Friday, April 23, 2010

Long, Long Stupa Story

Ever since I was a child, I have indulged a particular fascination with stupas. I saw a picture of one in an old book, and it captivated me so much that I began drawing them. I taped these drawings on the wall, all around my bedroom. This would have been when I was around six or seven years old, if I remember correctly.

As time passed, and I had the opportunity to see stupas appearing in other forms, my fascination did not diminish. Even as a teenager, I always made it a point to seek them out. Actually, my interests in this regard were so well known, that my teacher -- who was usually inclined to give me a knot on the head -- once gave me a stupa for my birthday. I decided to gild this stupa, so I set about teaching myself how to do so. Hint: genuine gold leaf is extremely delicate -- more delicate than a feather -- so don't try this outside, in the wind. I wound up using books and books of gold leaf, and as you can see in the photograph below, I never did get it right:

When I was seventeen, I saw a splendid stupa about three feet high, and that one seemed to stick in my mind. You can see them over a hundred feet high, and you can see tiny ones, smaller than your thumb. I don't know why, but I always liked the idea of that three foot stupa.

So, time appeared to pass, as time appears to do, and around forty years later I was visiting someone and saw a stupa sitting on a card table in their backyard.

They had made childlike offerings of rocks, plants, and so forth, and it was all very quaint and touching in a way. Nevertheless, the stupa was continually surrounded with dogshit, and seemed expedient, teetering on that card table, as you see in the picture, above. People would pass by, walking in all directions, without any care to keep the stupa on their right side. You could not circumambulate without treading on insects.

I do not question anyone's devotion, no matter if it appears humble, or grand. I do not have the wisdom to measure the extent of another person's faith. In truth, I do not even have the ability to measure my own. So, my words are not intended to criticize those who treated this small stupa so casually. Sometimes, people appreciate theory but miss a rich appreciation of actuality. It does not matter, really, because stupas transcend such distinctions. Ideas like "humble" or "grand," or "proper" or "improper" are products of dualistic longing, and a root cause of misery. Stupas are a cause of liberation.
"All who build a stupa of this nature to the Victorious Ones out of sand and brick or who even just pile up sand and dust to that end, who in due fashion or even as simple child's play build a refuge from suffering and even those who simply heap up sand as a support of offering to the Victorious Ones- all such persons will attain enlightenment." 
--The Discourse of the Holy Doctrine of the White Lotus,
In this particular case, the people involved had made quite a name for themselves, spending millions building large stupas. Perhaps they built so many grand stupas that they came to regard this small stupa as a token, or an "extra," and that is why, despite their considerable resources, they arranged it on a card table in the backyard. They professed expertise in the subject having come, of late, to study the words of one or two lamas who build stupas. On the basis of this, they formed many opinions. Actually, the literature of stupa building is quite extensive, and the  lineage of oral instruction related to stupa building is even more remarkable.

But, I digress.

When I saw this small stupa, I asked my host if I could copy the engineering drawings, explaining that I always had a particular affinity for a stupa at this scale. I stated that I wished to duplicate the stupa and erect it in the arid lands.

When I made my request for drawings, my host surprised me by immediately offering the stupa to me as a gift. This was so very kind, and I do remember and appreciate this kindness every day. To transport the stupa, my host also arranged for a trailer, and below you see the picture of all this in progress:
So, now, with the small stupa rescued and safely transported to its destined home, the issue became one of letting it influence its surroundings. The story of how that happened in this particular case is the story I wish to tell today.

From the level of conventional truth, we build stupas. However, after thinking about stupas for almost all of my life, I have developed some opinions. These opinions may be right, wrong, or beyond right and wrong. Regardless, I have developed the view that stupas build themselves. To the extent that we, as human beings, participate in the process, it might be in the capacity of stagehands, moving scenery around until the stupas stand revealed. Or, it might be that we have to sweep up the place, so that the stupas can shine with their own light. In an extreme sense, it could be that we merely remove the obstacles to the stupas being seen; however, this is a conceit that stupas indeed have obstacles. I do not believe they do. No matter how I might tinker with this, the main idea is that we do not build stupas. Stupas build themselves. They are always waiting for us in the places they wish to appear. If you like, you can say they appear where and when they are needed most.

On 29 November 2007, the rescued stupa appeared where it wished to appear. Three of us unloaded it from the trailer, and after taking measurement,  I directed that it be placed in the spot you see in the above photograph. Why did I select this spot? Oh... now a long story will become much longer.

On the same birthday when my teacher gave me the stupa I later gilded, he also mentioned that he wished me to establish some connection with Dodrupchen Rinpoche. I had no idea who Dodrupchen Rinpoche was, so I received a lengthy discourse on Dodrupchen Rinpoche's qualities that lasted most of the afternoon. My teacher then composed a letter of introduction to Dodrupchen Rinpoche for me, and he told me to enclose it with a letter of my own, introducing myself.

