News anchor and KFYR-TV producer Kevin Stanfield is a familiar face in many North Dakota homes.
But underneath the suit and tie, Stanfield sports an unusual tattoo indicative of a deeper spiritual life.
“Usually the first thing people notice is my tattoo,” said Stanfield, pointing to the inscription inside his right forearm. “They ask me what it is, which kind of starts the conversation.”
Stanfield’s tattoo is the Tibetan Buddhist prayer of compassion, which holds particular meaning for him as a member of the Urgyen Samten Ling Gonpa, a Tibetan Buddhist temple in Salt Lake City, Utah.
A former Mormon, Stanfield joined the temple, or “took refuge,” in November 2010, following years of spiritual searching.
“The Buddha taught you are responsible for your own salvation — it’s all on you,” Stanfield said. “That was the final thing that occurred to me, and I thought, ‘I’m home.’”
A native of the Salt Lake City area, Stanfield grew up in what he described as “the bubble” of Mormon culture. He served a two-year mission in Houston, Texas, in the early 1980s and was married in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Salt Lake Temple.
As he grew older, though, he became disillusioned with the church of his upbringing.
“You do everything you’re supposed to do: adhere to the commandments, pay your tithing, attend church regularly, and you’re supposed to be the best, most righteous person you could be,” he said. “And then you would fall, commit some sin, go through the cycle of repentance, and it was just never-ending … I never felt like I was a good Mormon.”
At age 35, Stanfield requested his bishop remove his name from the Latter-day Saint church rolls and ritualistically burned all of his church documents in his backyard barbeque pit.
“It was cathartic … but I was shocked at the repercussions,” he said. “Most, if not all, of my family and friends would not talk to me about it.”
He began to explore other faiths. A United Church of Christ minister introduced him to contemporary Christian theologians, including Marcus Borg, Elaine Pagels and John Shelby Spong. Stanfield, by then divorced, spent his 40th birthday at a Trappist monastery, explored Unitarianism and attended unprogrammed Quaker meetings, where participants sit in silence until moved to speak.
“I didn’t just want to be someone who sat on my butt on the couch on Sunday watching football or NASCAR,” he said. “I needed some sort of spiritual outlet.”
One Sunday after leaving a Quaker meeting, Stanfield drove by the Tibetan Buddhist temple in Salt Lake, saw the prayer flags waving in the breeze and decided to go inside. Upon entering the temple, he ran into a friend dressed in crimson and gold Tibetan Buddhist robes.
“I really believe people come into your life at pivotal moments for a reason, to teach you important lessons,” Stanfield said. “Lama Thupten said I was destined to be there — that was my karma. It was then and there that I started learning about Tibetan Buddhism.”
Stanfield took classes on Vajrayana Buddhism, attended weekly pujas, or ceremonies, and began practicing Buddhist meditation with the temple sangha, or community.
After a couple of years, he met with Lama Thupten Dorje Gyaltsen Rinpoche, the temple’s spiritual leader, and proceeded with his refuge ceremony, a ritual he describes as similar in meaning to a Christian baptism. Stanfield then began wearing his own crimson and gold robes.
“Through all those years of study, reading different authors, I came to the conclusion that the whole construct of atonement theology and the divinity of Jesus was not for me,” he said. “In Tibetan Buddhism and Buddhism in general, you can or you don’t have to believe in the creator God … I felt at home because Tibetan Buddhism is very driven by ritual.”
Prairie prayer flags
Since relocating to North Dakota in 2012, Stanfield has continued practicing Buddhism at home, where he constructed a personal altar. He organized a Tibetan Buddhist study group in Bismarck in March, but few people attended.
Stanfield ascribes much of Americans’ interest in Buddhism to the influence of Hollywood and pop culture.
“There’s a cool factor — the Dalai Lama, Richard Gere,” he said. “Once they realize there’s a lot of work involved, a lot of study, that they’ve actually got to work at meditating, they lose interest.”
Monica Hannan, Stanfield's co-anchor at KFYR-TV, accompanied him to see the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader, in Minneapolis in March 2014. Afterward, they stopped at a Tibetan Buddhist temple so Stanfield could pray.
Hannan describes herself as a committed Catholic but said she found many similarities between the two faiths.
“(Buddhist) meditation is very similar to the Catholic practice of praying the rosary,” she said. “The idea is you enter a meditative state if you practice it frequently.”
Prayer beads, incense, adherence to ritual and recognition of lineage and religious hierarchy are all similarities between Tibetan Buddhism and Catholicism, Stanfield said.
But for him, Tibetan Buddhism provides the more colorful path to salvation.
“In the temple, everything is bright yellows, reds, almost sensory overload,” said Stanfield, who visits his Utah sangha as often as possible. “It’s meant to be that way. It’s meant to engage everything in you."