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Below is an article written by Suzuki and Trungpa student, Paul Shippee on stupas in general and the stupa at Shambala Mountain Center in northern Colorado (former name - Rocky Mountain Dharma Center). I was at this stupa in February. It was so cold that my face hurt walking to it. I watched Joshua Mulder very carefully take many  photos of the exquisite large Buddha statue inside it (to aid him in further work) and sat zazen there. I've seen lots of Buddha statues in Asia recently and earlier that didn't impress me, and am used to being turned off by how people relate to them, especially the tacky ones, but this Buddha statue, and the lovely androgynous Buddha descending from the Tushita Heaven in front of this stupa, were extremely well done. The whole stupa inside and out and the whole experience was indeed inspiring. Dinner with the community before taking off into the snowy night was also excellent. I still owe them seven dollars. Also read Paul Shippee's piece on this type of stupa. - DC

Shambala Mountain Center Stupa Link

See the interview with Paul Shippee


-Building The Great Stupa At Shambhala Mountain Center

by Paul Shippee

There are three basic reasons for building stupas. One is the burial type that holds relics from the funeral pyre. Another type popular in Asia is commemorative; it marks the place of an event or occasion in the Buddha's life. A third type is small, erected to make a dedication of good will, or to accumulate merit. In this case, it is a perfect outlet for lay people to connect with

buddhadharma, and in the past it was primarily the laity who were involved in the construction of stupas. A fundamental significance of stupas for us in the West lies in the contrast between modern and ancient world views, specifically in how matter is viewed. Ancient peoples, living close to nature, viewed matter as living and fecund, a living reality and accumulator of spirit. Modern people, cut off from nature and ourselves, often view matter as dead, something mechanical to be used or manipulated. The stupa is monumental architecture, emphasizing our connection to the spiritual by its mass and symbolic shapes.

The two most fundamental and enduring shapes seen in all stupas are the hemisphere (mound) and the cone or spire. The hemisphere symbolizes an egg or womb or the fertile earth. This traces back to lunar religions where the creative force of the earth (soil) as mother of all life was worshipped in caves and subterranean sanctuaries, and where the mysteries of life and creation were the center of religious attention. In this lunar type of worship, the mounds were placed away from the village.

The cone shape is symbolic of a solar type of worship wherein altars were placed inside the village as an important reference point for daily life. It seems natural to erect a vertical post, such as a May pole or flag pole, to mark the sun's zenith. It ties together earth with heaven and represents a unifying element-- a center, the life force, an axis-mundi, the lingam, a gathering place.

The combining of the lunar and solar elements into the Buddhist stupa appears to be the meaning of the Buddha’s instructions to place his burial stupas at four corners. It was a unique combining of opposites: night and day, matter and mind, earth and sky, unconscious and conscious, inner and outer, mysterious and obvious, female and male.

A square box called a harmika (Skt.) is placed on top of the hemisphere and below the cone. It is said to be the "dwelling place of the gods," and symbolizes a transcendent aspect of mind or aspiration - a transformation potential. In the earliest stupas, relics were found there. The harmika reflects the idea that stupas are a place where offerings can be made, blessings received, and devotion practiced, such as by walking around the stupa in a clockwise direction. Circumambulating stupas is a very ancient practice that reflects the movement of the sun, of ever-revolving seasons and the rotation of planets.

During the Mahayana period of Buddhist development, stupas began to be embellished with various themes of enrichment: the cosmic embrace, opulence, generosity, super-rich, gold, big gates, ornamentation.
If you look down on a stupa from the sky, it always reveals a directional orientation such as South, West, North, and East, a mandalic square shape. It has a central axis, the center of the universe, the axis mundi. Two basic shapes, the circle and the square, are apparent, representing water and earth respectively, while the vertical shape, a triangle, represents fire.

The vertical shape of a Tibetan stupa evolved into a representation of the body of a Buddha seated upon a square throne. The pole inside some stupas represents the spine, an obelisk-shaped pillar made from a special tree that is inserted when construction is nearly complete.

From the very earliest days of stupas, Buddhists placed both scripts of dharani (prayers which energize the speech element, creeds, or mantra) and numerous miniature images of the stupa (tsa-tsa’s) inside these monuments. Vessels containing hair, fingernails, relics and ashes of enlightened teachers were buried there along with jewels, seeds, herbs, and other earth-symbolic items.



The immediate impetus flowed from traditional instructions left by the Vidyadhara in a will/letter to enshrine his relics in a stupa at one or more dharma centers. Relics are bones and ashes gathered from a cremation fire. In this case, a small cremation stupa had been built at Karme-Choling in Vermont in May 1987 where the Vidyadhara's body was cremated and his relics gathered.

Much earlier statements by the Vidyadhara also contributed to the intention to build stupas in North America. Comments from a 1975 talk he gave at Vashon Island, Washington may be summarized like this: "In order to transplant Buddhism to North America, in the style of Padmasambhava, we have decided to engage in the building of stupas. The first monumental building of a stupa will be at Rocky Mountain Dharma Center." (Now SMC)

Then at the cremation in Vermont, a meeting called by a few of the Vidyadhara's students with His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche set the direction for building a large stupa at SMC, a reliquary for the remains of the Vidyadhara.
The stupa at Shambhala Mountain Center (SMC) in northern Colorado reaches 108 feet in height. Construction began in 1988 and the structural elements, completed during the next 10 years, were constructed with a special concrete formulated to last 1,000 years. This stupa is called a Lha Bab choten; it specifically commemorates the Buddha’s descent from Tushita heaven where he taught his mother. The steep stairway just below the big portal opening (gau) high up in the round vase chamber (bumpa) symbolizes this descent. At the top of the stairway in the portal is placed a large sculpture of a standing Buddha, a unique feature of this stupa not found elsewhere. It suggests the Vidyadhara’s distinct ambulatory style of teaching in the West.