Naturally, I did as my teacher requested. Some time went by, and as I received no reply, I forgot all about the matter. Then one morning, there was a knock at the door. A young schoolboy stood there with a torn package in his hand. He said, "I am so sorry, but the other kids opened your mailbox and threw your mail in the street. They opened this package, but there was nothing they wanted. It was full of pictures, and they are all blowing down the street. Here is one I found." With that, he handed me a colored print, limp from contact with the morning dew.
As an aside:  The house was painted a terrible shade of pink in those days, and the mailbox was robbed more than once. I lived there with Suzanne Verdal, and her daughter Julie -- the Suzanne from Leonard Cohen's song "Suzanne." She used to gypsy dance in the streets around the campus. People would toss money into her hat. During the night, she worked as an exotic dancer. She used to give me her tips to share with my teacher. She helped me gild the small stupa.
Dodrupchen Rinpoche had replied to my letter by sending pictures of Guru Rinpoche and the Twenty-Five Disciples, and these were all blowing away in the wind. I hurriedly thanked the boy for his honesty and his help, and went running down the street, chasing Dodrupchen Rinpoche's pictures. I remember Suzanne, calling after me with her French-Canadian accent: "You must find them all!"

This was a terrible upset! I was running around like a crazy person, finding pictures in the most unlikely places. Finally, I had twenty-four of them in hand, but the twenty-fifth was nowhere to be found. I was looking and looking, until a gust of wind blew it from underneath a parked car. It sailed into the air, and just as I thought I could catch it, another gust of wind blew it from my reach. This went on for two blocks, as if the picture and the wind were playing with me!

I was exhausted from running, so I thought to myself, "O.K. for you!" The wind died down, the picture came to rest, and I snatched it up immediately. Who was this stubborn character?

It was none other than Drokmi Palgyi Yeshe. Later that same day, I told my teacher what had happened, and upon hearing of the events, he laughed and laughed until tears ran down his face. He said, "Well, now you know the story of Dodrupchen Rinpoche! If I were you, I'd keep on the lookout for Palgyi Yeshe!" I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. This was in 1969.

As an aside: four years later, Dodrupchen Rinpoche himself was in America, where in October 1973 he consecrated the first public stupa ever revealed in the United States. This was done to honor the 1972 visit of Dudjom Rinpoche. If you want to read the whole story, you can read it here.
In a blink of the eye that required thirty-eight years -- an exertion foreshadowed by my dash down the street -- it was 2007, and I was able to meet with the incarnation of Palgyi Yeshe. I told him the story of Dodrupchen Rinpoche's pictures, and he said, "You know, that is very interesting."

That night, I had a dream, and in the dream, he directed me to certain signs associated with the spot where I later placed the small stupa. This did not happen through any quality that I possess, but through the blessings, and continuity of Palgyi Yeshe's continuum of compassion for all sentient beings. We are not the architects of such things; rather, we are the servants of such things. This is how such things have been known to happen, and this is how such things still happen, if we leave them alone and stop chasing the wind.

The day we placed the stupa on the ground, it began to rain. It began to rain as I had never seen it rain before. There was a fourteen year drought in the region, and everyone was so thankful that heavy rain came at last. Later, the skies became unusually beautiful, and golden light was everywhere.

During this interval, I stayed in contact with the person who gave me this stupa, exchanging emails, and it was suggested that the stupa should be installed at a particular date, i.e. 4 December 2007, which was reckoned as Dakini Day.

So, on Dakini Day, after due preparation, we erected a reinforced concrete block pier for the stupa, which was permanently affixed. This is in an area where the winds can reach eighty miles per hour, and will literally blow rocks along the ground. We wanted to do it right.

I published pictures of the new construction, and received emails from all involved parties, expressing gratitude, thanking me for the "respect." I have preserved all of these in a scrapbook I keep, detailing these events. I do this because sometimes it is useful to recall what actually happened "then," as distinct from what we might wish "now."

The stupa wanted to rest then, and so did I. In January 2008, the person who had given me the stupa sent other people to pick me for a surreal interlude as their guest in another town.
"...dakinis possessive of the dharma created huge magical attacks of obstructing spirits."
--and elsewhere--
"Though he could have protected Marpa, Naropa supplicated Tilopa, saying:
.... Please bless him by removing the obstacles
Caused by these she-maras, so-called dakinis."
            ---The Life of Marpa the Translator
During the year 2008, the stupa continued its silent work, bringing enormous benefit not only to me personally, but to everyone and everything in the immediate environment. Obstacles were removed with great alacrity. The plants and animals improved, undergoing subtle changes. The weather changed, producing record rain, and even a most unusual snowfall which blanketed the desert for four days. Finally, after more than a year of silence, in March 2009, the stupa began to speak, giving a singular set of instructions.

