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Art of the Great Stupa
High in the Colorado Rockies rises the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya,
one of the most magnificent examples of sacred Buddhist architecture
outside Asia.
“What we are trying to do is make this stupa an embodiment of the
dharma, reflecting the radiance of the teachings,” says master sculptor
Joshua Mulder, the stupa’s director of art and design. “I don’t see the
stupa as a building. I see it as enlightened mind.”
Mulder has devoted the past fourteen years to this
prodigious undertaking. Working with builder Bob King, the
overall project director, he supervises the full range of
intricate artwork, marble floors and murals, lighting and
“Every detail is important,” Mulder says. “Every surface
should be full of portent, like a breaking wave or a pregnant
Thanks to the painstaking efforts of Mulder and his team of artists, sculptors, mold
markers, painters and gold leafers, the entire interior is being transformed into a
contemporary gallery of Buddhist art.
“I felt that if this was going to be done, it should be done right,” he says. The result is a
fusion of classical art forms and proportions with modern materials and, when needed,
state-of-the-art technology.
Stupas were first built in pre-Buddhist times as burial mounds raised over the graves of
Asian monarchs. But since the time of the Buddha’s death in the fifth century BCE, they
have been a distinctive feature of Buddhist culture, commemorating great teachers and
symbolising the brilliance of enlightened mind. Many stupas serve as reliquaries and
repositories for sacred texts.
The site of the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya was first
identified as an auspicious location by the Sixteenth
Karmapa, head of the Kagyü school of Tibetan Buddhism,
on his first visit to North America in 1974. At the
confluence of old river beds in a mountain valley near the
town of Red Feather Lakes, it is now home to Rocky
Mountain Shambhala Centre.
The Great Stupa of Dharmakaya is being constructed to
honour the late Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam
Trungpa Rinpoche, author of Cutting Through Spiritual
Materialism and Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the
Warrior, and founder of the international Shambhala
community. After Trungpa Rinpoche’s death in 1987, the
late Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, head of the Nyingma
school, requested that a stupa to house his relics be built
on this site.
“Khyentse Rinpoche told us the stupa should be ‘big, beautiful and long-lasting’,” says
Mulder. “These became the three basic principles of the project.”
The Great Stupa of Dharmakaya invites you in. While the
vast majority of stupas are sealed, this is a rare example of
an open stupa. Its 24-foot-high main floor is accessible to
the public, housing a twenty-foot-high Gandharan-style
figure of Shakyamuni Buddha. The massive statue is
mounted on a specially constructed platform so it can be
elaborately decorated shrine rooms. These are sacred sites
for meditation and are specially designed as aids to
visualisation practice.
Born in 1952 in Waukegan, Illinois, on the swampy shores of Lake Michigan, Mulder
started his career as a Buddhist artist in the 1970s, working with Trungpa Rinpoche on the
design of ritual implements and shrine rooms. He studied traditional Tibetan painting with
Tendzin Rongae, sculpture with Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche, and three-dimensional
mandala construction with Tenga Rinpoche.
Building the stupa has been the work of some 400 people
over the years, and Mulder has drawn his team from among
them. Some have been highly skilled artists. Others were
volunteers willing to wield a brush for a couple of days or a
week. Five Bhutanese sculptors worked with him on the
major figures and classical ornamentation on the stupa,
contributing their knowledge of traditional techniques and
The result is a unique blend of styles. “I have tried to convey
a heart connection,” Mulder explains. “The mix of art is
everything from Kashmiri to Venetian. As Trungpa Rinpoche
said: you should see cultures as transparent and use the awakened aspect of them.”
“Over the years,” Mulder says, “we have
learned to work with so many different materials,
including the concrete. Right now the form for the
Styrofoam. By appreciating the qualities of these
materials, you learn to engage with them. You can
then dance with them and work with them.”
The architectural forms have been adapted in some
cases to aid the visualisation practices in the upper
shrine rooms. “Khandro Rinpoche noticed this when
she visited,” recalls Mulder. “She looked around
approvingly and said; ‘Why didn’t we Tibetans think of
The sheer scale of the Stupa
elements of the traditional stupas
are here,” Mulder points out. “These
are in accordance with the rules
established by Jamgön Kongtrul the
Great in the nineteenth century. But
proportions for this Stupa so that the
overall effect would not be distorted
by the perspective when seen from
materials used that make this a true
stupa of the twenty-first century.
Nylon fibres are used instead of
wood and cotton filaments in the
clay mix. Low-shrinkage clay mitigates cracking.
Instead of wooden or brick frameworks, welded steel rebar is
used on the interior of the sculptures. “The steel mesh gave us
greater expansiveness so that we could more freely articulate
all the limbs,” Mulder explains.
The materials are used to fashion an outer shape in the form of
a yidam, meditation deity, which is then filled with rolled
mantras. Millions of these have been rolled in accordance with
traditional requirements, a meticulous process that has taken
more than five years. “These statues are only ten percent clay,”
says Mulder. “They are ninety percent prayer.”
Working with thangka painter Greg Smith, Mulder’s plan for the
stupa’s interior include thousands of square feet of mural work.
The ceiling of the main floor will house the largest Kalachakra (Wheel of Time) mandala
thought to be in existence. Teams of up to a dozen artists work on it at a time. Not only will
it likely be the largest of its kind, it will certainly be the first to be painted on aluminium
Amid all of this exotica, it is the Stupa’s concrete that
construction industry magazines have written about it.
The body of the Stupa is formed of steel and a unique
mix of concrete that was specially developed for this
project to last more than a thousand years.
The work of developing and testing the concrete took
two years. “We must have tested hundreds of
samples,” recalls Mulder. “A ton of samples until we
were satisfied that we had the right mix.” Ordinary
construction would not endure the freeze-thaw cycle
and the harsh climate of the elevated mountain site. Mulder has personally tested every
concrete delivery made to the Stupa to ensure consistency. “I run each truck through a
series of tests, making adjustments with chemical additives to bring that day’s mix up to
our specification.”
On a busy day, the stupa has the atmosphere of a medieval
cathedral under construction, with dozens of people at work at
any one time. Most of the Stupa has been built and finished by
hand. Most of the work has been done in silence.
“What keeps it all going is the tremendous commitment and
heart connection of the people who come here to work,” says
Mulder. “Everyone plays a role in a process that extends beyond
their own efforts, and that has a cumulative effect. The first
person does a good job, say, on a mold. What is cast from that mold reflects that. That
spirit is passed on to the next person. They just pick up on this profound yearning to
create something that is truly beautiful.”
The results are magnetising. A
distinguished visitor from Sri Lanka
told the stupa crew that the building
was gathering into itself “all the good
intentions” of those who had worked
on it and given donations. “The
stupa magnifies all this and radiates
it out for future generations,” he
“What matters most is this emotional impact,” says Mulder. “It is a total environment.
Tibetans see their sculptures as actually embodying their deities. That’s the attitude I take
to the entire stupa.”