An American Buddhist Holy Site Near Fort Collins, CO

What is perhaps the largest Buddhist monument in North America is situated in the mountains outside of Fort Collins, Colorado. The monument, a stupa, was constructed between 1988 and 2001 to house a relic from Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa (1939-1987), whom the Shambhala Mountain Center celebrates as important for his role in advancing Tibetan Buddhism in the West.

The Great Stupa of Dharmakaya at Shambhala Mountain Center

After navigating several miles of dirt roads, the visitor comes upon an information booth and parking area. A short hike is required to attain the stupa, though motorized travel is allowed for the disabled. This hike takes one past ponds and groves of aspen. Then, the final approach is a concrete walkway, leading the visitor past a birdbath-like bowl, which is heaped with donations.

The stupa itself stands 108 feet tall with a base diameter of nearly 200 feet. The design is intended to evoke the shape of a sitting Buddha, though vaguely so, in a stylized and symbolic manner. Near the top of the white tower are figures of a sun and moon, and above these sits a jewel symbolizing the perfection of nirvana. A portal on the exterior of the third level reveals an atypical walking Buddha (Buddhas and bodhisattvas are more often portrayed seated in serene reflection), which is supposed to represent the ambulations of Chögyam Trungpa in the West. The stupa has three levels, the lowest of which is open to the public, which is also atypical.

The Interior Buddha

Within the doors, the visitor encounters the great figure of Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical Buddha, clothed in the orange robes of the Buddhist clergy and seated in cross-legged meditation. Fine tile work covers the floor, which is also littered with meditation mats. Niches in the walls are filled with devotional offerings, like the bowl outside, and including money, both real and sacramental; photographs of clergy and laity; and a diverse array of trinkets–toys, watches, figurines…

Within the Buddha rests the skull of Chögyam Trungpa. The Great Stupa was consecrated with the relic in August of 2001 in a ceremony led by Chögyam’s son and heir to the Shambhala Mountain Center, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche.

The Lesser, Heart Stupa and a Shinto Shrine

The property of the Shambhala Center includes more than the Great Stupa and the center itself. At the forest’s edge, one finds a lesser stupa, called the Heart Stupa, which is a small ornamental structure, too small to have an interior.

The greater surprise is a Shinto Shrine to Amaterasu hidden up a trail in the pine forest, perhaps a gesture toward a pan-Asian sentiment.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has visited the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya and presented the shrine with his blessing.