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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Dream Builder

June 22, 2008

An architect fulfills the vision of working on a spiritually enriching project
By Jason Albert
Madison Magazine (Wisconsin, USA)
June 19, 2008

After more than thirty years as an architect, John Martens had been
in these types of meetings before. Difficult conversations where he
would have to tell one of his clients that despite everyone's
commitment and best intentions, a deadline could not be met.

But this was no ordinary project, and no ordinary client. Martens
would have to tell Geshe Sopa, founding abbot of the Deer Park
Buddhist Center, that his longstanding dream for a traditional
Buddhist temple would not be ready on the projected completion date
in 2007. More importantly, it wouldn't be completed in time for the
Dalai Lama to deliver a formal consecration during his trip to Madison.

For Martens, these testy situations have always called for a little
humility along with the agility needed to run and duck. But the
response he received from Geshe Sopa embodied the Buddhist ethos and
underscored the Dalai Lama's close relationship with Geshe Sopa and Deer Park.

"After we told Geshe Sopa it wouldn't be ready, he immediately got an
ear-to-ear grin and said, 'I just want to thank you people for
working so hard on this,'" says Martens. "That's what this project is
all about. It's a total inspiration."

Geshe Sopa had no way of knowing that the fourteenth Dalai Lama,
Tenzin Gyatso, would be back again just one year after his last trip
to Madison from India, where Tibet's political and spiritual leader
has lived in exile since 1959. But on July 19, he will be here, and
the occasion will mark an astonishing fifth official visit by His
Holiness since 1979.

An iconic figure whose worldwide influence belies his humble calling
as Buddhist monk, the Dalai Lama is a Nobel laureate and recipient of
the Congressional Gold Medal, and he frequently spends his days
zigzagging between countries to consult with dignitaries on
political, religious and economic issues of the day, including the
current unrest in Tibet that erupted in March. Amid all of this,
Gyatso's journeys have again and again set him on a path leading back
to our community, back to the uniqueness of Deer Park and its new
temple, and Geshe Sopa's role in fostering its vision.

A Madison Treasure

The Deer Park Buddhist Center sits high on a hill in the Town of
Dunn, just south of Madison. To visit Deer Park, you have to travel
down a two-lane county highway that cuts through the countryside
passing cornfields, a horse stable and unadorned family homes. If
you're not looking for the turn, it's easy to speed right past.

The centerpiece of Deer Park is the nearly
twenty-thousand-square-foot temple built in traditional Tibetan style
that incorporates stunning handcrafted woodwork, metalwork and
symbolic elements such as lotus flowers and wish-granting jewels. By
any definition, this is no ordinary building. The Buddhist monastery
and teaching community not only attracts students and devotees from
around the globe, but has also become a treasured place for the Dalai
Lama himself. To Geshe Sopa, it is the realization of a sacred ground
in America that preserves Buddhist teachings, literature, art and
architecture as well as a way to help sustain his Tibetan homeland's
culture in the face of diaspora.

Even at a very early age, Geshe Sopa was considered an extraordinary
Buddhist scholar. He was chosen as one of the examiners who tested
the young Dalai Lama as he was completing his studies. In the early
1960s, Geshe Sopa moved to the United States at the Dalai Lama's
personal request. His Holiness asked him to lead a mission of
spreading the Buddhist message cross-culturally.

After a brief time on the east coast, Geshe Sopa moved to Madison to
accept a teaching position at the University of Wisconsin--Madison.
Here he was named professor emeritus and became the first Tibetan
tenured at an American university. But in spite of these professional
accomplishments, as with the Dalai Lama, Geshe Sopa's first calling
is that of a simple monk. More than anything, Geshe Sopa wanted to
create a lasting gathering place where people could study Buddhist
teachings outside of the university setting. When asked why he's
here, so far from public view, his answer is perfect in its
simplicity: "The land was on sale, so I bought it," Geshe Sopa says.

