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Tamar Ellentuck

Crestone Spiritual Alliance

Interview Conducted by: Brittany Wheeler

Tamar Ellentuck has lived in Crestone, CO for eight years. Originally from rural New Jersey, she first came to Tibetan Buddism during a life crisis. After living in a Buddhist monastery for five years, while traveling with a Buddhist teacher, she visited Crestone and fell in love with the place. She moved to Crestone and began her stay with 8 months of solitary retreat, six weeks of teachings, followed by another 4 months of solitary retreat. After removing herself from solitude, she immediately became involved with local politics, involving the watershed issues of the time. She also was involved in the creation of the Crestone Spiritual Alliance. She is now no longer associated solely with the Tibetan Buddhists, but also with the Zen Buddhists and the Shumei institute.

“Mostly I work as a community organizer. I was one of the two people who was instrumental in getting all the spiritual centers to get together and create an umbrella organization which is the Crestone Spiritual Alliance.”

“Many of the spiritual traditions are drawn to create retreat centers here because the geographical environment, the physical environment, the elemental environment, is the environment that’s described from time immemorial in their sacred wisdom traditions about being the kind of place where meditative, mostly quiet meditative practices, can best flourish.”

“So the Tibetans come here and it’s like Tibet. Its remote, its high mountain, its elementally difficult, its not an easy place to live. And the same with the Carmelites, when you talk about the desert father.”

“In all the wisdom traditions you find the contemplative end, you know, you have ranging from the mystical contemplative, who are the monks, whether they’re the Carmelite monks or Tibetan Buddhist monks, Christian monks, Jewish kabbalist monks, or practitioners, the practices that they’re doing, that we’re doing, have a lot of similarities between them. Like the Christian mythical tradition, the Jewish kabbalist tradition, and the Tibetan Buddhist traditions, in terms of the actual practices, there are many similarities. And those practices depend on solitude, for one. They depend on not being too comfortable, on a certain kind of renunciation.”

“Living in an environment where things are highly simplified and where there’s not a lot of contact with amusements of any kind, which would come with a lot of people, movie theaters, lots of shopping opportunities, theater, a lot of cultural, that kind of cultural, that’s what we think of as cultural things, and large population centers where there’s just a lot to do, and there are a lot of people, and there are a lot of cars, and there’s a lot of business. So, it’s a place where things are very simple.”

“It’s a very difficult place to make it economically.”

“There are very, very few distractions of any kind. You can hardly get television here. So, it’s easy not to be distracted because there’s not very many distractions. And that’s sort of a requirement for all of these practices.”

“They each come to it with the feeling in their own tradition that this is the kind of place you need to practice what their, the contemplative practices of that religion. And that gives everybody, the spiritual centers, immediately, a commonality. So even though, people are doing different practices, though they may be similar, coming out of different traditions, with certain kinds of different core beliefs, actually there is a shared core belief in the value of solitude, silence, prayer, and either individual solitary practice or group retreat meditation practice, so we share that we have that in common.”

“If I’m in retreat in a Buddhist center and knowing that two acres away or two miles away there are people in retreat in a Christian center doing the same kind of solitary practice. There is a solidarity, there is sort of an energy that develops in the community among practitioners, even if they are not doing the same practices, or not practicing in the same tradition.”

“The idea was to create contemplative retreat centers.”

“So all religions have that spread, lets say, from the quietest contemplative to the most public. And the idea here was to provide a place for the contemplative aspects of any tradition to sort of flourish and survive. And it turns out that the contemplative aspect is often the mystical aspect and the contemplative or mystical practices are very similar across traditions.”

“We are unique in our geography. There are very few places left in the world and in the United States where you can have this kind of isolation.”

“Being at the end of the road is important, too. We’re not a pass through on anywhere else, we don’t have a lot of that kind of traffic. So people come here intentionally, regardless of the reason they come here. Unless they absolutely made the wrong turn, you don’t come here to go anywhere else. You come here because you’re coming here, because once you get here when you want to leave you’ve gotta go out the same way you came back in. So it’s not like “oh I’ll just pass through there and see what it’s like.” So people have a clear intention when they come here, which is different than other places, I think.”

