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The West's largest Buddhist stupa rises in Spain

March 19, 2009

Benalmádena’s Enlightenment Stupa is a karmic
surprise amid the Moorish minarets and ancient Christian steeples.
By Lee Lawrence
The Christian Science Monitor
March 18, 2009

Benalmádena, Spain -- Dressed in dark jeans and
jacket, Dizi Btissam fingers a motorcycle helmet
as she listens to a young man with thick
eyelashes and wavy hair. Behind them, a gilded
statue of Buddha looks benignly down at a row of poinsettias.

"He is not a god," Ivan Baez explains, as a low
tremolo of chants filters through the sound
system. “For us he represents the natural
qualities that we all possess but that are
obscured by our emotions, personalities…”

He is interrupted by the jingle of a cellphone
from Ms. Btissam’s pocket. She dashes outside to
answer. Mr. Baez smiles. He wears a collarless
cotton shirt dyed the deep red of uncooked
saffron, and he gives the impression that life is
equally good whether or not Btissam returns. She
does come back, though, minutes later, to listen
without further interruption as Baez speaks about
enlightenment, about “resting fully in what is”
and experiencing “our highest potential.”

Buddhism is not what I expected to learn about in
Spain. As I drove along the coast south of
Malaga, my mind filled with the sound of lapping
waves and the imagined clack of castanets. I
pictured the rhythmic arches of Cordoba’s mosque
and the intricate floral carvings of the
Alhambra. The last thing I expected to see,
rising above the guardrail, was the gold spire of
a stupa, a moundlike monument that commemorates
Buddha. And it was huge, soaring 108 feet high
and stretching 82 feet across at the base – the largest stupa in the West.

Granted, this is Andalucia, a region known for
its history of religious diversity. In many
towns, the church bell tower encases an older
minaret. In Cordoba and Toledo, 14th-century
synagogues feature intricate Moorish carvings.
And ensconced among Cordoba’s grand 10th-century
mosque is a Roman Catholic cathedral. These are
the legacies of La Convivencia, the time between
711 and 1492 when Muslims, Christians, and Jews
lived peaceably together in lively intellectual and artistic exchange.

But a Buddhist stupa? What is it doing here?

• • •

Stupas began as funerary mounds containing relics
of Buddha, and they have evolved into highly
symbolic monuments that commemorate events in the
life of Buddha and enshrine holy objects and
prayers. They vary geographically, and the
Benalmádena stupa, which commemorates Buddha’s
enlightenment, conforms to the Tibetan style: an
irregular dome that flares at the top and narrows
at the base, resting on a square, tiered platform.

Usually these monuments appear where there is a
thriving Buddhist community, and this is where
the Benalmádena stupa breaks with both Buddhist
and Andalucian traditions. When Toledo’s
synagogue was built, the city’s Jews were wealthy
and politically influential. Similarly, Spain’s
great mosques and cathedrals were built by the
rich and well-connected members of their
respective religious communities. But Spain’s
Buddhists, though increasing in number, don’t
coalesce into a socially or politically relevant
community. As elsewhere outside Asia, most
Buddhists here are converts who gravitate to one
of many Buddhist traditions, including newer
variations combining Buddhist practice with Christian beliefs.

This isn’t to say that the Benalmádena stupa is
devoid of political overtones. "The target may be
other Buddhist groups,” suggests Martin Baumann,
a professor of religion at Lucerne University
(Switzerland) who researches the political impact
of religious buildings. Many Tibetan Buddhists
believe that their tradition is the purest. “In
this way,” Dr. Baumann adds, “the Dalai Lama and
other lamas are seen as being the carriers of
unpolluted spirituality.” Built in strict
accordance with traditional prescriptions and
rituals, the stupa thus gives Tibetan Buddhism
high visibility in the West’s Buddhist landscape.

The stupa also plays into an internal dispute
within one of the four principal schools of
Tibetan Buddhism, the Karma Kagyu. The Dalai Lama
is the most prominent international spokesman for
Tibetan Buddhism and for the Tibetan diaspora.
This shines the spotlight on the school he heads,
the Gelugpa school. Some speculate, however, that
upon his death, focus could shift to the Karma
Kagyu school and its head, known by the title of
“Karmapa,” as the rallying point for Tibetans in exile.

That makes the question of who actually is the
legitimate Karmapa more important. And it’s an
unresolved question. The group behind the
Benalmádena stupa supports Trinley Thaye Dorje as
Karma Kagyu’s 17th Karmapa. Others in Spain and
elsewhere support Ugyen Trinley Dorje, whose
escape from his Chinese guards in 2000 made
headlines around the world. Both men have been
recognized by different authorities as the
reincarnation of the previous Karmapa, who died in 1981.

• • •

So much for the effects of the stupa. What about
its origin? "There is always a story,” smiles
Margarita Lehnert, who for many years, worked as
assistant and translator for the late Lopon
Tsechu Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher who,
in 1994, built a 42-foot stupa at a Buddhist
retreat northeast of Benalmádena. About three
years later, he and Ms. Lehnert drove to the
coast for lunch. The monk’s robe caught the eye
of a portly man who introduced himself as Enrique Bolin, Benalmádena’s mayor.

Mr. Bolin subsequently traveled to Nepal, where,
Lehnert says, "he got so impressed and found it
so inspiring, that he said he wanted a stupa for his town as well.”

"There are thousands of towns Lopon Teschu
Rinpoche visited in the West," Lehnert adds, “and
this was the first mayor who wanted to build a
stupa. So there must be what we call a very strong karmic connection.”

Bolin, who stepped down as mayor in 2007, gave
about $300,000 of public funds as well as the
land, while Lehnert founded the Karma Kagyu
Cultural Association, which raised about $1
million for the project. Construction began in
2001 and, before the stupa’s inauguration in
October 2003, lamas “activated” it with special
offerings and rituals. Lehnert explains, “because
the stupa is a living monument, it’s all the time
sending, let’s say, positive energy.” In this
sense, it functions somewhat like a Tibetan
prayer wheel that spins prayers into the universe.

When the stupa was inaugurated, Bolin expressed
the hope that the monument would be an added
tourist attraction. But the stupa has proved pale
competition for the town’s sunny beaches and
charming, whitewashed streets. This could change,
though. Btissam, the young woman with the
cellphone, is studying tourism at the University
of Malaga, and she was gathering information for one of her classes.

And while the stupa may not physically fit in
with Andalucia’s Moorish and Mudéjar
architecture, the life surrounding it embodies
the Convivencia spirit of interfaith exchange.

A short drive down the hill, Lehnert perches with
perfect posture in her living room. Behind her,
windows overlook the Mediterranean as she visits
with Mipham Rinpoche, a high lama in the Nyingma
school of Tibetan Buddhism, and his wife, Mayum.
The Polish-born Lehnert moves seamlessly from
Tibetan to English as she explains facets of
Tibetan Buddhism to a couple of unexpected American visitors.

* Monitor Correspondent Lisa Abend contributed to this report from Madrid.
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