The Stupa Project

-- Three Perspectives --


Dieter Dunkel, owner of the land on which the stupa is being built:

Almost a year has passed now since Gen Rinpoche, our peerless guru and spiritual friend of immeasurable kindness, left us. On many occasions in his last two or three years he pointed out that he had taught us every aspect of the Buddha's original teachings without leaving anything out or adding anything unauthentic. He truly had dedicated the last decade of his accomplished life to turning the Wheel of Dharma in this far flung region, and it was his gift to all of us in New Zealand that he established a centre of Buddhist learning here in the far south. And at least those who were present at the cremation ceremony at Harbour Cone on the Otago Peninsular last year will understand my statement that Gen Rinpoche gave his body to bless the piece of land where it took place.

I was fortunate to have purchased this land a few months before and from the very beginning when I inspected it, and prior to negotiations and eventual settlement with the vendor, I had the wish to see a stupa built there. But I must admit that it was more than a wish. I had made a vow to build one, some years before.

It was in early 1989, still in my first year in the Dharma, when I visited Vultures' Peak at Rajgir in northern India. This is where the second turning of the Wheel took place, giving us the Wisdom Sutras which are so important for us Mahayana Buddhists. I was heading for a hilltop above the Japanese Temple to have a grand view of the whole area, where most of the hills were once topped by stupas. As I approached the summit I saw an orderly pile of old bricks which probably derived from a stupa destroyed in the time when Buddhism was eradicated in India. In true pilgrim's spirit, I wanted to add a few stones myself, but got carried away by materialistic thoughts (the more the stones the more the merit!) and gathered from amongst grass and scrub as many whole or broken bricks as I could carry. Disaster struck when I put my load on the top of the structure and realized that I had overdone it. The additional weight of my bricks had weakened and destabilized the very basis of the pile and it was certain that I could do nothing but watch it collapsing. But for some minutes I stood there and tried to ignore the inevitable, embracing the structure, feeling its instability and pushing all my weight and strength against the movement of the bricks at its base. And I pushed, and pushed even harder, but finally I had to let it all go, and about one third of the structure collapsed. Although the side of the pile which had a niche with a clay Buddha statue inside was not affected -- and the whole pile was not even a stupa anyway -- I felt in the naive way of a very recent convert, that I had destroyed a stupa and, while I was piling up the bricks again, vowed to build one in this lifetime.

And now it's about to happen! And I am so glad not to be on my own to do it, but to be part of a group of people dedicated to such a task.

We have set up the legal framework to give the Dhargyey Buddhist Centre as the body carrying out the project the right to occupy the site where the cremation took place, and that is about to be registered on the Certificate of Title. The lengthy period of compiling the Application for Resource Consent (and waiting for the response!) has finally seen its fruition: on July 15th planning approval was granted by the Dunedin City Council. In the meantime, donations from all over the world have been coming in (we can still do quite well with some more, though!) and the technical experts -- architect, structural engineer, people dealing with precast concrete, metal workers, and others -- have been drawing plans and doing their calculations and quotes. All of them were confronted with technical aspects that were absolutely new to them, and it was amazing to see with what a high level of personal interest in the project they took on their respective jobs. But first and foremost it was two people who carried the project so far in such a short time: Thupten Rinpoche who steered it in the gentle and knowledgeable way with which he inspires and guides his students, and Ani Chödrön with her many skills and her ability to stay focused on a project with all its details.

So, some of you may ask now, what's left for us to do? Well, many of you have already done essential work: gathering all those items to go into the chambers of the stupa, and then of course making all those sa.tsas, those figurines made from clay with the ground-up relics of Gen Rinpoche's holy body mixed into it. And for those who would like to do even more, or who have missed out so far on their opportunity to participate in this project of creating a place and a symbol to commemorate Gen Rinpoche, there is still a lot to be done, and your chance is now. Contact me after teachings, or leave a message with the residents at the Centre in Royal Terrace, and I'll ring you back to co-ordinate tasks and times.

The remaining structure of the Cremation Stupa needs to be dismantled, the bricks cleaned of mortar and stacked away to be used for paving a circumambulation-path around the new stupa, and the concrete base needs to be hacked into pieces and these moved aside so that the lumps can be used for a small rock-garden. These are the immediate tasks and I hope that out of this a group will evolve to carry on with the next jobs, like levelling the site in preparation for the ceremonial start of the stupa construction on August 15th, and the excavation work for the concrete slab.