“Everyone seems to have a ‘How I got to Crestone’ story.”

“I liked it here, because it’s beautiful. When I got here it was appealing to be me because it was beautiful. At that time it was half the number of houses there are now and half the number of people. So, it had a very remote feeling while still having more people than I was used to at the time.”

“Because there were a lot of centers, a lot of teachers came.”

“I saw it as a kind of place where you could do some one stop shopping because, you know, if I lived somewhere else, if I wanted to take teachings with Chang Rinpoche I’d have to travel to where he is, or with San Rinpoche, I’d have to travel to where he is, or any of the other teachers, many teachers who come here. So this was great because all the teachers were coming here.”

“I came here and I just fell in love with the place, the physical, the beauty of the place, and the energy, the feeling of the place, and I just came into the valley and just fell in love with it and said this is where I want to be. So, for me, that was unusual, because I’ve been generally nomadic, my life.”

“So it’s not one of those weird stories like my car broke down and I could never leave or something. Or I never had a dream about this place, or I didn’t see it in a vision. I just drove into town and thought ‘Hey, this place is cool, I like it.’ And I was ready to make a move, and it offered, it was the right step at the time.”

“There was sort of a lineage connection. Since I was in a part of that lineage then it was, in a way, there was a certain logic to me coming here.”

“Land values soared and people had a lot of ideas about what could happen here, and so there was quite a conflict between the people who said, ‘I’m gonna make a million bucks’ and started speculating in real estate and buying and flipping lots and building houses and selling houses. And land prices, they increased in value in terms of what they were being advertised and what people were paying for them, over 500% in a year. So, when something like that happens in a community, it’s a big shift.”

“There are those people who always said, we don’t want this to become Sedona, we don’t want this to be Aspen. We like that there is nothing here.”

“The motto that came out of that conference was something like ‘what we have to offer is a whole lot of nothing.’”

“The motto of the whole conference at the end was ‘Inconvenience is a virtue.’”

“Because we have no local economy, who was buying land and houses were people who had enough disposable income to have a second home.”

“A lot of people felt that this place was about community, and some people had these back to the land values, some people had spiritual values.”

“It’s a funny community because it’s a community of hermits. A lot of people came here to get away from everybody, and yet, they have a strong sense of what they think community should be.”

“And it brought in a whole other element of people saying ‘I’ve lived here for 20 years, its okay if I get rich on land but that guy just came in from Utah, and this is what he does.’ So, there was a rift in community about us and them and then in the community of the people who saw this as an opportunity to grow the community economically, whatever that meant, and the people who wanted it to stay some bum-fuck backwater and they didn’t want people coming in. It created a lot of tension.”

“While there’s a huge commodification of Buddhism, of eastern religion right now, that’s just hip, you know. Dali lama’s hip, and Tibetan monks are hip, and the monks in Burma protesting politically and that’s cool and hip. And Zen, everything Zen sells, you know, simplicity sells, so there’s all that stuff. Which, I guess, it’s the Buddhist version of, you know, the black glow light Jesus painting on carpets, and whatever.”

“I don’t think that people in the outside have a clue about that [practice]. I mean, Christian mystics do or, you know, monks do, or people who do serious tai chi practice or yoga practice, or any kind of energy or energetic practice, those people I think have a much better idea. But your average run of the mill person who doesn’t have any experience with just being quiet or loving, I don’t imagine how they could have any idea what practice is about. And you can’t tell them.”

“It’s a very strange time in the world.”

“I have had people say to me in this community, ‘Oh, well you think this way because you do these Buddhist practices.’ People who aren’t Buddhists, or aren’t Tibetan Buddhists, and have this weird idea of what it is, and they’re people who are really exposed to it all the time, ‘cause they live here. They know a lot of Buddhists and it’s really mainstream here.”

“In some ways, fundamentally, everybody practices, the same practice has a similar or same result, that there is a common thread, and then because everybody brings something different to it, there’s a different flavor.”

