What if there were a place where anybody could go to drop off their worries and daily stresses with the same ease as dropping off a package at the post office? And what if, in exchange for your burdens, you could receive an overwhelming sense of peace to take home with you?
According to members of the local Buddhist community, that notion may not be so far from reality. Members of the Pho Da Temple on Hawkins Mill Road are bringing a couple of high-ranking lamas to town to build a stupa, an ancient structure believed to radiate blessings and healing. They'll be breaking ground for the stupa on Sunday, September 7th.
Stupas are believed to be physical representations of an enlightened mind, with each architectural element symbolizing some aspect of enlightenment. There are eight varieties of stupas, one for each stage in the life of the traditional Buddha.
Memphis is slated to receive the "Enlightenment" stupa, a 13-foot structure with a figure that resembles a bishop chess piece sitting atop a square, concrete, stepped base. A domed "vase" is accented in gold leaf, and a golden spire stretches upward. It is supposed to loosely resemble the Buddha seated in meditation.
"The square base represents the Buddha's legs in the meditation posture, which provides a very stable basis for meditation," says stupa sponsor Katherine Hall. "The vase part is his body, which is a container for life and the Buddha nature, and the elements on up represent the more subtle functions of the human body."
The inside of the stupa is filled to the brim with an assortment of holy relics and blessed objects. Pho Da Temple is asking for donations of precious and semiprecious stones and metals to fill the stupa. They're said to act as a magnetizer of prosperity. The stupa will also contain grains to ensure a good harvest, and the base will be filled with broken knives and guns. These weapons are supposed to act as a barrier to keep negative energy away.
"There will be days on end when we'll be getting people to come and help us roll tiny mantras, prayers on paper," says Hall. "We're going to roll them up and chant mantras the whole time, and then the vase will get filled with those. It's going to be packed with stuff. If there's an inch of air space, somebody's going to stick a mantra in it."
Stupas date back about 2,400 years ago, which is about 100 years after the historical Buddha died, or, as Buddhists believe, entered a higher state of consciousness called parinirvana. The architecture of the stupa was influenced by pre-Buddhist Indian burial mounds, where sacred objects would be buried while the body, though covered with dirt, would be left above ground. This created a mound-shaped grave similar to the shape of a traditional stupa.
The monuments have just recently caught on in America. The Memphis stupa will be the first in the Mid-South, although there are a few in Oregon, Arizona, Colorado, and Maryland. Action-film star and Buddhist Steven Seagal commissioned the same two lamas who will be constructing the Memphis stupa to build one at his home.
Those lamas, Tsewang Seetar Rinpoche and his brother Lama Pema Tenzin, have been to Memphis before. The idea for a Memphis stupa came during a 2001 visit to the Pho Da Temple. While the brothers were in town to create a sand mandala at the Memphis College of Art, they stopped off at the temple and met with the abbot, Thich Hong-Minh. When the abbot learned the two were trained in the art of stupa building, he offered a piece of land, and plans were soon under way.
For the past couple of years, area Buddhists have been busy raising the funds to build the stupa, as well as funds to bring the lamas from Bhuton to Memphis. Because it is an ancient and sacred art, not just anybody can lead the construction process. Rinpoche and Tenzin will stay in town until the expected completion date of October 11th.
The materials, which include ancient relics from Bhutan and Nepal, are also costly, bringing the grand total for construction and transportation to about $25,000. Hall says they're on their way to reaching that goal but are still accepting donations through the Pho Da Temple and FoodAid.com.
It's a high price for tranquility, but Hall believes the money will be well-spent since the stupa is supposed to benefit the entire city. The construction process will be open to the public, and the completed stupa is intended to be a place where anyone, Buddhist or not, can come for a little dose of inner peace.
"It's going to radiate blessings because everything in there is blessed very specifically to radiate out. And the closer you get to it, the more effect it will have," says Hall. "I don't really understand how this stuff works. I guess it's magic, but I believe in it."
The groundbreaking for the Memphis stupa will take place at the Pho Da Temple (3943 Hawkins Mill Rd., 327-3298) from 1 to 3 p.m. on September 7th. It will be followed by a talk on stupas by Rhodes professor Mark Muesse at 7 p.m. at the Church of the Holy Communion's Cheney Parish Hall (4045 Walnut Grove).