On a Wednesday evening at the Vail Interfaith Chapel, a group of about 15 are trying to meditate as a Yom Kippur ceremony takes place overhead.
The soft and encouraging voice of Thomas Gutherie urges his students to breathe away the distractions, to be aware of their reactions to them and to not be angry with the people upstairs scraping and shuffling away.
Normally meditations are held in complete silence, but Gutherie told his students that distractions were merely a challenge for the mind. Regardless, many of the students showed frustration with their ability to meditate once the session was over.
However, Gutherie said, letting go of anger at the world around you is a significant part of the study of Buddhism.
“Why do we get angry? Because we’re not getting what we want. Why are we not getting what we want? Because we want things to be a certain way and they just change all the time.”
Gutherie is no stranger to change. Growing up on a farm in Georgia, he was destined to work at the family sawmill. He had been working from a very young age, cutting down trees and making lumber. He went to college to study industrial management and go into the family business. But in the early ’90s, economic troubles plagued the sawmill, and his family declared bankruptcy, losing both the farm and the business.
After a stint as a legislative aide to a state assemblyman, Gutherie went to Vail to visit his sister, a teacher, in 1994.
“It was around this time of year, late summer to early fall, and everything looks so amazing, and I thought, I’m going to stay for a while,” he said.
Gutherie said he had a job within approximately seven minutes, working at the old Gondola House, when Vail Resorts was still Vail Associates. Also working at the Gondola House that season was Vail local Neal Henzler, who, strangely enough, more than 10 years later, would be sitting in the basement of the Vail Interfaith Chapel with him.
Within a year Gutherie became a food and beverage manager, living what he thought was the American Dream.
“I’m as guilty of materialism as anyone,” he said. “I had a condo, a car, drank the good bourbon, had nice clothes, tons of skis. People save 10 grand to come here for two weeks and we get to live here? But you’re not happy, and you really get kind of desperate.”
Gutherie was on a trip to a friend’s wedding in upstate New York when he experienced another change.
“In the podunk airport in Schenectady or somewhere like that, I saw the Dalai Lama staring at me from a book cover,” he said. “Without thinking, I grabbed it and started to read it on the plane.”
When he returned to Colorado, Gutherie read a few more Buddhist books, tried to meditate and live a little healthier.
Around that time a former investment banker from New York City, Michael Gregory, started the Summit Dharma Center, a nonsectarian institute that fosters Buddhist communities from the Front Range to Grand Junction.
“I ended up going to his class and I instantly connected,” Gutherie said. “It was nice to have someone to learn from instead of trying to figure it out from the books. And I’ve never really looked back as far as Buddhism goes.”
Gutherie and others at the Summit Dharma Center had an idea to build a center in India that could further their studies and allow them to complete a traditional three-year retreat of silence and meditation. The SDC bought a large piece of land in Sikkim in the northeast corner of India. Completed in May 2007, the retreat center featured 17,000 square feet of meditation rooms, yoga rooms and private huts for those on three-year retreats.
Before Gutherie left for India, he was ordained as a monk. That means that he took Buddhist robes, an outward sign of the inward journey, and a certain set of vows. He taught dharma at centers all over Colorado, driving hundreds of miles a week.
A group of 17 left for India in 2007 with the intention of completing the three-year retreat, but not all of them ended up staying in Sikkim. Conflicts within the group prompted several of the monks, including Gutherie, to leave the center after 10 months.
“There is no failure except how you deal with it,” he said. “It’s a process. Did the retreat fail? No, I learned quite a bit.”
Gutherie and six others relocated to Thailand, where it was no longer conducive to be a Tibetan Buddhist monk. He had to give up his robes and his vows. In the quiet beach town of Phuket, the group set up another retreat center where they now teach English to locals to support themselves while they focus on their studies and mediation.
To teach dharma, a Buddhist must be sent by his teacher as well as requested by his audience to teach.
“It’s kind of humbling,” Gutherie said. “Michael Gregory asked us to come back and teach, and we rotate returning to Colorado. But I consider my home to be in Thailand now.”
