New memorial honors teacher who spread Buddhism in North America

Posted: Friday, September 21, 2001

RED FEATHER LAKES, Colo. (AP) -- Belinda Griswold stood in a pine-covered Rocky Mountain valley, dressed in a T-shirt, clogs and a cowboy hat. She looked toward the terraced, Buddhist shrine of white and gold and bowed.

The edifice, called the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya, brings Eastern culture to a very Western setting.

Situated about 100 miles northwest of Denver, the shrine was dedicated last month before about 2,000 people. It honors the late Chogyham Trungpa, who is credited with spreading Buddhism in North America in the 1970s.

Jeff Waltcher, executive director of Rocky Mountain Shambhala Center, said the structure is ''an obvious example of how Buddhism is taking root in this country.''

Born in Tibet and educated at Oxford, Trungpa was a Buddhist monk who fled his homeland after the Chinese invaded in 1959. He later abandoned his monastic vows and married an Englishwoman.

Trungpa, who died in 1987, was best known for his ability to present Buddhist teachings in a way easily understood by Westerners. He traveled extensively throughout North America, establishing more than 100 meditation centers and what would become Boulder's Naropa University, giving countless lectures and publishing 14 books.

He was addressed as rinpoche, a religious title that means ''precious one,'' which Buddhists use after the last name.

Trungpa first visited this area after being invited to teach at the University of Colorado in Boulder in the early 1970s. The mountains reminded him of Tibet and he settled in Colorado, driving himself from place to place in a Volkswagen Beetle.

He also taught meditation to people who were not necessarily interested in Buddhism, a practice continued at the Rocky Mountain Shambhala Center he founded in 1971.

The shrine is the centerpiece of the center. Rising 108 feet from the valley floor, the multitiered structure's whiteness stands out among the muted green and brown colors of the surrounding mountains. It is flanked by gateways decorated in gold leaf and brilliant colors. Inside sits an 18-foot golden statue of Buddha.

Meditating at the site is ''really a way for people to come back to their own minds,'' said Griswold, of San Francisco, the Buddhist in the cowboy hat.

On the main floor is the statue, which encases some of Trungpa's remains in its chest. Relics of other great teachers dating back to the Buddha are sealed on an upper level and other sacred objects, some preserved in the Himalayas for hundreds of years, are deposited in the stupa's base and walls.

The stupa was built to last 1,000 years using the same type of concrete found in nuclear power plants. More than 500 volunteers from over a dozen countries worked alongside skilled laborers and artisans on its construction, a sign of their devotion to Trungpa.

Building stupas, Sanskrit for ''to heap'' or ''pile up'' after their original mound-like shape, started as a practice for Asian royalty.

Before his death, the Buddha asked his followers to bury his remains in a stupa. They complied and the building of stupas spread with Buddhism across Asia.

The $2.7-million shrine overlooks a collection of buildings, tents and trailers used for conferences, meditation, yoga classes and other events, both spiritual and secular.

Waltcher envisions another 10 years worth of construction to turn the site, surrounded by a Boy Scout camp and national forest land, into a year-round center used by Buddhists and other groups from the community.

Some visitors are Buddhists or people who have been touched by Trungpa's teachings. Others are drawn by the stupa's artwork and architecture, or are just curious to see what has been created so painstakingly by people the locals used to jokingly call ''the Dharmites.''

Zack Rhodes, a retired defense lawyer from St. Johnsbury, Vt., visited the stupa as his family prepared for the wedding of his son in one of the tents at the center, where his son met his wife-to-be.

''It's overwhelmingly majestic,'' he said in between taking photographs of the building. ''It's breathtaking.''


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