Remembering Lama Chuck Stanford, a stand-up comedian who became a Buddhist leader in Kansas City
Before he opened Kansas City's Rime Buddhist Center, Lama Chuck Stanford owned a party planning business and performed as a magician named "Mr. Fabulous." He advocated peaceful harmony for all humanity.
Lama Chuck Stanford, the Rime Buddhist Center’s retired founder, was a gift to the Kansas City area for sure, but an unorthodox one.
He was kind, honest, deeply spiritual and, well, a clown. In fact, before he became a Buddhist leader, “he ran a party-planning company in Merriam called Stanford Productions, supplying wacky carnival games — Sumo Wrestling, the Bungee Run, Human Bowling — for birthday celebrations and company picnics,” according to a 2004 article in The Pitch. “He moonlighted as a magician — ‘Mr. Fabulous’ — and performed as a stand-up comedian.”
Stanford, 72, died Oct. 8 in Oregon, where he and his wife Mary, a wise and loving Buddhist chaplain, moved after his retirement from Rime in 2015. The interfaith community in Kansas City feels the loss sharply because Stanford was a gentle voice of welcome and an advocate of peaceful harmony for all humanity.
He knew who he was, knew his strengths and weaknesses. And he knew that sometimes he could stir up conflict, even among members of his Rime family. But he also understood core Buddhist teachings about how desire causes suffering, and he was committed to ending both.
Lama Matthew Rice, also known as Lama Matthew Palden Gocha, who became the Rime spiritual director when Stanford retired, says that when people met Stanford, they knew he had a clear vision of the Rime Center “and that he was confident in his ability to bring about the Rime Center that he had in his vision.”
Palden Gocha has overseen the move of the center from its former rented site at the west edge of downtown to new offices at 2939 Wayne, though until a new meditation center is built, the Sunday Rime services are held at St. Mark Hope & Peace, a Lutheran congregation at 3800 Troost.
When I posted on Facebook the notice of Stanford’s death that his daughter, Lauren Stanford, had written, I was overwhelmed with the number of people in our area who responded with words of praise, honor and love for him.
“I served with him a few years on a board for the Religious Studies Department at K.U. He was kind, smart, funny and thoughtful,” wrote an Episcopalian.
“Wonderful man, a friend,” wrote a Muslim.
“Lama Chuck Stanford brought a deep and genuine presence of peace to Kansas City. His legacy lives on,” wrote a Presbyterian.
“I so appreciated getting to know him as we traveled together on an interfaith trip to Turkey many years ago. We traveled in ‘civilian attire’ but then each showed up in our respective ‘religious uniforms’ for a Muslim Iftar dinner. We looked at each other and broke out in laughter,” wrote a Lutheran bishop.
“Chuck was a wonderful partner in interfaith dialogue, a wonderful human and very kind,” wrote a lay Catholic leader.
“He was ‘Mr. Fabulous’ indeed,” wrote a Jew.
Chuck and Mary, on whom he depended for so much, opened the Rime Center in 2000, a couple of years after he was ordained a lama in Tibetan Buddhism. The word rime (pronounced ree-may), as the center’s website explains, “means a ‘non-sectarian’ or ‘non-biased’ view. While some people may think this is related to the idea of all systems being equal, it is actually focused on recognizing the value and benefit of multiple points-of-view.”
That attitude contributed to Stanford’s quick and subtle sense of humor. In one interview, he recalled wearing his lama religious clothing at Kinko’s when it happened to be Halloween. “And I’m standing at the counter and this woman looked at me and looked up and looked down and said, ‘great costume.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, and it fits so well.’”
Stanford personified the idea that we should be cautious about how we handle religious ideas because they can be dangerous. He was the opposite of the kind of religious extremists I wrote about in my book "Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety." And Kansas City is a kinder, gentler city because of Chuck Stanford.
His many honors included: the 2007 Peace Award presented by the Crescent Peace Society; the 2009 Heroes of Humanity Award presented by the Art of Living and the International Association for Human Values; the 2013 Peace Builder Award presented by the Global and Multicultural Education Center; and the 2015 Bodhisattva Award presented by the Rime Buddhist Center.
Kansas City has become known as a national leader in interfaith dialogue and cooperation, a movement that in modern times began under the Rev. Vern Barnet and the creation of the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council. Stanford was deeply involved in that effort to create bonds of understanding and goodwill among people of various religious traditions.
He is survived by his wife, Mary Stanford; his daughter, Lauren Stanford; his son, Matthew Stanford; Matthew’s wife, Amanda Stanford, and two grandchildren, Quest and Roam Stanford.
One of Buddhism’s key teachings is mindfulness. It means each of us is to be aware of the world around us and to notice especially who is suffering. Lama Chuck Stanford not only was mindful, he tried hard to alleviate the suffering he encountered.
Bill Tammeus, a former award-winning columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the “Faith Matters” blog and columns for The Presbyterian Outlook, and formerly for The National Catholic Reporter. His latest book is Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.