When speaking with nearly anyone associated with Deer Park and the
Dalai Lama's visits, there is an undeniable reverence, but it is
impossible to find even a hint of self-importance. This is not
surprising when one explores the basic tenets of Buddhism.

Buddhism exists somewhere between religion and philosophy, and even
those who study it do not agree on a perfect classification. In fact,
the Dalai Lama himself has taught that if a person has a religion to
which he already subscribes, he should not feel compelled to abandon
it for Buddhism. If there is something in Buddhism's teachings that
interests a person, she should by all means adapt and incorporate it
into her daily life. But no one should ever feel any pressure to
follow a doctrine that doesn't work personally. And while strict
Buddhists believe that the Dalai Lama is an enlightened being who has
postponed his own nirvana to serve humanity, Buddhist teachings as a
whole are inclusive and focus on achieving enlightenment through the
practices of meditation, awareness, compassion and tolerance.

"It Will Not Rain"

Ani Jampa is a Buddhist nun and Sopa's full-time administrative
assistant. Born Alicia Vogel, she was one of Geshe Sopa's teaching
assistants before joining Deer Park. She dresses in the same maroon
and yellow robes as the monks and wears her dark hair shaved close to
her head. When she talks about Geshe Sopa, there is a passion in her
words that put Geshe Sopa's achievements and relationship with the
Dalai Lama into a context the humble Geshe Sopa shies away from.

"Geshe Sopa has done so much in his life. His Holiness [the Dalai
Lama] has great respect for him," she says. "Teaching in the American
academic system is unheard of for Tibetan lamas."

While Jampa herself is obviously close to Sopa and Deer Park on a
spiritual level, similar attitudes are repeatedly reflected when
exploring why the Dalai Lama, Geshe Sopa and Deer Park are so
intricately intertwined.

Penny Paster has been volunteering for Geshe Sopa since 1977 and has
served as primary coordinator for most of the Dalai Lama's visits to
Madison. Her husband, Dr. Zorba Paster, is the point person for
medical care should His Holiness need to see a doctor while he is in
the United States.

Each is involved with the Dalai Lama to a degree most people never
experience, but neither views their roles with any heightened
importance. Things need to be done, so they do them, they say, just
as anyone in their position would do. And like so many others whose
lives have been touched by the spiritual leader, they spend less time
contemplating the whys and more on being grateful that he does, in
fact, have these strong ties to Madison.

"His Holiness feels very much at home here. He loves driving through
the country and stopping to pick flowers," Penny Paster says. "We've
seen again and again that the serenity and peacefulness of Deer Park
is very important to him. It's a living, breathing monastery. We
don't question it; we're just so thrilled."

Martens is not a practicing Buddhist, but he has long been interested
by its teachings. As a result, he originally signed on with the new
temple project as a volunteer construction consultant but later
became the primary architect for the construction phase. After three
years, he has traveled to India and invested innumerable hours of
research, all with the goal of being mindful of Geshe Sopa's hopes
for the temple. He has also experienced things he cannot explain.

Last fall, Martens was contacted by Deer Park on a Thursday and told
that the following Tuesday would be a propitious day. They requested
that certain ceremonial roof ornaments--which had not been scheduled
to be installed for weeks--be put up by the following Tuesday. To
further complicate matters, that day's forecast called for heavy all-day rains.

So on that Monday, Martens called Deer Park to tell them he didn't
think it would be possible to complete their request. He was told to
wait. After five minutes, a voice came on the line and spoke four
words: "It will not rain."

Tuesday morning, it was pouring. By the afternoon, there were no
clouds in the sky, and the ornaments went up without incident.

Martens shrugs when the incident is brought up. "I have seen things
happen here that make me appreciate the depth of this project," he says.

This July the temple will be finished, and the Dalai Lama agreed
without hesitation to return again to perform the dedication. On the
eve of completion, Martens knows he has been part of something few
people ever get to experience.

"I can't believe how lucky Madison is to be in this situation."
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