Art of the Great Stupa

January 27, 2010

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 landscaping.

"Every detail is important," Mulder says. "Every surface should be full of portent, like a breaking wave or a pregnant woman."

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 rolled back to accommodate teachings and public meditation programmes. The upper floors contain 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 iconography.

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 huge standing Buddha is being carved from 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 that!’"

The sheer scale of the Stupa required innovation. "All the 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 we had to slightly adjust the proportions for this Stupa so that the overall effect would not be distorted by the perspective when seen from below."

It is the construction 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 panels.

Amid all of this exotica, it is the Stupa’s concrete that has attracted the greatest attention. Three 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 concrete used in residential and industrial 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 said.

"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."