A Time of Transformation:
Ser Chö Ösel Ling Retreat Center

In late 2000, after more than a year of searching, the Board of Directors of Kagyu Changchub Chuling (KCC) and a band of informal consultants set out to assess a parcel of land at the foot of Simcoe Mountain near Goldendale, Washington.

Just inside the front gate the forest opened, and we found ourselves in the middle of a 50 acre meadow, surrounded by remnants of volcanic bluffs covered with pine and oak. We were in the heart of a special place. As we approached the center of the meadow, a neighbor who knew about land in the area whispered conspiratorially, "Don't let this one slip through your fingers".

We didn't.

Thanks to a generous gift of nearly $500,000, the 240 acre parcel was purchased outright, and in the year 2001, KCC began the process of bringing the Ser Chö Ösel Ling (“Land of the Clear Light Golden Dharma”) Retreat Center to life.

The long-range plan for Ser Chö Ösel Ling includes building facilities for short-term group and self-contained individual retreats, but the core of the program is the creation of a facility for multi-year cloistered retreats. The intention to support long retreats is deeply rooted in a sense of responsibility for making the heart of our tradition available to future generations. That has been our first priority.

Under a capacious tent, Lama Michael Conklin leads a retreat for Kagyu Changchub Chuling members at Ser Chö Ösel Ling.

Under a capacious tent, Lama Michael Conklin leads a retreat for Kagyu Changchub Chuling members at Ser Chö Ösel Ling.

Founded in Portland, Oregon in 1976 by the Very Venerable Kalu Rinpoche, Kagyu Changchub Chuling is a Vajrayana Buddhist center in the Karma and Shangpa Kagyu lineages.  In the Kagyu tradition, the masters of the past typically engaged in many years of intensive meditation practice, frequently alone in the wilds of Tibet. Kalu Rinpoche himself was renowned for his years spent meditating in isolated places.

In the early 1970’s when he was first invited to teach in the West, Kalu Rinpoche began by presenting foundational teachings and practices. Later, in order to allow committed students to experience the complete range of Kagyu practices, he gave the requisite empowerments and began the first traditional three-year retreats for westerners.

Lama Michael Conklin, a graduate of one of the last three-year retreats conducted under the direction of Kalu Rinpoche, moved to Portland in 1993 and became Kagyu Changchub Chuling’s resident teacher after the retirement of Lama Thinley Drupa in 1991.

Under Lama Michael's guidance the community engaged in more retreats and several members undertook retreats of six months to a year. This provided a deeper shared appreciation within the community for the benefits of extended retreat. It became clear that if future generations were going to have access to qualified and inspiring teachers, those future teachers would need the opportunity to do extended retreat. It also became clear that if we did not have our own retreat facility it would be very difficult to provide the necessary stability and continuity for this intensive training.

After much discussion the vision for the retreat center emerged and following a wide-ranging search we found ourselves in Goldendale. A small house, a basically sturdy barn and a stellar well provided a good base for operations as we settled into our work in 2001.

The development of facilities has been a slow but steady process governed by the availability of donations. To date over $2.4 million have been raised with donations from approximately 500 people. This is a remarkable achievement but the great determination on the part of those who persisted through more than a decade of trials and uncertainty is perhaps at least as remarkable.

Small trees in tubes have been planted for riparian habitat restoration.

Small trees in tubes have been planted for riparian habitat restoration.

It was edifying (and somewhat mortifying) to find out that it would take two years just to complete the basic infrastructure, a water system with a 30,000 gallon tank and a half mile of 6-inch water main and 720 volt under ground power line. Work on the retreat cloister itself did not start until 2004.

The cloister for long-term retreats is located along the crest of a gentle ridge and has separate wings for men and women, each with eight cabins, a dining room, a meditation hall and a yoga hall. The two wings are joined by a central building with a commercial-grade kitchen. This central section was built largely by volunteers in  2004 – 2005.

Volunteer work permitted construction to proceed as funds became available and also allowed for a few artistic touches, like the log columns and beams on the front of the main building that might have been unaffordable if contracted out. Over time, more of the work has been done by professional contractors.

While the retreat facilities are the raison d'etre for this project, we have from the beginning understood that an active relationship with the land was essential. It required looking and listening, research and consultation, to understand how to live with the wildlife and the forest, how to respond to previous logging and grazing impacts and to balance wildfire protection with habitat restoration and much more.

The very first activity on the land was planting 1,000 pine trees ordered by the previous owner. Though unplanned, it turned out to be a fortuitous way to begin our tenure, an opportunity for many members of our community to get to know the land in a direct and personal way.

Later KCC obtained a $60,000 grant to plant 11,000 more trees and shrubs to restore streamside habitat. More recently, members have created a three and a half mile network of walking trails using old logging tracks and deer trails.

In the early days, between construction projects, we squeezed in idyllic camping retreats in our big tent in the shade of the pines. As the long-retreat cloister moved toward completion, retreat activity increased and shifted into the new facilities. We now regularly use the completed north wing for group and personal retreats ranging from a few days to several months.

The most recent addition to the program at Ser Chö Ösel Ling is the "2011 Winter Season Retreat" , an opportunity for personal retreats of up to two months. This will be conducted in the north wing in January and February. These retreats are valuable in their own right but they also allow us to gain more insight into the facilities that will be needed to complete the rest of the vision and the dynamics of the community that will live and practice here.

The south wing is tantalizingly close to completion—roughly $100,000 is needed to finish the interior work. After the south wing is finished, all that will be required in order to start the long retreats are facilities to accommodate the retreat master and retreat cooks and fences to demarcate the cloistered environment. With an additional estimated $500,000 all the needed facilities can be completed.

Ser Chö Ösel Ling is on the threshold of a major transformation. What has been principally a long-term construction project is becoming a place steeped with practice. We are nearing the point when the home for long retreats will be ready and another generation of practitioners will have an opportunity to explore the depth of the Dharma.

With a little help from our friends that day will come soon!

For more information about Ser Chö ösel Ling and Kagyu Changchub Chuling, please visit:

Contributor:  Bill Spangle.
Photos:  Dora DeCoursey.