The Great Stupa of Dharmakaya

Deep inside of the Red Feathers Lake boundary of Northern Colorado, the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya stands 108 feet tall, adorning the hidden valley. Though this part of Colorado isn’t recognized for housing rich monuments or varied cultures, the Stupa of Dharmakaya is one of their hidden treasures.

Upon driving up to the center, wanderers like me will follow a dirt road up to Red Feathers Lakes that seems as though it’s sole purpose is to dive deeper and deeper into the mountains with no end. As I started to fully believe that the Stupa was a myth, a sign for “Shambhala Mountain Center” appears near a very narrow turn in. Shambhala Mountain Center houses this incredible religious architecture and follows the tradition of minimalism within the Buddhist religion all at the same time. Small camping spaces, one mess-hall/activity center, and scattered cabins are placed sporadically by the winding road that eventually leads up to the Stupa. As the confusing road, that one never really sure if they’re supposed to be on, leads upwards, there is a glimpse of something gold beyond the trees. 

There’s a feeling at this point in the journey where it’s not quite clear what is to be expected. On my own personal experience up to the Stupa, I had a recurring thought that I wasn’t prepared enough and not being prepared, I kept thinking that I was in the wrong even being in this space. Though that changed as I walked the steps decorated with colorful prayer flags. A sense of peace and stillness surrounds this part of Colorado. Along the steps there are two offering sites, where people are encouraged, though not forced, to give an offering. Mala beads, stones, old childhood toys, a gum wrapper with someone’s name on it, and so much more overwhelm these statues. Just looking at these offerings, it’s clear that this place has helped many let go of things they were holding onto in their lives, and searching for something more. 

The first full view of the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya is one that I will never forget. It stands above all else that it surrounds, the base of the Stupa being pure white that it catches the sun and almost looks like it’s glowing.  The intricate details and colors decorating the monument seem to build as the Stupa gets taller and taller, ending with an immense gold jewel. It’s a palace amongst trees, surrounded by a path of sand. A sign along the path has an arrow pointing to the left and states that it is tradition to walk around the Stupa clockwise three times before entering, it signifies respect in Buddhist culture and promises that those who enter will have shown respect for the temple. 

Entering the Stupa and first floor meditation center, the first thing to catch anyone’s eye is the massive Buddha statue made out of gold. The center itself is aligned with meditation pillows, readings in little cubbies on the wall, and a breath-stealing mural on the ceiling. There are three levels to the Stupa, the next containing a smaller chamber, and the third, which is not always allowed to the public, is home to a statue of Vajrasattva, this chamber contains a Chakrasamvara mandala, statues, and frescoes as well. There are multiple paths from the Stupa up to a traditional offering site and other hiking, all following and decorated with prayer flags. 

Stupas throughout history have changed and evolved with what the people needed and what was supposed to be worshiped. Stupas were originally  “mounds of earth and stones (tumuli) – places to bury important kings away from the village”. Though about twenty-five hundred years ago, the Buddha changed the meaning of the word. In Sanskrit, “stupa” means heap, so instead of a burial place for kings, the Buddha wanted this to be a place to put the relics on a familiar stupa. The Buddha emphasized that stupas should be placed as a crossroads from now on, representing the awakened state of the mind and the harmony throughout nature and one’s self. When he died, stupas became less of a place to honor the dead, and more of a place to honor the living, for everyone to be reminded of the balance of life. “A stupa is intended to stop you in your tracks. It is an architectural representation of the entire Buddhist path. The body, speech and mind of an enlightened teacher is contained therein – a reminder of a timeless quality which one senses in old monuments”. It is said that sometime in 3rd Century BC, the ashes of Buddha were excavated and scattered among 84,000 stupas that were within his empire.

The Great Stupa of Dharmakaya has meaning behind everything. Barbara O’Brien writes an article trying to describe the teaching of dharmakaya for most who do not know. The name “Dharmakaya” comes from the teaching that a buddha has three bodies: dharmakaya, sambhogakaya and nirmanakaya. Dharmakaya is the idea of the Absolute; in other words, it is the basis of the universe and unity of all things. The Shambhala Mountain Center is in the middle of nowhere in mountains that swallow most things up; this teaching shows us that the Stupa is something more than we see it in the modern world. It can be everything and all things surrounding it and all beings who enter it, belong there all together. “The basis of the original unbornness”, is how Chögyam Trungpa has described this idea. 

Chögyam Trungpa is whom the Stupa was built in honor of. He was a great meditation master, head of multiple meditative lineages, and leader of a large monastic community. With the demise of the Tibetan culture, Trungpa decided to take time to self-reflect and meditate on the state of the world and how he could help at all. The state of the world that he saw was in need of guidance towards compassion and wisdom that the ancient kingdom of Shambhala once represented. 

Shambhala Mountain Center was named after the ancient kingdom and the legend of Shambhala. The legend of this great kingdom came about when it is said that the Buddha had given a special teaching to the first sovereign king. From then on, Shambhala was legend to be a harmonious, compassionate, and wise kingdom throughout its leaders and citizens. The instructions of these teachings have been preserved and handed down to those in the lineage, holding the title “Sakyong”, otherwise known as “Earth Protector”.

The Center and Stupa have such incredible meaning. The two meanings of dharmakaya and Shambhala are put in place to remind Colorado of the teachings of peace and to remind everyone that we are all welcome in a space of growth. The ancient kingdom and demise of Tibetan culture has shown Buddhists and those who still practice traditional teaching that we can still practice harmony.

The reason for such a traditional monument in Colorado, is to bring this teaching to the western side of the world. The goal of these teachings is to create a world where anyone can share in it, these teachings exist to bring together different parts of the world and hopefully create a space where we can all understand each other. No matter who looks at the state of the world lately, it’s always in need of help in the eyes of every religion. The western world is one that influences the entire world with trends and ideology, so trying to establish traditional eastern cultures and teachings is a harder but more important task for those who want to share their wisdom.

The Shambhala Mountain Center provides classes and weekend retreats for those who fully want to immerse themselves in the dharma and learn more about what this stupa has to teach. Though they are accepting to all who want to visit for a day and learn on their own. On my journey up to the center, my feeling of not being worthy enough to be at this great religious monument came from not feeling like I fully understood why I was there. But I realized the point of the center is just to learn what you can about whatever it is you are struggling with. All are welcome no matter religion, ethnicity, gender, race; the point of the Buddhist idea is that we learn from each other and spread that wisdom as we can, even if we aren’t aware of all the meanings behind the name or the stupa itself.

In the past few months Colorado has experienced a devastating amount of wildfires, the biggest one being the Cameron Peak fire. This fire has caused the center to shut down for a longer period of time than they originally expected to due to COVID. Thankfully the Stupa remains, but the land around the center will need time to regrow and they will need time to establish their practices again. They are hopeful however with this plan of regrowth. The Center projects self growth, discover, and patience, they will rebuild their facilities with the same mind set they preach.

My trip up to Shambhala is one of the most profound adventures that I’ve taken in Northern Colorado; past all the mountains I knew and into something very unfamiliar is exactly what I believe to be the best adventures. Though I am usually too anxious to meditate, and don’t practice Buddhism, this terrain will always remind me that I don’t have to have qualifications or the perfect mindset to be at such an understanding place or to find peace in my life where I need to be. 

Credit to: Barabra O’Brien Shambhala Mountain Center

Original Pictures by Anna Eisenberg

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