A little Lhasa: Central Virginia has become the center of a new kind of Tibetan Buddhist community

Venerable Tenzin Gephel grew up in a Tibetan community in India, and joined a Tibetan Buddhist monastery at age 13. Photo: Martyn Kyle Venerable Tenzin Gephel grew up in a Tibetan community in India, and joined a Tibetan Buddhist monastery at age 13. Photo: Martyn Kyle

“Tibet is my country,” Venerable Tenzin Gephel said simply. “And I would like to go there one day.”

Gephel, a Buddhist monk in his 50s who is the resident teacher at the Jefferson Tibetan Society, spent his youth at Namgyal Monastery in Northern India, the personal monastery of the 14th Dalai Lama, and eventually took his ordination vows from the supreme spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism. These days he lives on Olinda Drive in a quiet neighborhood and dedicates his life to teaching the principles and practices of his faith. He has never set foot in the country he considers his home.

Across town from the Society’s headquarters, 27-year-old UVA grad student Natasha Mikles from Pennsylvania studies Tibetan culture and religions in pursuit of her Ph.D. in Sino-Tibetan Buddhism in the Department of Religious Studies. She recently spent a year in Tibet, an experience that changed her view on the country and its culture.

“To me Tibet is kind of divided,” Mikles said. “I think it is both the Tibetans I see here, who preserve their culture in exile, and then the Tibetans who are recreating and regenerating their culture over there.”

Mikles is part of a growing cohort of young, educated Americans raised in Christian homes who find that Buddhism fills a void in their lives. Their paths have led them into community with Tibetans living in exile and the intersection has made Charlottesville an epicenter of sorts.

UVA graduate and Serenity Ridge groundskeeping intern Matthew Conover lights a candle for the Buddhist shrine before a meditation session. Photo: Ian Nichols
UVA graduate and Serenity Ridge groundskeeping intern Matthew Conover lights a candle for the Buddhist shrine before a meditation session. Photo: Ian Nichols

Matthew Conover, a 20-something UVA grad from Richmond with an upper middle-class Catholic upbringing, discovered Tibetan Buddhism almost by accident. Instead of relocating to New York to pursue a career in music writing after he graduated last year, he joined an intentional community at the top of a mountain, 25 miles south of Charlottesville. Naturally, Conover’s view of Tibet is different from Gephel’s.

“Tibet is more than a country now,” he said. “It’s an attitude toward life, and it is completely contagious.”

How does a kid raised around Jesus and corporate America come to find himself making offerings to the Buddha? I hopped in my car and drove to Shipman, Virginia at the start of my quest to find out.

Searching for meaning 

I was pretty sure my phone’s GPS directions were wrong as I slowed my Honda Accord to a crawl on a narrow mountain road on Drumheller Lane off State Rt. 617. I waved apologetically to a couple standing on their porch who peered quizzically at me as I turned around in their driveway, and headed further up the steep incline, grateful that the recent snow had already melted.

Just as I was losing hope, I rounded a bend near the end of the road and dozens of tall, brightly colored flags, lining the gravel driveway waved in the breeze. Suddenly overcome by a feeling of welcome, I turned down the gravel drive. I had found Serenity Ridge, a year-round Tibetan Bon Buddhist retreat center. Weeks before I began researching for this story, a friend of mine had mentioned the retreat center. It’s this Mecca for Tibetan Buddhists, she told me, a retreat center that was the first of its kind in the U.S. Visitors at Serenity Ridge range from lifelong devoted Buddhists traveling from across the globe, to neophytes like me who just want to try their hands at meditation and see what all the fuss is about.

It was a chilly February afternoon, and the thick, still fog covering the hills in the distance surrounded the mountain in a protective white hug. I couldn’t see anything beyond the edge of the property, and for all I knew, we were on top of the world.

A Labrador bounded to my car as I parked, followed by Conover, the groundskeeping intern. Shortly after graduating from UVA in the spring of 2012, amidst his job hunt and regular serving shifts at a restaurant, Conover decided on a whim to join his brother and roommates for a five-day meditation retreat at Serenity Ridge.

“We were the youngest people here by far,” he said. “But by the end of it they invited us all to come live here, and I took them up on it.”

Conover settled into a cozy dorm-style room with bunk beds, and signed on for more than a year of meditating, maintaining the center’s grounds, and doing whatever office work organizing international retreats entails.

Our first stop on the tour of the center was the meditation hall. The distinct smell of incense engulfed us as we removed our shoes and stepped inside the bright, warm room. My eyes didn’t know where to look first. The thangkas—traditional hand-painted Buddhist wall hangings—told intricate, ancient stories, and shrines with water bowls, flowers, and peacock feathers surrounded photos of the Dalai Lama and the center’s teachers’ teachers. Dozens of folding chairs leaned against a back wall, and stacks of cushions sat neatly in the corner.

When the center hosts retreats, Conover said, the hall is packed with upwards of 100 people from every corner of the world. Across from the meditation hall is the multi-story house, where Conover lives and visitors stay. The only occupant that afternoon was Gabriel Rocco, a Philadelphia-based mind-body health specialist who had spent the past three weeks in complete silence and isolation. From January 1 to February 19, Rocco sat alone in a silent, darkened room, his days occupied with silent meditation and his only contact with other humans Conover’s thrice daily meal delivery, conducted through a set of two small adjacent doors with a space between them large enough for a tray of food so no light enters the room.

When I asked Conover if he thought that would ever be him in the dark room, he shook his head, and then paused.

“Well, maybe,” he said.

After checking out the rest of the center, Conover and I sat down at the staff house kitchen table, sipping mugs of hot tea and chatting. We talked for another hour and a half, and for once I didn’t so much as glance at the post-it I’d filled with questions beforehand; there was so much I wanted to know.

It’s fascinating, this phenomenon of educated young people trading white collar jobs for simplistic Buddhist lifestyles. I get part of it. I can certainly appreciate the physical and mental benefits of a regular meditation practice, and as a young educated person myself who has yet to connect with any particular faith, I see the appeal of a community that’s so welcoming. But why Tibetan Buddhism, specifically? What is it about this religion, this culture, carried by a population living in exile, that draws so many people, especially in Charlottesville?

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