SCOL as a Place of Pilgrimage: An interview with Lama Kathleen Benz
Interviewed by Vicki Fields
May 25, 2023
On several occasions since my arrival at Ser Chö Ösel Ling (SCOL) I have discussed with Lama Kathleen the original intent of establishing this beautiful retreat center and what she feels is the value of visiting a property dedicated to spiritual practice. The following is an interview with her that she agreed to share on the KCC website as an offering to those drawn to Buddhist Dharma.
VF: Recently in conversation you mentioned that SCOL should be viewed as a place of Buddhist pilgrimage. When and how did that view originate?
LK: When we first decided to buy land and build a retreat center Lama Michael said, “If we are going to do this, we are going to build a Cadillac”. In Marcola, Oregon where Lama Michael did his three-year retreat the facility was constructed quickly and was not meant to last. It no longer exists. He said our vision should be to create a premier Vajrayana center in this country. From that vision came ideas of how a piece of land can become a place of pilgrimage.
After we found the property near Goldendale, WA we held an open house each May and invited people to SCOL who were interested in the project. Lama Sarah Harding came to one of these open houses and spoke about how specific sites can become places of pilgrimage. She explained how locations can manifest a magnetic pull linked to spiritual practice, but more than a spiritual energy.
In my experience, this land has that pull. When we found this property, before we bought it, I came through the gates for the first time and was greeted by a heart-shaped meadow surrounded by forest ridges. It felt like a welcoming embrace, a protection inviting you in, but with a wildness about it at the same time. I don’t know if the others felt the same as me, but we all felt good about it.
VF: Who originally found the property?
LK: Lama Michael, Lama Eric, Bill, and Dora were the search team for the land. At annual Sangha meetings we talked about long retreats and how crucial they are for our Shangpa Kagyu lineage. Years ago, when we were still on Monroe Street, Bokar Rinpoche was asked what should be our first goal, a larger urban facility or a retreat center, he said a retreat center should come first. He felt that it was critical for the lineage to be maintained through deep practice.
VF: How does spiritual practice influence the “pull” you mentioned?
LK: When we first acquired the SCOL property it had a good feeling, but it had been traumatized by intensive logging only a few years before without any restoration effort. When we came for groundbreaking in the area for the main retreat facility, the hill was not green. The soil was degraded, with many tree stumps, no grasses, dry, and very hot. The first thing we did before building was to plant 1,000 trees through the efforts of KCC volunteers. Later we got a grant for the Riparian Project and contracted to plant over 11,000 trees and native shrubs along the streams. Also, in the beginning, we did a series of group retreats. These were tent retreats. We used the present caretaker’s house, the only dwelling on the property, for our kitchen and meals. A large tent was our shrine room. Building the cloisters took a long time. These two aspects of healing the land went hand in hand.
VF: How do you feel the years of practice since then have affected the land?
LK: It happens over a long time, partly because people come as spiritual pilgrims, to gather inspiration, and that connection comes to embody the land. It becomes like a spring that flows with a deep sense of communication beyond everyday life.
VF: How can we experience pilgrimage in this day and time?
LK: In many ways we can benefit from connection to sacred land itself. Some feel a deep desire for practice in a place where long retreats have been done. Others feel the sacredness of this specific land through merely the openness of being here, away from city activity. The animals and forces of nature predominate in our senses. Others may come to do practice by helping as a cook or serving other people on retreat.
In addition, having spent a lot of time at SCOL, I tend to look through a filter of the deities of the land, the protectors. This is a view that both Tibetans and Native Americans hold. I can feel that. In fact, I have recently felt that the deities are happier, happier than 20+ years ago when we first came to the land. I think this comes from a combination of rehabilitating the environment and our years of practice. I sing during my walks and have noticed that the deer will stop to listen and even come closer sometimes.
Lama Kathleen Benz has been a dedicated member of KCC since 1993 and completed a three-year retreat at SCOL from 2015 to 2018. She spends about half of each year at SCOL as spiritual advisor to retreatants.
Vicki Fields has been a caretaker at SCOL since November 2022.