Like last year, when we set up everything for the cremation-ceremony within a very few days, everybody is welcome, there is work for the strong and for the not quite so strong. But this year there will also be a wood-burner, and the tea-kettle in action in my new cottage next to the stupa-site.

I can assure you: the work you put into the project now will affect your feelings when visiting the place in future, and I leave it to you to contemplate on the merit involved.


Ani Kunzang, Dunedin's first New Zealand-born nun, was among the first westerners to think of building a stupa in Dunedin. In 1991 she produced and directed the stage play "The Importance of Being Earnest" in order to raise funds to build a stupa. Here she tells us why:

My aspiration to have a stupa in Dunedin was a bit like the shoot of a new plant in Spring: first it appears unexpectedly from the earth then one by one the new leaves show themselves.

In the early days when Buddhist teachers first came to this country, we had our meetings and retreats in church halls or university lecture rooms or some such place, nowhere of our own, nowhere Buddhist. I used to dream of a Buddhist place here, within the culture.

Then the Centres began to flourish, Mahamudra, Wangapeka: at Wangapeka I saw my first stupa on native soil, so severe, such a beautiful form and so inspiring for people to see.

The realization that of all the representations of the Buddha's body, speech and mind, this was probably the most inspiring for those who weren't yet Buddhists, was the seed.

Hearing a story taught by Gen Rinpoche about the old man who wished to become a monk and had but one virtue that would allow him to do so -- that of being in a past life a fly on a piece of dung which, because of a flash flood, circumambulated a stupa -- moved the seed to shoot.

To me Gen Rinpoche was a perfect lama and I wanted with all my heart to testify to this: how better to do this than by working to have a stupa built in the place where he chose to live and teach, when even the breeze that touches the stupa blesses all the beings it touches.

We gathered together about forty people, many from the community at large, and received help from a further twenty groups, firms and individuals to raise money to build a Peace Monument, or as Gen Rinpoche expressed it at the time, a Stupa to ward off obstacles. Together we mounted a very successful production of the Oscar Wilde classic, The Importance of Being Earnest. We worked on a shoe-string budget and managed to raise more than $5,000 for the project.

At that time we had no land to build a stupa on and no plans had been drawn up. It all seemed like a pretty long shot, so the money went into a 'don't touch' bank account.

The kindness and effort of those people did not leave my mind although four years passed, nor did the strong wish to have this Stupa built in Gen Rinpoche's place of teaching. Little prayers continued to be focused on the project.

Now, thanks to Thupten Rinpoche, Dieter, Ani Chödrön and many other kind and inspired people, including the most generous financial donor, the Stupa is about to be built. It is to be consecrated by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in September. Who says prayers don't get answered!


Ani Chödrön, architect, clay-modeller, wax-worker and draftsperson extraordinaire, gives us an idea of what has been achieved so far.

Although we had thought about building a stupa for a long time, it was not until Thupten Rinpoche arrived in March that things really got under way. A tremendous amount has been achieved since then and in all of this Thupten Rinpoche himself has been the anchorman, and the rest of us have been whizzing around him in various eccentric orbits.

The tradition of building a stupa on the cremation site of a great teacher dates back 2,500 years to the time of the Buddha himself. The architectural elements of an Enlightenment Stupa signify the moral discipline of a Buddhist monk. The four steps supported by a lotus seat signify the robes of a monk, the vase section, also on a lotus seat, signifies the alms bowl, the spire section signifies a monk's staff. The pedestal section under all of this is a reverential feature added by the Tibetans. Our Enlightenment Stupa will stand 5.04 metres high and the square base at the bottom will measure 3.36 metres on each side.

In our application for Planning Resource Consent we said that we were building a stupa out of respect for a great teacher, the late immeasurably kind Gen Rinpoche, as a source of inspiration to others and as a focus for spiritual practice. Also, as the stupa will be consecrated by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, we are asking Him to dedicated the stupa to peace in our local and global communities.