Gutherie returned to U.S. shores in August, and will be back in Thailand before November when Michael Gregory himself will pick up the Summit Dharma Center classes.
“Being a monk was horrible, exciting, great and difficult, just like life. It helped me on my path, but it’s not a prerequisite to teach. Some of the best people I know aren’t monks. And there are some amazing monks, His Holiness the Dalai Lama among them. It’s not about becoming numb or removed or not being a part of the world. It’s about letting the good side of your being to flourish and to benefit others.”
“Thomas has an iPhone?” exclaimed someone in the front row of the class.
“Pretty sweet, isn’t it?” he replied. “IPhone super 3-G. It has SMS, lots of music. Pretty cool. But it’s not about the thing. It’s about the relationship to the thing.”
A common misconception of Buddhist studies is that one has to rid themselves of all connections to the material world. People tend to think that Buddhism is about being shut off and removed from the world, but Gutherie told his class that they don’t have to throw away all of their stuff to rid themselves of suffering ” they have to change the way they relate to the stuff.
The backbone of Buddhism is the Four Noble Truths, which can be sorted into two sides. On one side, there is the admittance that there is suffering in the world. The second truth is that there are causes to suffering: namely, desire. On the other side of things, there is peace. But there are also causes and conditions to peace.
“You can think, ‘If I get an iPhone, I’ll be happy’ and until you get that iPhone you’re not happy because you’re marked by wanting. You’re suffering,” Gutherie said. “Once you get the iPhone, for about seven seconds you think it’s the coolest thing in the world, until something goes wrong. The songs aren’t right, accessories cost $100, you lose a call. So the relationship to the iPhone is suddenly marked by suffering. You’re worried about losing it, about it getting scratched because at some point it’s going to fail.”
Gutherie reiterated that the truth of the iPhone, and the truth of everything according to Buddhist beliefs is that everything is in a constant state of change, and nothing is permanent.
“Did you find nirvana in your iPhone?” joked the student in the front row.
“No, but can I download it?” Gutherie replied.
Henzler, who worked at the Gondola House with Gutherie in the mid-’90s, said that Gutherie brings elements of logic and approachability, and even humor to the class.
“The depth of his experience is very evident,” Henzler said. “He shares his own personal experience with the practice, and no one’s going to be intimidated by him.”
He said that when the Rinpoche, or monk of a high order, leads the class, there is an observance of traditional protocol out of respect. The Rinpoche wears gold and maroon robes and can often delve into the extremely technical aspects of Buddhism. But Gutherie, though he has worn monk’s robes, is much more lighthearted.
“With Thomas, no one ever leaves scratching their heads,” he said.
Henzler has been studying Buddhism for two and a half years.
“It just connected really well with me,” he said. “It’s a very logical type of spirituality. You’re not asked to make any leaps of faith or anything. You can take pieces of it if you want, and apply it directly.”
The Summit Dharma Center says that they welcome members of any denomination into their classes, and that many of the practices they teach are acceptable in such religions as Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
“Western religions like Christianity are so ingrained in our society,” Henzler said. “Hardly anyone grew up with a Buddhist background, so it’s difficult to kind of start all over again.”
Neal sat in the second row in the basement at the Interfaith Chapel while Wednesday’s class concluded with discussions about the students’ experiences with the meditation. Many continued to express dissatisfaction with the noises coming from upstairs. They had trouble focusing on their breath and their awareness because they were busy being frustrated and distracted.
Gutherie told them to look at the bigger picture. The world is not happening to you, he said ” the world is interdependent.
“People like to think they’re stuck in traffic,” he said. “That traffic is happening to them. But really you’re just another car. You are traffic. You could be happy because all of these beings on the planet are moving, or you could just get pissed off because the whole world is in your way.”
To Gutherie, the changes just keep on coming as the Summit Dharma Center expands and his personal studies evolve.
“I played high school football, chewed tobacco, and shoplifted,” he said. “I was a political guy, a bartender at La Tour, an English teacher in Thailand, and a Buddhist monk. What’s next? I don’t know. There’s unlimited potential. Anything you see that’s wrong could be shifted and transformed and made better.”
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