SMITH CENTER — Perfectly aligned to face the sun as it rises in the morning and sets at night, the no-longer-so-bright metal skeletons of mostly unfinished buildings still have enough luster to shimmer in the bright Kansas summer sun.
The invading cottonwood trees and tall weeds, however, provide a stark contrast to the hope and vision of what eight years ago was a bustling environment, as builders worked on what was to be the Maharishi Central University.
All that stopped, however, nearly a year after construction started in earnest when the 90-year-old Maharishi Mahesh Yogi — the founder of a worldwide transcendental meditation movement — died.
His death sent the TM movement into something of a tailspin, as uncertainty about the group’s mission and who would take the guru’s place settled in. They also were badly battered by what eventually would become known as the Great Recession.
Despite its appearance as an idea left to languish and ultimately crumble under the weight of the harsh environment in the literal center of the continental U.S., work on one building has continued mostly unnoticed.
That suits Gary Weisenberger just fine. He’s already faced the ire of local residents who view the TM’ers, as they’re often called, as kooky outsiders.
He also manages the farm owned by the TM movement’s Global Country of World Peace, sharply downsized from what it was at its peak.
“This is basically the transcendental meditation movement,” Weisenberger said. “Most people don’t think world peace is possible.”
The land where the center — first thought to be destined to become the capital of the U.S. Peace Government, to be aptly known as U.S. Center City — was first purchased in 2006, approximately 10 years after the TM movement first arrived in Smith Center.
Land holdings in Smith County were considered notable due to its status as the center of the U.S. While nearby Lebanon long has been credited as the geographic center of the U.S., Global Peace organizers contend the intended university site is more precisely the center.
Construction on the 10-building university campus started in 2007, to the chagrin of many Smith County residents. Not only were the TM’ers outsiders, but they contracted with Mexican nationals to erect the buildings’ steel skeletons with material imported from Mexico. It didn’t help any that concrete was brought in from nearby Red Cloud, Neb., rather than from Smith Center.
Construction stopped a year later in 2008 after the death of the Maharishi.
Today, the farm is organic, growing a mix of corn, soybeans and wheat.
“In 2009, we had our first organic crop,” Weisenberger said in a wide-ranging interview while sitting in lawn chairs on the porch of the only building nearing completion.
The bounty from the farm is sold on the open market, he said, fetching a premium price.
“We get three times the price,” Weisenberger said, noting he contracts with a local farmer to till, plant and harvest the crops. “Neither he nor I had any involvement in organic farming. We’re both laughing all the way to the bank.”
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Weisenberger’s main focus has been the bright-white, two-story building he’s been living in, the one closest to completion.
“I’ve been working on it slowly,” he said.
He’s hoping work on the 10-bedroom, 10-bath, 10,000-square-foot building — facing due east — will be completed later this fall
“It’s basically a hotel,” he said of the size of the building he’s been occupying for several years now.
Weisenberger also is hoping to be done in time for a conference of members of the transcendental meditation movement later this fall. When it will be or how many people it will attract is uncertain.
It’s unlikely the gathering will venture far from the TM-owned facility, given the chilly welcome they’d be likely to receive.
“They’re still around,” he said of people willing to harass members of the movement. “They’re afraid of the unknown. You have to remember that you’re in rural Kansas. Rural Kansas is very conservative.”
Now 66 years old, Weisenberger is no stranger to Kansas, born and raised in Arkansas City and long living in southeast Kansas.
“I’ve been in Kansas the last 30 years or so,” he said. “I know what Kansas is. I know what rural Kansas is.
“They can be very warm and caring people, or they can be very cold and conservative.”
But he relishes his time in Kansas, and especially the solitude the Smith County facility provides.
“I don’t feel old,” he said, crediting his meditation practices for feeling perhaps 20 years younger. “Transcendental meditation is a tool to help you live better.”
Stress, he said, is a disease, and TM “brings peace to a person.”
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Currently, the organic farm operated by Global Center for World Peace encompasses approximately 380 acres.
At its peak, the group’s land holdings contained nearly 1,500 acres.
Slowly, some of that land was sold off.
“They wanted to get rid of debt they incurred,” Weisenberger said. “This is our core. This is where our buildings are.”
He hopes to finish at least two other buildings on the campus, those closest to completion.
A trained biologist, he also would like to return some of the ground to its natural state as a prairie.
He sees that as a natural fit to transcendental meditation.
“The laws of nature are very systematic and orderly,” he said. “They happen every year.”
He pointed to the migration of birds and even fish as they return to the same spot to spawn as examples.
Mankind, however, is the only species to break the natural order, Weisenberger said.
Through meditation, he said, people can get back in sync with the laws of nature, and he sees that in the prairies of Kansas.
When settlers first arrived in Kansas, “they called it the Great American Desert,” Weisenberger said. “What a bunch of fools.”
The untapped prairie, he said, is capable of holding vast amounts of carbon, key to halting climate change.
“We came here and destroyed an entire ecosystem almost,” he said of settlers breaking out land to grow crops. “Sixty percent of everything has been plowed. And the rest is in some type of pasture.
“Through the cow and the plow, we’ve destroyed Kansas.”
By relieving stress and finding internal peace, Weisenberger said, the world can be a better place.
“Maharishi’s goal was to get back to something so we would stop killing people,” he said. “How we get there is one person at a time.”
TM’s views, however, often bring hatred toward followers.
“It’s too bad we’re not being perceived correctly,” he said of the persecution he and others see. “I feel I know what Jesus Christ faced.”
Weisenberger doesn’t regret converting to the TM movement.
“It changed my life,” he said. “Enough so, I will take the rest of my life to devote to it.”