A Stupa Resplendent

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by Tony Gregson

Peter Boas is pleased by the Hermitage stupa, now resplendent with a conical spire of gilt rings, surmounted by a crown and at the very peak, the crystal of enlightenment. The experiment, he says, of working from a template of pre-cut patterns for the various components, worked out well. He proved that, with a few adjustments, the work can be done by unskilled volunteers under knowledgeable guidance. A video to spread the word is in the works.

Peter (whose Buddhist name is Karma Yeshe Gyaltsen) led a team of about eight volunteers, mostly from Denman Island, who put in what time each could spare. He is particularly pleased by how happy everyone was, despite the rain, and the chill of the barn. Faces, he said, were just glowing. The project had an energy of its own, even drawing in one or two people who happened by with no knowledge of the Hermitage or the project. That’s because the building of a stupa is not like the erection of a more functional structure, like a barn raising. A stupa, Peter points out, is an object of meditation, and like a good song, speaks to you (Peter is also a songwriter).

He recalls a farmer back in Ontario who would pull up in his battered truck and eat his lunch, looking at the 32-foot stupa he built at Kinmount decades ago. The fellow had no idea what it was; he just said he liked to look at it. Such inherent appeal may have something to do with the sacred geometry. Like the Golden Mean, there is something optically satisfying about the proportions. The design is based on a grid of the energy points or chakras of the human body. The same concept, of a grid of chakras, though different, is also used to design a statue of the Buddha. Sometimes, Boas says, the two grids for stupa and the Buddha figure may be overlaid on each other.

There is another reason for satisfaction that has to do with the stupa as a reliquary. On October 9th, at a ceremony of consecration with three lamas, including Lama Tsultrim (aka. Lama Sid), Lama Govinda, and Lama Rodney Devinish, as well as Karma Dorje, the treasury of the stupa was finally filled with relics, fifteen years after the foundation of the stupa was first laid down. The treasury is a chamber in the top of the vase (the main body of the stupa shaped like a lotus bud) fitted with a raised, square opening.

The relics were accumulated by the lamas from their teachers over many years. They consist mainly of small phials of ashes and rinsels, in small packets, of venerated spiritual masters, including a very precious one of the Buddha himself, a white speck in some old cello tape. (Rinsels are tiny, pearl-like beads, scientifically described as crystallized bone, which are believed to occur in the ashes of Buddhist spiritual masters as a sign of their purity and enlightenment.) There was also an Indian-style votive portrait of a guru with a lock of his hair inside the frame. All these were carefully placed in the treasury on layers of sand from the Ganges.

Another relic, a statuette of the Buddha filled and sealed with ashes of two masters who were teachers in the direct lineage of the founders of the Hermitage, was placed in the Gate (the veneration niche in the main body of the stupa).

Taken together, it is good that the relics come from spiritual masters associated with each of the five Tibetan schools of Buddhism because the Hermitage seeks to be inclusive of all practises.

In addition, Peter was pleased that Lama Geshe Yongdong, who lives in the Comox Valley and practises the ancient Tibetan Bon religion predating Buddhism, not only participated in the consecration, but also helped with the completion of the stupa.

The relics are thought to protect from evil and confer blessings, energizing the stupa on a principle of multiplication, not unlike the homeopathic diffusion of a tiny quantity of a medicinal substance by succussion in water. The same idea featured at the consecration. Sacred texts, overlain by a mirror, were thought to infuse seeds and marigold petals strewn on top and later scattered over the stupa.

The relics also venerate the lineage of teaching that lies at the heart of Buddhism.

Peter, who likes to compare values and beliefs, points out that veneration of relics is actually very common, especially in the secular realm, where people will pay crazy amounts of money for a silver spoon by a hero like Paul Revere, or, for that matter, some knickknack of Jacqueline Kennedy. It is just that for Buddhists, the values are spiritual.

Relics aside, there’s one other thing that pleases Peter about the project: he thinks it is probably one of the first times a stupa has been worked on by a team mainly of women. In other cultures, women are often forbidden to have anything to do with the construction. Given the LGBT movement and the fluidity of gender, you wonder what other barriers may fall. Go Denman, go!

The stupa (or chorten) is a chanyub, or enlightenment stupa, one of nine Tibetan types. The chanyub type, also known as the “Conquest of Mara”, symbolizes Buddha’s enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree where he at last triumphed over all secular temptations and threats.

Every part of the structure is symbolic. The overall shape represents the Buddha, “crowned and sitting in meditation posture on a lion throne.” The base is his throne, the steps his legs, the vase, his body, and the square at the base of the conical spire (the portal of the Treasury), his head. The concentric rings of the spire represent the thirteen stages of enlightenment. Atop this, there is a ring of down-turned lotus petals that represent the princely umbrella traditionally associated with sovereignty, and atop that, the crown. In an innovative touch, Peter had the mantras on the leaves of the crown, pierced, rather than painted, so that the letters show against the sky. A crescent moon and sun top the crown, ending in a crystalline finial, representing the dissolving point of wisdom or, as Peter puts it, the clear light of the mind, the moment described as the light of a million suns. The mind lights up and the neurons have purportedly been shown, through medical testing, to rearrange themselves. Peter’s been there.

That surely beats any church steeple I’ve ever seen.

A few things remain to be done. The first is to gild the surround of the gate, the niche holding the statuette of the Buddha, with gold dust mixed in lacquer. Second is to apply a thin coat of cement to the multi-tiered base before it is painted a gleaming white with a silicone-based paint that repels mildew. The base has already been carefully cleaned and ground smooth. “Sharp edges,” Peter notes, “are important”. Then, come next Spring, there will be a celebration.

In the meantime, the stupa, like a radio beacon, will radiate its blessings over the island.