In actualizing these instructions, I admit to being profoundly influenced by the stupa done by Dodrupchen Rinpoche, mentioned above. Although this is of a different type, I particularly like the way it progressed.

As you can see, this stupa began in modest surroundings, but as time went by, you see how the environment changed. Below is how it appears today:

We have also experienced similar circumstances during the course and scope of our own work, and when I talk to other people who deal with stupas, I often hear the same or similar stories. Stupas quite simply have incredible power to transform their surroundings.

On Chotrul Duchen, 11 March 2009, we began to put instructions into action. We brought in equipment and materials, to begin the seemingly difficult task of erecting a reinforced concrete block mandala, all on the day of miracles -- also the anniversary of Garab Dorje, and the anniversary of Marpa Lotsawa.

After grading, we spotted in the blocks, cement mixer, cement and all necessary supplies, placing them around the stupa like offerings.

The site was surveyed, lines were laid out, and all due consideration was paid for insects. I am so pleased to say that, as far as I am aware, no life was taken during the construction. We went to elaborate lengths to vouchsafe this outcome.
We carefully poured the footers, and began establishing the relationship between the forms. I want to tell you that we did not have a drawing, or any other plan. We just started building, and the process of building began to make its own suggestions.

Work proceeded at the proverbial feverish pace, racing the clock. It was our intention to complete this phase entirely on a day when the effects of positive actions are multiplied ten million times.

In fulfilling our intention, it seems we were successful, as the walls of the mandala went up in record time.

But, the building of walls was not the only thing taking place that Chotrul Duchen. Far away, in Asia, a marble sculptor was discharging his commission to produce one each of the eight types of stupas in white marble. It was arranged that each stupa should be made entirely on a correspondingly auspicious day. Thus, the stupas were individually crafted on Chotrul Duchen, Saga Dawa Duchen, and so forth.

We took delivery of the first three of the eight following Chokhor Duchen. You can see that the mandala walls also received improvement -- and again, all work was done on days when the effects of positive actions are multiplied ten million times.
There were additional steps to be taken, but at this point the stupa wished to do more work -- to ventilate the situation, so to speak, and there were still other stupas in the marble series yet to be made.

Beneficial changes and auspicious signs continued, unabated, through the anniversary of its second year at its destined site. Truly, I cannot list them all.

In January 2010, my friend who is counted among the incarnations of Palgyi Yeshe arrived. I am very fond of him, and since I had not seen him since 2007, was so happy to see him again. Numerous rituals were performed, and Rinpoche also brought with him treasure vases from Tibet, wood from the Bodhi Tree, and other precious relics we need not discuss. When the rituals were performed and the vases buried, absolutely incredible signs manifested -- to the level of the miraculous. Nobody who was there will ever forget that day.

The following month, right on schedule, the remaining five stupas arrived from Asia. Now the set of eight is complete. On Chotrul Duchen 2010, we began producing the small stupas you see surrounding the gold stupa in the photograph seen elsewhere, above.

In March 2010, we received auspicious gifts of rare mandalas and other necessary materials from a number of lamas in Tibet, Bhutan, India, and elsewhere in the United States. I have kept careful record of all of this in the scrapbook I mentioned.

We brought in equipment to move earth, using several tons to infill the mandala's terraces. Great care was taken to avoid harming insects. Once the inner terraces were constructed, we were able to place the paving stones. These had been sitting on site for a year, so that they would weather properly.
Now, the terraces have been built and the paving stones have been laid. You can make offerings of butter lamps, flowers, incense and so forth, and you can circumambulate without harming small beings. Because this stupa came from children, it is done on a scale that is comfortable for children. True to form, on the day we finished, it began to rain.

The marble stupas wait, ready to be placed on their foundation, and filled. These are made with great ingenuity, in sections that go together very quickly with mortar. You can get these made almost anywhere in the world where they have a history of working with stone. In particular, I have seen them from China, Viet-Nam, and Portugal. As seen below, we are now in the process of moving blocks in order to begin work on the new foundation.

Under ordinary circumstances, I find it distasteful to discuss things I do, or to talk about dreams and suchlike. I think it is bad form. If you make a big deal out of things it tends to attract criticism, obstacles, and create all sorts of negativity. 

However, I have been specifically asked by someone I respect to write this account. He believes it will bring benefit to others -- particularly those struggling under the spell of various delusions, and misleading information -- if I tell this long, long story of a stupa.

I will not live forever, so it is ridiculous to assume that I engage in this activity for myself. Not a single penny has been solicited from others to conduct this project. It was all done privately. I therefore have no necessity to engage in this activity to attract attention from others, garner donations for some pressing cause, or any of the other nonsense we often see. As I have heard mentioned, these are not tourist attractions, drawing cards, or something to point out, saying "Oh, virtuous, special me! Look what I have done!" Virtue and non-virtue obscure that which is self-arising, so how can we say that we have done this or that?

