Every once in a while it soothes the soul to step back and take a look at the bigger picture, so a visit to the nearby Tibetan Buddhist temple makes a most pleasant day trip.
Escape the trappings of everyday life by hiking trails through Peace Park, enjoying the beauty of parrots and macaws in the Garuda Aviary, and touring a temple that looks like it’s from the other side of the world.
First of all, know that everyone is welcome at Kunzang Palyul Choling’s 72-acre campus — one of the largest communities of ordained practitioners of Buddhism in the country. Buddhism is not a religion of conversion, so KPC is a spiritual haven for everyone, including the casual day-tripper.
KPC was founded by Jetsunma Ahkon Lhama — nee Alice Zeoli — of Brooklyn, N.Y. She is the first Western woman to be recognized as Tulka, or reincarnate Lama and lineage holder, in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Jetsunma is an honorific title associated with Tara — the female Buddha who nurtures, protects and cares for all living beings with boundless compassion.
While many of the rituals and adornments you see here may be new to you, there’s a vibe of comfort and familiarity that starts when you pull into the parking lot amid bumper stickers that encourage you to “Visualize Whirled Peas,” “Practice Random Acts of Kindness” and “Free Tibet.”
The feeling continues when you step up to the door of the roomy Colonial house in rural Montgomery County. But on the other side, a whole ’nother world awaits. A peaceful, welcoming, orderly world. The setting is ideal for this brand of Buddhism that bridges the ancient wisdom of Tibet with the contemporary mind of the West.
The Dharma Room is the educational center, featuring a large sand mandala, two elaborate teaching thrones and several altars, as well as richly colored tonkas — traditional paintings on silk — and numerous sacred texts. The visual impact is dramatic, dashing my preconceived notion of monastic, Zen-like simplicity.
The room is home to an enormous collection of crystals, representing the natural mind with no distractions. The crystals are another example of East-meets-West in this place that seeks to inspire people to improve the world and bring an end to the suffering of all sentient beings.
Nowhere is this mission more evident than in the Prayer Room, where a 24-hour prayer vigil for world peace began in 1985 and has continued unbroken to this day. The vigil is the heartbeat of the temple and will continue until there no longer is a need. Prayer requests may be made in a book outside the door.
Outside, the 36-foot-tall Enlightenment Stupa is a focal point of the campus. Stupas are one of the oldest forms of sacred architecture, built to avert war, end famine and promote general well-being. Visiting is believed to bring spiritual comfort and inspiration, and walking clockwise around them while reciting prayers or mantras is welcome.
More stupas are found across River Road in the serene, wooded setting of Peace Park. Enjoy meditation gardens at the four points of the compass and in the middle of the park, where the 35-foot-tall golden Migyar Dorje Stupa — dedicated to spiritual and physical well being — is located.
At Peace Park, everyone is welcome; it’s considered sacred land that’s dedicated to the benefit of all beings. The park is open from dawn to dusk, offering a great place to relax, reflect, picnic and walk your leashed dog. Pets, in fact, have a special place at KPC.
Tara’s Babies Animal Welfare and the Garuda Aviary were both founded under the guidance of Jetsunma. Tara’s Babies is a dog and cat rescue organization that participates in the no-kill movement, and the Garuda Aviary provides sanctuary for abandoned, abused and neglected large birds such as parrots and macaws.
Next to the temple, the Garuda Aviary — usually open from 1 to 7 p.m. Saturday afternoons — lends a new understanding about the plight of our unfortunate feathered friends.
Most people purchase large birds for beauty and entertainment, usually with the best of intentions. But the constant screeching and chewing grow old, leading 1.2 million birds to be abandoned annually or to suffer from neglect or abuse. The Garuda Aviary provides a lifelong sanctuary, offering food, stimulation and a loving environment.
On Saturday, the aviary will host a gala event from noon to 4 p.m. Large birds will be on view in the flight cage, and presentations focusing on the plight of the exotic birds will be held. Tours of the temple also will be offered, along with live music by the B-12 Boosters, games for the kids and a variety of vegetarian and nonvegetarian foods.
The gift shop sells incense, wind chimes, meditation cushions and other items. Books on the teachings of Jetsunma and other Buddhist masters also are available. Bring a little feng shui home with you.
Here in the D.C. area, we are pretty good at juggling five balls and a plate in the air at the same time ... with one hand tied behind our backs. Many of us are rabid overachievers, and we kind of like it that way. But a day at Kunzang Palyul Choling is a day to enjoy the unexpected. And that peaceful, easy feeling lingers all the way home.
Elaine Jean is a writer with an incurable case of wanderlust. She and husband/photographer Paul are roaming the planet, starting in the mid-Atlantic region. Learn more about this and other day trips at www.roamingtheplanet.com.