Most people visit Sedona, Arizona to marvel at the red rock walls and spires of sandstone surrounding the town. But on the west side of town, amidst the 14-acre “Peace Park,” another red structure rises from the landscape, this one built by human hands as a place of spiritual refuge and awakened compassion.
The Amitabha Stupa is a 36-foot structure built in 2004 as a monument to the Buddha. It stands not far from the base of Thunder Mountain and a rock formation known as Chimney Rock, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.
Stupas are thought to be the “body of Buddha.” The original stupas were mounds of earth where religious leaders or king were buried. After the death of the Buddha, his ashes were divided and buried in eight mounds and stupas became, at his request, reminders of awakening.
Stupas have been built all over the world to purify negativity, ease suffering, bring about awakening and compassion, and protect beings from illness, famine, poverty, and war. The word stupa comes from the Sanskrit stup, “to heap up, pile, elevate.”
A sacred and consecrated site
The Sedona’s Amitabha Stupa was born of a vision from Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo, the founder of the Kunzan Palyul Choling centers for compassionate practice, activity, and outreach, headquartered in Poolsville, Maryland.
In the 1990s, Jetsunma began offering retreats in Sedona and fell in love with the red rock landscape. When she came upon the site, she felt it was the perfect place for a stupa, said Wib Middleton, one of the Stupa’s caretakers and a member of the spiritual community that helped build it.
The site is believed to be sacred to native peoples, used in ceremonies over centuries, Middleton said, adding that Fung Shui expert Lillian Too deemed it a site of perfect alignment. When the Jetsunma’s sangha learned the land was going to be subdivided, one of their members bought it.
But building a stupa is no simple task.
“In Sedona, any kind of building is a process. We needed a master plan,” Middleton said.
They also needed a stupa builder, of which there are only a few in the world. They found Tulku Sang-ngag Rinpoche of Santa Fe, who traveled to Sedona every few months for a year and a half to oversee the project, Middleton said.
Under Tulku’s oversight, the builders would translate procedures from Tibet in Arizona. “Some necessary things for stupa-building don’t exist here, like a yak bone,” Middleton said.
Built in the image of Buddha Amitabha—the Buddha of Limitless Light—this particular Stupa symbolizes enlightenment. Several hundred feet away a second, smaller stupa is dedicated to Tara, the mother of all Buddhas and was the first stupa in Arizona, Middleton said.
Visiting the Stupa
While stupas exist all over the world, not all of them are easy to get to. To visit the Amitabha Stupa, you can hike over a series of trails or drive through a residential neighborhood and walk up a narrow red-dust footpath across a dry wash and up a small hill. The day I visited early in the morning, a blond woman in a long, flowing dress was making a video of herself near the Stupa with a GoPro. Another man wearing flip-flops with tattooed arms was meditating on a bench in front of the structure, Native American flute music coming from his phone next to him. Throughout the morning came hikers with walking poles, several people with dogs (allowed on leashes), and a visiting Buddhist lama from India.
Each visitor stopped to look at the Stupa. Some sat to meditate. Many walked around it three times, as is custom.
“When you’re done walking, it’s important to close your practice with a prayer to self and others, reaching as far as you wish,” Middleton said.
It is said that simply standing before a stupa is a blessing and can cleanse the soul. But making an offering or an intention for others can magnify that blessing.
Body of the Buddha
“A stupa represents the potential of enlightenment. It’s the living presence of Buddha,” said Middleton.
Every aspect of the structure has meaning related to transformation and awakening. The Stupa itself is said to represent the body of the Buddha in meditation, “a cosmological map for enlightenment,” Middleton said.
The foundation and base symbolize the 10 positive actions of body, speech, and mind as well as the three spiritual refuges: the Buddha (the enlightened mind), the Dharma (the Buddha’s teaching) and the Sangha (the spiritual community).
Above the base is the throne, which is surrounded by four steps representing the first four paths on the enlightenment journey. The Stupa’s spire, cast in bronze, was handmade by a local artist and adorned with Sanskrit matras.
All stupas also have a “tree of life” at their center, created from a straight cedar trunk to represent the central channel and life force of the stupa. A stupa is carved into the top of this channel and thunderbolt is carved at the bottom.
While people can not go inside the Stupa, it is filled with auspicious items or, as Middleton said, “a mystical reality.”
Miniature stupas called tsa-tsas, made with clay molds, were assembled by people adhering to a strict diet and offering special prayers. Each tsa-tsa is filled with a printed mantra scroll and placed inside the monument.
Also inside are mantras (as many as a million per page) printed on special continuous strips of paper rolled tightly into cylinders, purified by saffron-infused water, and covered with colorful cloth and ribbons. Grain and shovels to counter hunger and famine; homeopathic medicine for healing; and water, rocks, and earth from around the world, are also placed inside.
“Everything is created very purposefully to produce extraordinary amounts of virtue in the world,” Middleton said.
An opportunity for healing
Every Sunday, the sangha holds an official meditation service on site. But the Stupa is open everyday for people come observe, meditate, pray, or walk.
As caretaker, Middleton opens the altar everyday, fills and empties water bowls, and tends to the prayer book, which he said fills up within two weeks.
Prayer flags hang from trees and are strung from the top of the Stupa, fluttering out in every direction. “We sometimes offer blank flags and people can write on them. That’s a popular thing,” Middleton said. “So many people come and are moved. Sometimes they start crying and don’t know why.”
Paula Lockwood, a massage therapist, has brought group of participants in a smoking cessation wellness retreat she’s helping to facilitate.
“It is an important place for people going through transformation. It’s designed to send prayers to the world but it also works personally for your own intentions,” Lockwood says.
Her clients practice various religions, she says, but the Stupa offers something non-religious and non-dogmatic. “It’s a way of acknowledging a higher power,” an idea particularly helpful for people struggling with addictions. “We can use the tenets of Buddhism to our benefit. If Buddhism says everyone suffers, we can all connect to that from our own experiences,” she says.
Middleton agrees that the Stupa offers an extraordinary opportunity for healing. “We’ve heard a lot of stories over the years of people overcoming illness and disease, sometimes spontaneously,” he said.
This is because offering prayers at a Stupa means they go off into the universe and magnify, Middleton said. And they are for everyone, no matter one’s religious beliefs or affiliation.
“They’re indiscriminant and powerful virtue machines, pumping compassion into the world 24-7.”