Designing the Stupa

This article, by David Garrett, is from volume 9 of The Lion's Roar, the Gampo Abbey Newsletter.

stupa architectureMost, if not all, readers of this newsletter will appreciate that the forms of stupas (there are eight types in the Tibetan tradition — ours is a Stupa of Enlightenment) are traditional and strictly defined in outline and proportion. The proportional system is governed by a square grid with the size of the stupa being determined by the size of one square (ours is 3 1/2"). Designing then became a process of understanding the form as given to us by Thrangu Rinpoche in a simple outline drawing on an 8 ½ x ll" piece of paper, what is inside that form, how it is constructed, what the materials are, what the embellishments are, and how it sits on the site (also determined by Thrangu Rinpoche).

That process of understanding has been personally delightful, challenging, and illuminating.

The biggest surprise to date was getting the list of relics and offerings to be included inside the stupa. We all simply chuckled at the length and breadth of it. I remember my attitude toward the stupa changing at that point. This was not going to be an inert object; this was going to be a "power plant." Not surprisingly, there was an outpouring of generosity for the offerings right up to the last moment as rings, watches, and other personal precious items were put inside in proper order along with, among other things, dried fruits, peacock feathers, many tsa tsas, and most importantly, cremated remains and other relics of the Vidyadhara, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, as well as relics of other great masters.

The biggest design challenge was siting the stupa and providing a place for the fifty-nine lojong slogans as requested by Thrangu Rinpoche. The slogan engraved granite slabs and retaining wall system was developed with Richard John. The biggest technical challenge was how to construct the spire and thirteen wheels. We considered and studied metal, wood, clay, and finally concrete (with which it is now made). The difficult questions with concrete were how to form it and how to get reinforcing rods into the very thin neck at the top, also containing the top of the life-force pole. Both of these problems were solved at the last minute with characteristic steadiness, skill, and humor by Don Beamish, stupa construction manager.

All through the design and construction process we have been aided by drawings, details, general encouragement, and an interesting, at times gruff self-confidence by Paul Kloppenburg and Bob King, both seasoned stupa builders. Lama Tashi also added considerable clarification, and in a bold and spontaneous moment, suggested that we should raise the stupa by about three feet by putting it on a base.

For myself, working on the stupa has meant in part coming to understand some of the language of stupas, the symbolic and iconographic particulars in terms of elements, stages on the Buddhist path, aspects of the Buddha, etc. But I think, more importantly it has meant a further understanding of sacredness. As I said before, the stupa is not inert; it has the feeling of standing in the presence of lineage holders. This has something to do with its form; it also has a lot to do with the devotion, generosity, consecration, and perhaps a little magic that is going into it.

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