Newport, Tennessee And The Temple Hidden At Its Peak

Newport, Tennessee And The Temple Hidden At Its Peak

As we climbed the gravel road leading to the temple, our canine guide casually looking over his shoulder as if to say, “this way,” we stepped over a chain-link fence covered in rusted signs of forgotten places, and our feet drug us up the mountain.

We were in Newport, Tennessee

In a place where a Confederate flag still hung gracelessly against the backdrop of a trailer at the bottom of the mountain, Samuel, the owner of The Raven’s Nest and a hearty man who spoke with a voice full of joy, nonchalantly mentioned the monks.

“Well,” he said, “You could follow the trail that you’re on to the bottom of the hill… there’s a couple of other cabins down there like yours…”

When I remember it, I almost imagine a pause here. I almost imagine a sparkle in his eyes when he slid the line, “there are monks living up there,” into our conversation, as if he knew his mountain held magic. As if he knew that we were about to stumble into an adventure.

“Or…” he continued, “you could turn around and follow the path back up to the top of the mountain. We got monks living up there, and if you want to see the place, just tell them that you’re guests here.”

Slyly, he left out the monument, the temple, the spirit garden, and the massive Buddha that has been under construction for the last 15 years.

UP the mountain

So we walked - our feet showing us the way - when the first stone structure peeked its face through snow-covered trees.

In the shape of an old iron nail, its point reaching to scrape the blue from the sky, the massive, granite monument became more and more unreal with each step toward it. In the crippling beauty of Western Tennessee, with our calm, canine friend waiting patiently to lead us to the top of the mountain, the monument towered above us, and the Japanese words carved into its surface turned The Great Smoky Mountains into an alien world.

Na Mu Myo Ho Renge Kyo

were the words etched into the granite in Japanese, and they are the central mantra chanted in all forms of Nichiren Buddhism.

They are words chanted by those who seek enlightenment.

They are letters written above the names of the dead who have spent some, most, or all of their lives devoted to the Lotus Sūtra.

And they are the last thing that I would have expected to find on an intimate, mountain vacation less than an hour away from Asheville.

In this present life, they said…

In whatever state is natural, they chanted…

At the time, I could only stand in awe, peering into a world that was close enough to touch yet very far from my understanding. I had to know what the foreign letters, carved with meticulous care into stone, had to say. I needed to know what passion would drive a soul to spend days, months, and years creating something that even those seeing it would not understand.

That passion was the Lotus Sūtra, and later I found out that it’s simple. Almost too simple.

The Lotus Sūtra

Stating that all people, no matter sex, race or species (animals too may find enlightenment under this teaching), can become Buddhas without waiting for rebirth, the Lotus Sūtra struck a chord with me - less because of the Buddhist teaching and more because of the underlying message of power, equality, and choice.

Becoming a Buddha might sound mystical and daunting and a task reserved for monks living on top of a mountain in some foreign land, but in its most basic state, for the layman like me, becoming a Buddha means becoming a patient teacher, one who has found their own enlightenment and has earned the right to lead others toward their true selves. And the Lotus Sūtra places the power of choice on the present.

No matter sex, creed or state of being. All may find the path that leads them toward their true selves if only they had the eyes to see and the ears to hear and the heart to search.

To me, that is powerful. I am not Buddhist, but I do believe in equality. I do believe in searching for balance in the only life that I am guaranteed – the one here and now. I do believe in every person having a right to choose.

To choose their own path. To find their own peace. To become exactly what they hope and believe that they can become.

The Spirit Garden

The trees whispered around me as I stared at the altar where monks went to honor those who had dedicated their lives to the teaching of the Lotus Sūtra. Fresh snow dripped from tree limbs and melted in the sunlight, but the calm in the spirit garden was infectious.

The previous monument was now long gone. We had reveled in the beauty of the temple and the monks’ garden and a sprawling view of Tennessee as we climbed the mountain, but now the world was green and white and still. I felt outside of myself. I felt that if I moved, if I dared even to breath, I would shatter the peace around me.

Then, for no other reason than to just be, we breathed in the forest and our canine guide led us home.

Nathan Standridge is a journalist, author, and woodworker living in Asheville, NC. He’s been seen trekking through San Franciscan streets at 4 A.M., drinking whiskey during a tornado in the Ozarks, and sitting in silence among the temples of Thailand. His book Change was published in 2016, and he is currently working on a new novel.