Below: crowds gather around The Great Stupa of Dharmakaya on its opening day in August 2001.
Below: crowds gather around The Great Stupa of Dharmakaya on its opening day in August 2001.

It’s highway driving for the first two hours north of Denver. After Fort Collins, taking the left fork at a gas station known only as Ted’s Place, we head steadily uphill through the towering crags of the Rockies. Beyond the last town, at eight thousand feet, we turn right onto an all-dirt road. Valleys filled with sage and wild horses greet us, tucked amid mountains that soar. It’s highway driving for the first two hours north of Denver. After Fort Collins, taking the left fork at a gas station known only as Ted’s Place, we head steadily uphill through the towering crags of the Rockies. Beyond the last town, at eight thousand feet, we turn right onto an all-dirt road. Valleys filled with sage and wild horses greet us, tucked amid mountains that soar.

Brilliantly colored banners mark the dirt entry to the 552-acre Rocky Mountain Shambhala Center (RMSC), founded in the early 1970s by the late Vidyadhara, the Venerable Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. The banners announce the consecration of the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya Which Liberates Upon Seeing. Along with a thousand others, including more than fifty high-ranking lamas and monks, I’ve arrived for an eleven-day meditation retreat that will help prepare the way for the stupa’s consecration on August 18. On that day, fifteen hundred more people will arrive.

Trungpa Rinpoche was the first to bring Tibetan Buddhist teachings in English to large numbers of Western students. The eleventh incarnation of Trungpa tulkus—each one Supreme Abbot of the Surmang monasteries in eastern Tibet—Trungpa Rinpoche fled Tibet in 1959. He came to the United States in 1970. Before he died in 1987 at the age of 47, he had written fourteen books (some still Buddhist bestsellers); established Naropa University, an accredited liberal arts college in Boulder, Colorado; founded four major retreat centers; trained students in a range of contemplative arts from ikebana (Japanese flower arranging) to English dressage; and created a sometimes controversial community filled with poetry and music, and a vision of an enlightened world. In order to accomplish all this, Rinpoche launched an organization, now called Shambhala International, with 150 centers worldwide.

The Sanskrit word stupa, which literally means “a heap,” a mound of dirt, has come to mean a sacred Buddhist monument containing the relics of the Buddha or other holy figures. As the Buddha was dying, it is said, he told his bereaved followers they should build a stupa so that those who saw it would awaken to his teachings as if it were him they were seeing. His disciples divided his remains and went on to build eight stupas, each marking a place crucial to the Buddha’s life and enlightenment.

Centuries later, parts of the Buddha’s remains were removed, and thousands of additional stupas were constructed, each becoming a site for religious pilgrimage. Other stupas were built for great subsequent teachers, as just seeing one, it is said, arouses the mind of enlightenment in the viewer.

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