“I’ve been involved with a lot of different teachers, and every teacher has a group around him or her and everyone of those groups has its own culture, and everyone of those groups has its strong, like a family has a particular flavor, characteristic, or neurosis, and they were just family groups and they each have their own neurosis, and they all have very strong opinions about other groups’ neurosis. And it never changes.”

“I’ve gotten more away from more organized, and definitely away from very traditional Tibetan cultural kind of practices.”

“But I don’t tell people any more that I’m a Buddhist, you know, because the point is, I think, intrinsic in your question is that everybody has a perception about what that means. It’s never been my experience that whatever they think that means is what it means to me.”

“This is a spiritual community, but, a lot of people that are attracted to spiritual practices are attracted to spiritual practices because they are very confused. You know, the world doesn’t make sense to them and they are looking for another answer. There are mild neurotics, extreme neurotics, and psychotics, and there is more extreme neurotics, and psychotics in community, in religious communities, than in other places. So you deal with that a lot.”

“I think that’s true in the Crestone Baca community at large. We have per capita more nuts, and more nuts that have a religious fervor so we think we know. So we have people fighting with each other, and people with their very strongly held opinions.”

“What happens a lot in this community is that people make a lot of assumptions and they just sort of don’t check it out, which is prevalent in the wider world. It’s just a microcosm, it’s a real microcosm of the macros, it’s almost an intensified place, where whatever is wrong out there in the wider world it’s intensified here. And that’s a big thing that’s wrong in the outer world is that nobody ever finds out what’s going on with the other person they just make an assumption and go with that and bang, you’re into a war.”

“It’s quiet, it’s not polluted, the air is clean, you can see the stars at night, it’s remote, so you have a big space and not a lot of people, and that’s an important part of most Tibetan practices, some sort of space practice.”

“Noise of drilling rigs is constant. That’s an interesting one, because you should be able to practice with any kind of chaos, but this place is sort of the ultimate training wheels, lets say. You have the perfect conditions for practice. It’s hard to learn to practice amid a lot of distractions.”

“There is a lot of belief in the power of the natural environment, ranging from a belief in actual spirits that live in natural environments that charge the environment. There are water spirits, and there are air spirits, and there are mountain spirits, and all different kinds of spirits, and they make a place juicy, and interact with the human mind in really a juicy way. In the Tibetan belief, in areas where there has been a lot of industrialization, and a lot of people, the spirits are driven out, and so you are existing in a really kind of arid place on an inner level.”

“I personally don’t believe that there is a right religion or a wrong religion, or a right spiritual practice or a wrong spiritual practice, or that spiritual practice has an intrinsic benefit at all. Except that people are different, and people are attracted to different things, and for certain people it’s a way of life that’s valuable.”

“I kind-of believe in biodiversity.”

“I think it’s valuable to retain it [spirituality] as a cultural artifact, just like trying to save languages that are dying out.”

“There are fewer and fewer places in the world that have not been invaded by human society. So, there are fewer and fewer place in the world where the natural world still exists to an extent.”

“When I came here 8 years ago, it existed to a much larger extent, there was a wildness about this place that isn’t here now, and there is something different in that wildness, than in an inhabited place. There just is. And I think there’s a value in that.”

“There is a big push right now on public lands to make them more and more available for every use and purpose.”

“But there are a lot of hippy mountain towns here throughout the west.”

“It’s a place of possibility and seeing, and as we are moving out of a carbon fuel based economy and world, we have to figure out where we are going and how we are going to make that transition, which is a big problem. So, I think it’s important that a lot of people can think outside a box, and I think that is something that a mystical practice or a contemplative practice provides.”

“The oil and gas is a remnant of a short period in human history that we are definitely moving out of, and one that we need to move out of more quickly.”

“If I didn’t have a car that I put gas in, we wouldn’t need to be drilling for oil. I’m really part of the problem. But people like to, you know, say ‘oh it’s them, it’s not us, it’s them.’ So, you’ve got to include yourself in the whole picture as part of the problem and part of the solution. That kind of thinking I think is valuable and I think that can be a very positive effect of these kinds of contemplative practices.”