Thupten Rinpoche interpreted the texts on stupa building, which deal with the outer dimensions of the stupa, and made the first drawings himself. On the advice of Bruce Boehm, a local architect, we engaged the services of Constantine Planners and Mike Moore, Landscape Architect, and made a successful Planning Resource Consent Application to the Dunedin City Council. You may have seen an article about that in the Otago Daily Times on 17 July: "A Memorial for Portobello". The structural design was done by Hadley and Robinson, Structural Engineers, who also prepared the drawings for building consent.

Given the time constraints and the winter season, we have decided on a stupa made of off-white precast concrete. Six massive precast sections are being made by Otago Construction Ltd and will be assembled on site using stainless steel rods to connect the sections. The spire section is being made of brass by HE Gardener and Sons out of cut and welded brass sheetmetal. The upper and lower lotus sections of the spire were designed initially by Thupten Rinpoche and are being cast in bronze by Colin Howes of the School of Art, Otago Polytechnic. The brass surround to the statue niche will be engraved with a vine and jewel design by Miller Studios. So much for the externals.

The materials for the lower and upper chambers of the stupa and the statue niche are also still being prepared. The statue which will go inside the statue niche is the one which has long resided in the Gompa and was offered to Gen Rinpoche by Jesse Sartain. Jack Pritchard is carving a back plate for the statue which will be sand-cast in brass, and a wooden base for it to sit on.

Bruce McKinney worked with Jack on the life tree, paring and planing and sanding it to an excellent finish. Jack also carved a tiny Victory Stupa at the tip of the life tree and a double dorje for the foot plate of the life tree.

1,000 sa.tsas were made out of white clay mixed with Gen Rinpoche's holy ashes thanks to a marvellous collective effort by our community. Jampa Drölma won the prize for reliability and endurance and Kaari and Sönam Tenzin the prize for speed of manufacture. Everyone else won prizes too. Moulds of deity figurines were sent to us by Jampa Zangpo from Canada and Pam Englert of Wellington, and these figures also have been made out of the remaining clay/ashes mixture.

Sönam Tenzin and his band of worthies have been assiduously preparing rolls of dharanis -- rolls of prayers and mantras -- which will be wrapped around the life tree.

Some of almost all of the items on the list prepared by Thupten Rinpoche of substances to offer inside the Stupa have been contributed in greater and lesser quantities. There is still time to offer more and in particular more cloth or silk would be useful. Also needed are quantities of eaglewood, spikenard and wormword. Please contact Sönam Tenzin if you have gardens or friends with these plants. Dried fragrant flowers would also be welcome.

David Stuart and the kids, Thupten Gendun and Fran Bolger have gathered large quantities of macrocarpa and cypress which when broken into bits and dried, will be used for packing the stupa.

Of the more ordinary herbal and medicinal ingredients for the stupa, some have been sought out by Thupten Rinpoche and Sönam Tenzin in Dunedin. Other rarer ingredients have been sent from Dharamsala by Geshe Sönam Rinchen, Ani Lhaga and Tseten Dorje. Geshe Jampa Kesang of Sera Monastery has sent a small quantity of all of the three great Myrabolan medicines.

David Stuart has also been exercising his considerable artistic talents in decorating the two vases for offering to the Nagas, with frogs and fishes and flaming jewels and auspicious symbols. The vases themselves were thrown and fired by Neil Grant of Otago Polytechnic.

Our computer whizkids, Sönam Tenzin and Sönam Chökyi, have been busy preparing the Tibetan texts for the various rituals which are to come. Sönam Tenzin has produced the rituals for blessing the site and consecrating the vases, and Sönam Chökyi several consecration texts. They have also both produced other texts for inclusion in the stupa itself.

Lastly a word about finance... Back in 1992 Gregor Morgan, a professional fundraiser, told us that when you are fundraising you aim for one large donation -- the 'first significant gift' -- from the people interested in the project. This then secures several medium sized donations and many small donations. We were extremely fortunate that from an early stage of planning the stupa we had our 'first significant gift' and this enabled us to proceed apace so that things do look good for completion by 13 September (when His Holiness the Dalai Lama will consecrate the stupa). So to our major benefactor, heartfelt thanks, and heartfelt thanks also to all the other benefactors and to those of you who have yet to give or could give a bit more. Consider this a certain bet, a glorious opportunity, and contribute what you can.

Contact Dieter or Ani Chödrön for enquiries on 025 315 309 or 477 7394 or 477 8374

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