I am not unmindful of the kindness and generosity of the person who gave the stupa to me, nor of the many people who helped in the process, both here and abroad. I keep them foremost in my prayers and thoughts. However, it may be slightly incorrect to say that so-and-so "gave" this to so-and-so. Because causes and conditions arising in the deeds of many lifetimes came together in a particular way, the stupa was able to give itself. Stupas do not belong to us as chattel: we are only passing travellers, and only for a little while. I have seen stupas over 1,000 years old. Who is to say how many times I have seen them?

I have engaged in this activity because I believe, so deeply in my heart, that stupas have the power to benefit countless beings. I believe that those high winds I spoke of earlier pass across these stupas and carry their blessings to all beings touched by such winds.

In truth, it does not matter if stupas are of brick, stone, or wood. It  does not matter even in the slightest if they are large or small. No one stupa may be said to have more or less power than any other stupa. Even these pictures, on the Internet, have the same power as a marble stupa 100 feet high.

A kind and loving power, of all sorts.

Even the subtle, prescient power to waken a seed dormant in a young daydreamer's heart, looking through the pages of a book, so many years ago; now flickering in these words written by an old man who gives all merit to you, and accepts all blame.

May it be auspicious.

Composed on Drubjor.

Stones and Flowers
Chatral Rinpoche On Stupas
First Public Stupa In America
Forms Separated From Names
One Thing Leads to Another

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14 reader comments:

N.T. said...

If I have ever doubted you in any way, I most humbly apologize. Tenpa Rinpoche, you ARE a master!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for your kind sharing! I dont know how to express my gratitude, as words cant appropriately describe them. I rejoice sincerely from the depth my heart all your kind effort for well-being of every beings :)

Marc said...

A tour de force.

Anonymous said...

I feel as if this article has changed my life and I will never take anything for granted again. You have shown me that everything is precious. Thank you, Rinpoche.

Anonymous said...

Is there any teaching that states that even looking at a picture of a stupa carries many benefits ?

michael davis said...

Thank you for the kind recounting of the building and rebuilding by stupa in the boundless worlds. Your words are flowers on the threshold of reflection. May your words resound throughout hearts, to remind all hearts of the stupa that is their core. May the gentle breeze of selfless activity cool the fevered brow of thought, leading the way to the bright light of mind, limitless stupas dancing in space.

Nick Vail said...

Thank you for this.
During an extended retreat at Shambhala Mountain Center I once happened to gaze at the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya which Liberates upon Seeing. It revealed itself to me, and I had a moment of: that's enlightened mind.
Very simple, very profound.
Sarva mangalam!

Drums of Dharma said...

I love stupas and I plan to keep up the tradition of building them, privately and publicly. I have witnessed their transformational effect on the surrounding area--tracking the subtle changes in the environment and its quite amazing.

My pathway of learning is still continuing and growing. I don't have any formal training in the construction of stupas, other than what I've read from various sutras. That quote from the Saddharmapundarika sutra (aka the Lotus Sutra) is one of my favorites and one that I like to pull up when speaking to people about stupas.

I enjoy building smaller stupas. As long as its got a life tree, the Four Dharmakaya Relic Mantras and the Vimala Ushnisa mantra recited, its a functioning stupa. I'm not a real stickler for any sort of traditional method of building stupas but I make sure the core elements are in place.

That includes my motivation for building. :)

Mahalo for the great article!

Jennifer said...

This article should be regarded as a triumph and required reading for every Buddhist.

Anonymous said...

Your article reminded me of so many things: meeting Dodrupchen Rinpoche in Gangtok and the beautiful stupas at his monastery with little bells on top tinkling in the winds - sometimes only one mysteriously ringing; walking my dog unknowingly around the stupa he consecrated in Santa Fe; dreams of blue and other colored stupas on Mt. Kailash that have not been revealed yet or were revealed in the past, but no longer exist.

What a beautiful event to read of!

David S. said...

This was beautifully written and the finish punched me right in the heart. What you are doing has to be appreciated by everyone and I wish you would be more open about what you do and write from your heart more often because it does benefit all beings who encounter you.

Palden Dorje said...

Thank you for sharing this very inspiring activity of yours.
I fully rejoice in this!
Since many years now I hope that one day I will be able to build a large stupa with a Cristal Pumba and a big Guru Silnön inside.
After reading your story I guess I will start to build small stupas!
Tahnk you!

Rigzin Kinga Jamtsho said...

Long live!Kyabje Dodrupchen Rinpoche. May all the sentient beings gain enlightenment with your eternal blessings.Dodrupchen Rinpoche Kheno!!!!!!!!

KataKhan said...

Thank you in the name of all Mankind.
May the Masters live long and beings be happy always!
I bow.