The Great Stupa and The Rinchen Terdzo


The Great Stupa of Dharmakaya at Shambhala Mountain Center


The Shambhala Terma and the Rinchen Terdzo

The symbolism of the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya, the Buddhist monument at Shambhala Mountain Center that commemorates Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, is a way to understand the context for the Rinchen Terdzo in Shambhala. The general Buddhist path, the vajrayana traditions of buddhism, and the Shambhala terma are all neatly brought together in the symbolism of the stupa. A stupa is a living architectural representation of the Buddha, of the path, and of the awakened state of mind within us all. The form of a stupa is designed to symbolize the form of the Buddha in seated meditation upon a throne. The exterior details of a stupa represent the various stages of the path—from initially meeting the dharma, to developing a stable mind of practice, to finally realizing the complete enlightenment of a buddha. This is one reason why seeing a stupa can be profound and liberating.

After Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche passed away in 1987, His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, one of the Vidyadhara’s main teachers and close friends, oversaw the planning of the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya. The stupa is part of a larger vision to build stupas at eight major Shambhala centers. These eight stupas are to follow a particular motif, the eight deeds of the Buddha, eight major occurrences in the Buddha’s life. The first stupa, the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya, is a Descent from Heaven stupa. It depicts the moment the Buddha returned to this world after spending three months in a celestial realm teaching the dharma to his mother, Queen Maya, who had passed away a week after the Buddha’s birth.


The Buddha in the First Level of the Stupa

Inside, the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya has three levels. These present the buddhist path and practice from the perspective of the Shambhala teachings within the greater framework of tantric buddhism. One of the main features of the first floor of the stupa are an eighteen-foot tall statue of the Buddha teaching the dharma. Painted on the ceiling is the mandala of Kalachakra, the earliest tantra. The Kalachakra was taught by the Buddha to King Indrabhuti, the first of the seven dharmarajas or dharma sovereigns of Shambhala. These seven proceded the 25 Rigdens, the universal sovereigns who are also central figures in the Kalachakra tantra.

While the teachings of the Kalachakra are the most detailed presentation of vajrayana practice found in the tantras, it is traditional that the empowerments for these practices are offered publically to anyone who’d like to receive them. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche asked the Very Venerable Kalu Rinpoche to bestow the Kalachakra empowerment on the Shambhala community in 1986. The Kalachakra was again given to Shambhala in 1995 by His Holiness Pema Norbu Rinpoche when he enthroned the current Sakyong. The first floor of the stupa represents the general dharma tradition of the Buddha along with nirmanakaya aspect of buddhahood, a buddha’s compassionate manifestation in this world.

The second floor of the stupa houses a three dimensional representation of the mandala of Chakrasamvara, one of the main yidams (meditation deities) of the Sarma tradition, the buddhist schools that came after the earliest tradition in Tibet, the Nyingma. Chakrasamvara is a major practice of the Kagyu, the practice tradition that Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche upheld along with the Nyingma. The practice of Chakrasamvara is done widely in Shambhala. It is also one practice traditions maintained at Surmang Dutsi Til, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s home monastery in Tibet. The second floor of the great stupa represents the Sarma or new school vajrayana traditions as well as the sambhogakaya aspect of buddhahood, the radiant display of the mind of wisdom.*

The uppermost level of the stupa is home to a statue of Vajrasattva, the transcendent buddha who is the union of all yidams (meditation deities). Vajrasattva is often the presenter of the Nyingma tantras. The third floor of the stupa represents the Nyingma lineage teachings, the original Buddhist tradition in Tibet, as well as the essential, ungraspable aspect of the mind of buddhahood, the dharmakaya. Above Vajrasattva, painted on the interior of the vault at the base of the spire to the stupa, are paintings of the eight vidyadharas, the eight realized Indian teachers who taught the mahayoga tantras and practices. The mahayoga practices, in particular, the terma revelations of them, make up the foundation of Nyingma practice today. The mahayoga practices are also the largest section of the Rinchen Terdzo and take around two and a half months to bestow.

Another major feature in the uppermost chamber of the stupa is the base of the sokshing, the massive wooden life-force pole that runs through the entire spire of the structure. The sokshing represents the central channel, or yogic meridian, of the body of a realized meditator. If one is looks at the entire stupa as the body of a buddha, the sokshing is the core of the energetic body. The life-force pole has many texts calligraphed in golden letters upon it. The main text is The Letter of the Black Ashe. This is one of the principle termas that the Vidyadhara Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche discovered while in the West. The presence of The Letter of the Black Ashe on the sokshing marks the guiding vision for Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s presentation of the dharma in the west, the Shambhala teachings. Shambhala is likened to an umbrella or a parasol protecting the buddhadharma in general.

If we look at the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya as a presentation of the teachings coming down from above, we see can see the stupa as a presentation of the entire path moving outwards from the Shambhala terma. From the central realization of the teacher comes the Shambhala dharma. Around this are the eight vidyadharas, the source of the mahayoga practices that are likened to the ground for realizing dzogchen. At the base of the life force pole is Vajrasattva, the embodiment of all the yidams, symbolic here of the eight logos practices. The mahayoga section of the Rinchen Terdzo follows a similar layout; Vajrasattva is initially presented in the tantra section as the embodiment of all the yidams.

Another theme here is the three floors of the stupa. The realization of the mind of enlightenment, the ungraspable dharmakaya, comes first, and out of that comes the creative display of the sambhogakaya, the second level. Finally, the teachings descend to our world with the nirmanakaya form of the teacher, someone who communicates with us directly, face-to-face, in ordinary experience.


The Great Stupa

This brief description of the interior symbolism of the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya gives a sense of the interconnections between the Shambhala terma, the vajrayana dharma and the buddhist path in general. While the Nyingma teachings are symbolized by the upper level of the stupa, when the Sakyong pointed out these features to me, he emphasized that because all vajrayana teachings come from purity there is no conflict between one practice or another. For example, during the height of the ecumenical movement in Tibet there wasn’t the hard line between Kagyu and Nyingma practice that we find in some Western academic presentations. Surmang, like many others monasteries, has retreat facilities for both Kagyu and Nyingma styles of practice. These two traditions complement each other. And in Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s vision, both are protected by the central channel of the Shambhala vision and teachings. 

*  The difference between this and the first floor of the stupa is that the sambhogakaya is related with mind’s energetic display rather than something visible in everyday life. The sambhogakaya is said to be experienced through meditative realization, whereas a nirmanakaya—the form of a buddha, a statue, or a realized teacher for example—is perceivable in the everyday world.


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