A Spiritual Community Takes Root

Crestone, Colorado

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Annie Pace practicing yoga at the Buddhist Tashi Gomang Stupa in Crestone, Colo.

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Crestone, Colo.—Seemingly in the middle of nowhere, miles from the nearest major highway, this onetime Colorado gold-mining town seems like a most unexpected locale to find a growing religious center. But Crestone today boasts a denser concentration of high Tibetan lamas than normally would be found even in Tibet, and that's just for starters. Christian Carmelites, Islamic Sufis, Jews, Hindus, Zen Buddhists, Taoists, Shintoists, and American Indians have all moved to Crestone.

There is a story behind the formation of this eclectic community. Beginning in the late 1970s, a wealthy visionary named Hanne Strong, who with her husband, Maurice, owns 200,000 acres around Crestone, has donated land with the intention of creating a sanctuary for the world's religions.

The result has been remarkable, with diverse spiritual groups living in close proximity and intermingling. At the Christmas mass at the Roman Catholic monastery, whole rows get taken by Buddhist monks in their flowing robes. Hindu nuns in saris umpire local baseball games. When American Indians held a medicine wheel ceremony this summer, the offerings to the four directions were made by a Shinto priest, a Christian nun, a Buddhist nun, and a Hindu yogi.

Mixing it up. This exotic mélange exists amid an American western landscape straight out of Bonanza. When the first Tibetans arrived in Crestone around 1980, the crusty old mayor was asked what he thought about it. "Better than a bunch of New Yorkers," he replied.

Now, a quarter century later, the area supports two distinct varieties of spiritual life—one traditional, the other free-form.

Tibetan Buddhism scholar Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche finds that having so many living masters in residence makes the area now the world's best place to practice and meditate. As one Crestone Buddhist, Erik Drew, puts it, "Why go to India and get dysentery? You would never meet there such a concentration of first-rate teachers nor have such access to them."

Sister Kaye, a Carmelite nun, finds it validating to live amid so many faiths. When she wakes before dawn to pray, she sees a fire already lit at a Hindu ashram across the hillside and thinks she is not alone: Others are devout; others have made selfless vows and aspire to the same sanctity she wishes for herself. And she begins her day thus heartened.

Lorraine Fox Davis, an American Indian spokeswoman, observes that people change when they move to such a wintry, isolated natural setting. First, she says, residents must become more self-reliant here to survive and, since no one can make it alone, also become part of the community. Then, free of the hassles and stresses of urban life—in Crestone, house doors are left unlocked, car keys in the ignition—people invariably "soften." And lastly, Davis says, everyone here feels a deep sense of connection to the land.

A sense of connection between inner and outer landscape. Self-reliance. Community. The softening of the heart. These have always been the goals of a religious vocation.

In Crestone, though, some experience this enhanced sense of life's interconnectedness without benefit of clergy. Surrounded by 19 major religious groups, it's the air even skeptics there breathe—this feeling of living in a larger universe.

Rabbi David Cooper, author of the bestselling God Is a Verb, suggests that in Crestone is occurring a strange next step in human spirituality: "postreligion," in which one can benefit from religion without being a believer/congregant. Fifty years ago, the eastern faiths that now populate the valley were all but unknown in America; today, Cooper points out, their insights about compassion and mindfulness inform even the secular vocabulary in Crestone (and elsewhere).

Crestonians tend to treat one another well, recognizing not only what the other person is but also what he or she is striving to be. And that response helps bring, for the devout and nonbelievers alike, the ideal closer to actuality. "People who move to a place they consider 'spiritual' behave differently, probably better, than they would elsewhere," current Mayor Kizzen Laki observes. "In Crestone, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."