Spiritual seekers go to the Rime Buddhist Center for enlightenment. On the way, some of them have discovered this life's dark side.

Trouble in Shangri-La 

Spiritual seekers go to the Rime Buddhist Center for enlightenment. On the way, some of them have discovered this life's dark side.

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Stanford had not applied himself to years of rigorous study. He hadn't undertaken the long retreat -- three years, three months and three days -- that for many men is the culmination of becoming a lama. He hadn't spent even a full year cramming with ancient Buddhist texts.

"I just did a lot of thinking," Stanford says.

One of the tenets of the Eightfold Path concerns Right Livelihood. The Buddha taught that a person should avoid making a career of proffering weapons, working as a slave trader or a pimp, slaughtering animals or dealing drugs.

But he never said anything about selling cool earrings.

In early 1999, Stanford and his wife decided to acquire a building where they could provide services and studies in Buddhism and Tibetan culture. They decided to make the center a Rime (nonsectarian, pronounced ree-may) center. One day while he was driving, Stanford spotted a beautiful, old, brick church with colorful stained-glass windows on Kansas City's West Side. The building's owner, urban developer Adam Jones, agreed to let the Stanfords lease it at a discount.

They opened the Rime Buddhist Center & Monastery there in late 2000 as an affiliate of Kusum Lingpa's Thupten Chokor Ling Monastery in Tibet. Stanford appointed himself the center's spiritual leader -- but he also named himself executive director, which meant he would be in charge of raising money.

Those conflicting roles would lead to unhappiness.

At first, only six people attended -- the vestiges of a group Stanford had run for four years, the Mindfulness Meditation Foundation. But Stanford and the center's board of directors began implementing a strategic plan. Their goal was to increase the center's membership to 200 by 2004. They estimated that about 25 percent of the metro area's population consisted of "cultural creatives" -- people who were open to meditation and Eastern thought. "The typical demographic for Western sanghas [Buddhist congregations] are white, middle-class and well-educated," the board's plan stated.

Stanford's business background came in handy. The strategic plan's "marketing and communications" section outlined numerous ways to draw new members: a large, yellow sign affixed to the side of the building; a Web site; fliers; a newsletter and ads in the Star's Faith section.

This was in contrast to other Buddhist groups in Kansas City, which include a Vietnamese center in northeast Kansas City, a Chinese Buddhist center in Overland Park and a Laotian Buddhist center in Olathe. Services are conducted in practitioners' respective languages, and people find out about them mainly by word-of-mouth. A few English-speaking Buddhist groups meet at Unity Temple on the Plaza, and the small Shambala Center holds classes in Kansas City, Kansas. But the Rime Center has become the biggest and most visible Buddhist group in town.

At Sunday services, visitors peruse a table filled with flickering candles, colorful photographs of Tibet, gold statues and pamphlets about Buddhism. Musky incense curls through the air, and a CD plays the sounds of Tibetan monks chanting.

Members mill around in their stocking feet, talking in low voices and drinking fruity herbal tea before walking into the shrine room, picking up prayer books and settling in on red meditation cushions for Stanford's dharma talk. The services begin with Stanford hitting a gong. The deep tone reverberates, and Stanford prostrates himself in front of the altar. With a faraway look in his eyes, he begins chanting in an otherworldly monotone.

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