A new home for Buddhism

by Ron Seely, Wisconsin State Journal, April 17, 2005

TOWN OF DUNN, Wisconsin (USA) -- Disguised as a peasant, the Buddhist monk Geshe Lhundup Sopa escaped his homeland of Tibet in 1959, slipping away from the occupying Chinese over high mountain passes and, after 15 days, into India where he sought exile.

<< Geshe Lhundup Sopa is shown near Deer Park's existing temple, a wooden structure that was built as a pavilion for a visit by the Dalai Lama in 1981. Blowing in the breeze are Buddhist prayer cloths. - (Craig Schreiner -- State Journal)

Behind him was a country in despair. Other monks like Sopa were being killed. The country's political and spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, was also forced into exile and left the country the same week as Sopa.

On three return visits, Sopa, now the abbot at the Deer Park Buddhist Center just outside Fitchburg, found a changed and battered country, friends and family dead. He saw Buddhist temples in ruins, smashed into rubble by the Chinese, and the Buddhist way of life disappearing.

Such a heartbreaking history makes this moment at Deer Park all that more important to the Madison area's Buddhist community and, especially, to Sopa.

On Friday, Sopa will conduct a groundbreaking ceremony for a new temple at Deer Park. Though it won't erase the pain of what has happened in the country of his birth, it will be a joyful occasion for Sopa and a milestone for the Buddhist center he founded in 1979 on a wooded hillside about eight miles south of Madison.

At a time when Tibetan Buddhism is facing such a trial in its homeland and when old and revered temples are falling, it is heartening, Sopa said, to be involved in designing and building a new temple here in America and, especially, here in Madison where he came to teach at UW-Madison in 1967 (he's now a professor emeritus) and eventually settled.

So important is Deer Park and the new temple to Buddhism in this country that the Dalai Lama will come to help open and bless the temple when it is completed in the fall of 2006. Sopa and the Dalai Lama have long been close friends and Sopa was, in fact, one of the young Dalai Lama's teachers in Tibet. The Dalai Lama has visited Deer Park several times and came in 1981 to conduct the Kalachakra initiation, one of Buddhism's most important ceremonies which had never before been conducted in the West.

The Kalachakra took place in an open pavilion that had been built especially for the occasion and was eventually completed to become Deer Park's current temple. But that building, Sopa said, is made entirely of wood and is showing its age and becoming crowded.

"I was thinking something a little more solid," said a smiling Sopa during a recent interview.

For his reputation - he is one of this country's most sought-after Buddhist scholars as well as a respected spiritual leader - Sopa is exceedingly modest and soft spoken. Yet the importance of this project to him is evident both in his enthusiasm and in the stories told by those who have worked with Sopa to design the unique building.

Eric Vogel, with VAST Design Collaborative, is the designer of the temple. It is more than a building project to him, also. He's a practicing Buddhist who spends time at Deer Park and knows Sopa.

"Geshe Sopa is our direct collaborator," Vogel said. "We're really translators."

Much of Vogel's work, then, involved putting onto paper the building that is in Sopa's mind. What is the temple, Vogel asked, that Geshe Sopa sees?

That building, Vogel said, has turned out to be a melding of ancient Tibetan building practices and modern American architecture. In shape and color the temple will look for all the world as though a traditional Tibetan temple has been tucked into the hillside at Deer Park. Yet inside the traditional stone and sloping walls will be a steel frame. It will make use of modern building materials yet will feature ornamentation and artwork fashioned by Tibetan artisans who will be brought from Tibet and will live at Deer Park during construction.

And this will be a thoroughly modern and "green" structure with geothermal heating and cooling, a 7-foot clerestory to let in natural light for reading and solar panels.

Vogel, who has visited temples in Tibet, said the rough masonry, the stone, and even the placement of the temple into the side of the hill may seem vaguely familiar to the people of Wisconsin. That's because, he continued, the state's own Frank Lloyd Wright was influenced by the design of Tibetan temples and other buildings.

The only photograph on the wall of Wright's Taliesin studio, Vogel said, was of the massive Potalla Palace in Lhasa. The palace seems to grow directly out of its stone mountaintop just as many of Wright's buildings would seem so much a part of their surroundings.

So it will be with the new temple at Deer Park.

"It will be strongly reminiscent of Tibet," Vogel said, "but also meant to reflect Wisconsin as much as Tibet."

Translating the needs of practicing Buddhists and incorporating them into an American design has been both challenging and fascinating, according to Peter Szakowski. He's the project manager for the Bentley Co., a Wisconsin construction company known for its work on churches that was selected by Deer Park as the general contractor for the temple.

This project, Szakowski said, has been unique. He fondly recalled a long session with Sopa at which the main discussion was about designing a vestibule where there would be room for the shoes of temple visitors (shoes are traditionally removed before entering a temple).

Or there was another conversation, Szakowski recalled, in which builders were interviewing Sopa about traditional ornament on temples, including an architectural feature known in Tibetan as a "pembay," a band encircling the top of the building. Both Vogel and Szakowski said Sopa recalled in vivid detail a time when he was a boy in Tibet watching out a window as workers constructed a pembay. He remembered them bundling wood and cutting it and packing it into place on the roof and he remembered the deep red color, an important feature.

Using Sopa's memories, the designers came up with the idea of using precast concrete to capture the authentic look of the pembay.

While he has taken great interest in such building details, it is clear that Sopa is most excited about the building as a place for people to practice and for scholars to study. He speaks fondly of having a permanent home for Deer Park's extensive collection of Buddhist texts. And one of his great concerns, Vogel said, has been having enough natural light by which to read in the temple's great hall.

Others have been inspired by Sopa's enthusiasm. Many materials for the temple have been donated, most notably all of the limestone, which will be provided by Bob Coughlan, who has a background in Buddhism studies and runs Mankato Kasota Stone in Mankato, Minn.

Another important patron is Frank Tsou, a friend of Sopa's who has organized a Friends of Deer Park group in his hometown of Las Vegas. He has contributed extensively to the project and is paying close attention to progress. Such interest and support is coming from around the world, from Taiwan and China and India.

Tsou, like Sopa, sees the temple as a promise that Buddhism will always have a home in this country, on a hillside in a grove of oaks outside Madison.

"I think the benefit will go beyond generations," Tsou said.

Sopa summed it up simply: "I see," he said, "a long future."