meditated more and just got over it.
“In Buddhism,” Dilley says, “We have this idea of revering all lamas. A lot of the prayers say, ‘I take refuge in the glorious and holy lamas.’ Well, we can see Chuck as one of our greatest teachers, because he presents obstacles.”