The Big Stupa
by Gussie Fauntleroy

Stupa Stucco

If the Karma Thegsum Tashi Gomang stupa, otherwise known as KTTG or the “big stupa,” feels powerful beyond the commanding presence of its massive size and golden-spired magnificence high in the foothills overlooking the Valley, there is good reason for this. The 42-foot-tall structure, like all stupas, is believed to radiate the very essence of enlightenment and contain the ability to transform those who behold it.

Yet even for those unaware of the stupa’s nature and role in Tibetan Buddhism, many are drawn to it for its feeling of sacredness and silent, majestic strength. And no wonder: it was created on the request of a beloved master from a long lineage of ancient wisdom teachings; designed according to age-old sacred geometry; situated on land selected for its beneficial properties and graced with the sanction of the elemental forces; built over seven years through loving, prayerful, intensely dedicated effort, and literally filled with treasures and sacred objects symbolizing life, goodness, beauty, abundance and health. And finally, it was consecrated in a joyful ceremony in which the land and sky itself appeared to participate.

As the first Tibetan Buddhist presence in the Crestone/Baca area, KTTG had its genesis in 1980 when Hanne and Maurice Strong invited His Holiness the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa to visit. The Karmapa was one of the most revered masters in Tibetan Buddhism and the head of the Karma Kagyu lineage. Responding very favorably to the land and energy here, he envisioned the area as an ideal site for the flowering of a large Tibetan Buddhist community. The Strongs donated 200 acres of foothills land for this purpose, and a stupa was planned to consecrate the site.

Zoe leads celebration

The 16th Karmapa died before his vision could be realized, but it was carried forward by one of his disciples, who in 1989 requested that construction of the stupa begin. A handful of people, including local resident and longtime Tibetan Buddhist practitioner Mark Elliott, responded to that request. Also integrally involved were longtime local residents Paul Kloppenburg, Barbara Falconer and Bo Wiberg. During the years of preparation and construction that followed, and with the advice, assistance and blessing of Tibetan lamas, every stage of the process was imbued with prayer, ritual, love, community spirit and hard work. The same qualities went into each of the hundreds of thousands of objects placed inside the stupa before it was sealed.

Among the most sacred items in the stupa are relics from the Buddha Shakyamuni and all sixteen departed Karmapas. In addition, years of volunteer labor went into a requirement that the stupa contain 100,000 miniature stupas, called tsa-tsas, each made of quick-drying cement in a small handmade mold, and each containing a tiny roll of sacred text. A statue of the 16th Karmapa was created in Nepal, assembled and gold-leafed here and placed behind glass near the top.

The 16th Karmapa.

Shortly before the stupa’s consecration in July 1996, a specially carved juniper pole, called the life-force post, was blessed and inserted into the center of the structure before the golden spire was placed on top. The life-force post is seen as the final element that awakens in the stupa the spark of life. Almost as soon as it was inserted, a calm blue sky gave way to intense wind, rain and rainbows—and everyone involved could sense the quickening aliveness, Mark relates. “It was like the elements were wide awake! In the West we separate the animate from the inanimate, but in the East everything is animate. With the consecration, the stupa does become literally alive. It actually is the Karmapa.”

“That’s what I feel when I’m up there, that this is alive,” affirms Lama Zoe de Bray, who became director of KTTG in April 2010. “Every single time I walk up there I feel like I’m walking to my beloved.” Zoe has been a Buddhist practitioner since the late 1960s and a student in the Karma Kagyu lineage since 1980. One of her first tasks with KTTG was a major restoration project on the stupa last summer, including new stucco, paint and other work to repair damage caused by weather and time. Fundraising and assistance with the project was led by Friends of Karmapa, which welcomes new members into its friendly circle.

Zoe’s aspiration for the stupa is that it become even more of a focal point for individual and community prayer, ceremony and celebration, both within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and for anyone who feels moved by the spiritual energy there. She also hopes to offer informal public teachings on a periodic basis; contact her at 719-256-5933 for details.

“It’s really nice to gather people up there with the intention to pray and send our love out to the world,” Zoe reflects. “I feel the stupa belongs to the community, but it also belongs to the world. It’s so precious. I know it is so important at this time.”

Two solitary retreat cabins are currently available year-round for short or long-term rental from KTTG. The organization is also in charge of the Ziggurat, a spiraling Zoroastrian structure on a separate parcel of land. For more information, visit A wonderful video, Eye of the Land, about the making of the stupa, is available by contacting Mark Elliott at