"The Great Stupa of Dharmakaya Which Liberates Upon Seeing" is an added name given to this stupa by H.H. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. The interior of this stupa is spacious and features extensive artwork, design, and statuary styled to reflect the Vidyadhara’s lineage as well as his interest in Japanese aesthetics and his teachings on the ancient but somewhat secret Shambhala kingdom.

The Great Stupa holds the whole skull relic of the Vidyadhara. This is placed in the heart center of the large (20 ft. high) seated Buddha on the ground floor. In this way, the Great Stupa retains its earliest symbolic function: a chamber or motherly womb which can transform the seeds of the past into the life forms of the future.

This stupa has two upper stories: on the second level, a 3-dimensional sculptural mandala of Chakrasamvara, and at the top story level a Vajrasattva shrine in the round vase chamber. In 1997 the top spire sections and the tababs (the four large gates) were completed. The final phase of exterior ornamentation, and extensive interior sacred art and sculpture is now largely completed. The stupa was consecrated in a ceremony lasting several days in the summer of 2001.

This stupa was constructed employing the generosity of several hundred sangha volunteer laborers and craftspeople, with money donated in annual fundraising events from sangha folk, and with contributions of expertise from many technical sectors of industry.


Any work done on a stupa is traditionally considered to be of the highest purity and merit, whether done by artist, high teacher, or common laborer. The work on this Stupa, performed mostly by volunteer workers who have some affiliation with Buddhist teachings and meditation practice, and any donation of money made by people, is viewed as having durable and continuing benefit, far into the future.

All are invited to view the Great Stupa, circumambulate it, and connect with the power, devotion, and beauty radiating from such a monumental work. Combining present devotion and ancient tradition, this stupa represents a major footprint of buddhadharma in North America serving far into the future.

Paul Shippee <> was involved in The Great Stupa planning from the beginning. He assembled a team of industry experts to design the concrete mix used in the construction to last 1,000 years. He lives in Crestone, Colorado where he is is building a passive solar/rammed earth residence.

Valuable contributions to this article came from Paul Kloppenburg, Joshua Mulder, Dale Asrael, the work of Lama Govinda, and other sources

Emails from Paul Shippe about the Stupa at Shambhala Mountain Center

DC: After reading Paul Shippee's essay at the end of this page, I asked him via email if Joshua Mulder built the stupa at Shambhala Dharma Center - and other questions. Here's what he replied.

PS: OK, a guy didn't build it... a community did.

99% was volunteer labor and expertise from sangha members around the world. The basic work took 14 years (from 1st planning mtg. -which I attended- to consecration ceremony -which took place a few years back, I think 2001).

My stupa essay, THE BUDDHIST STUPA [old name - above], is not particularly about this individual Shambhala Mountain Center stupa, but mostly about the general background and evolution of stupas in India and Tibet, predating the time of Shakyamuni Buddha. My inspiration for writing it arose from learning the story of how this very traditional Tibetan style stupa came to be built in northern Colorado. It is intended to last more than 1,000 years and to commemorate the North American teachings of our brave teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. In Tibet there are basically eight styles of stupa, and this particular one is known as The Great Stupa of Dharmakaya Which Liberates Upon Seeing.

This particular Tibetan stupa style was conveyed in all its detail and proportions to our Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche sangha by a Tibet lama and scholar named Tenga Rinpoche. The actual site of this stupa was chosen by His Holiness the XVI Gyalwa Karmapa while visiting Colorado in the early 1970's.

Bob King was Project Manager throughout the whole 14-year project (without him I don't see how it could have been done, because of his excellent people skills, construction savvy, and keen economic sense. He used to be a general contractor and has a degree in Economics.)

Joshua Mulder was the artistic director, responsible for design & execution of all sacred sculptures, ornamental concrete shapes, colors, and sacred paintings.

Many, many sangha craftsmen donated much much time, skill and expertise, all volunteer (except for Joshua who was salaried by a donor because he was poor and also full time on the job, still there).

Oh, BTW (since you asked)...,

My contribution to the building of the stupa as an engineer was to come up with the concrete mix design to ensure the stupa would last 1,000 years. Being a Civil Engineer I was familiar with concrete -it's performance values and its limitations- as a building material. While I did not design the sophisticated concrete mix myself, I researched, located, and organized various key people around the world from three sectors: Academia, Government, and Industry. Some of these people came forward to offer their professional expertise because of either the innovative or religious nature of the project. Basically, I managed this changing team of concrete building experts for years to synchronize the available techniques and materials that made the best fit to our conditions at our remote site in northern Colorado.

I am so glad you called me, David, from the road about to enter Wyoming and was able to turn back, find your way over strange dirt roads, and visit The Great Stupa, and meet Joshua.

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