By Daniel Scharpenburg
I was on a pilgrimage.
I was not traveling with family or friends, I was taking this journey alone.
I live on the eastern edge of Kansas, so I would have to cross the entire state—the empty and desolate plains of western Kansas—to enter Colorado. My destination was the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya, the final resting place and shrine dedicated to Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. He was the founder of the Shambhala lineage and one of the first people to bring Vajrayana Buddhism to the west. He was the first Tibetan Buddhist teacher to really and truly embrace western culture and teach in that context.
Being a devout Buddhist, I decided that’s it’s silly that there’s this great Buddhist holy site merely 10 hours away and I’ve never been there. I know a few people that have, but I don’t know if they’ve seen the journey as a great pilgrimage, as I see it.
My friend Ray Porter, who taught me “The Way of the Bodhisattva,” said that he donated to the stupa project when they were building it, but he’s never taken the trip to see it.
Being a 36 year old man, I decided it was silly that I had never seen a mountain and never gone west of Kansas.
It was a year ago that my marriage ended. Since then I’ve realized that a lot of loneliness sometimes comes with a lot of freedom. In the past year since the end of my marriage, there have been some big struggles but some good times too. I’ve made mistakes along the way but some good choices too.
Everything is different now and I am different too. I drove 1500 miles in a weekend so I could go to the mountains, so I could see a Buddhist holy site, so I could have a big experience to help me put down my emotional baggage.
My plan was to go to Red Feather Lakes, to the Shambhala Mountain Center to see that stupa and maybe hike a little and then, go sleep in Fort Collins in an Airbnb. Then, I planned to travel to Boulder Saturday to explore a little and stay at the Airbnb again, to return home Sunday.
I wanted to sit and meditate under the rocky mountains.
So, away I went early in the morning. As the sun was rising I was driving through some interesting scenery called the Flint Hills. I saw rolling hills of beautiful green grass and soon after, I entered the void that is western Kansas.
I was driving for hours before I saw giant metal windmills. They were much taller than I imagined and I liked seeing them. They were the size of trees.
Endless time seemed to pass before I crossed the state line into Colorado. I knew I still had four hours left before I would get to Red Feather Lakes, but I still felt like I had accomplished something by driving across the entire state of Kansas.
Hours later I saw them. They were far away in the distance—so far that I thought they might actually be clouds. They were mountains. A new kind of excitement flowed through me as I continued. I turned onto a dirt road to go up to Red Feather Lakes and the mountains were all around me now. I could hear my little car working harder as the elevation increased (I don’t think little cars like mine are meant to go up in mountains).
It was 3 pm when I got there.
I came to Shambhala Road and turned left and I parked my car in a parking lot with many other cars. There were signs marking the path up to the stupa, and flags all the way up the path, so I wouldn’t get lost. I could see it in the distance, poking out from behind the trees. It was majestic and beautiful, 108 feet tall.
It was a long winding path, so the stupa kept coming into view and disappearing again among the trees. I think I walked a mile or more on this mountain path.
Eventually I came upon it. I noticed a dark statue standing toward the top, built into it. I walked around the stupa clockwise once, as a sign of respect. There was a spot just outside the door for my shoes, so I left them behind and went inside.
Just inside was a shrine room. There, sitting in front of a row of cushions, (all gomdens, no zafus) was a giant golden sitting Buddha with a beatific smile on his face. And suddenly I had a beatific smile on my face too.
The floor, walls, and ceilings are covered in intricate sacred designs. My friend Lama Matt told me, “When you’re there, don’t forget to look up.” I did look up and there was a beautiful mandala on the ceiling, and little alcoves built into the walls all around, even behind the statue. These had different things in them, pictures of Trungpa, notes on his life, statues of Bodhisattvas. All these alcoves were very interesting.
I sat on a cushion at the feet of the Buddha and looked up at him.
I noticed my heart was racing and I felt a little light headed. I wondered if it was from the walk up to the stupa and the high elevation, or if it was because of the sacredness of the stupa and Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.
My head was spinning as I sat there. Then I felt at peace. I felt oneness with the statue, and the other people around, and Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and the mountain. I felt oneness with everything. I felt a dropping away of body and mind. I heard the inconceivable thunderous silence of a mostly empty universe. My sense of self was gone.
I was empty and I was emptiness and everything was bliss.
I had a timeless moment of unconsciousness and I saw the golden eternity. There was no coming or going, there was no one and no path. There was only emptiness. And love—there was love too.
I felt like I turned a corner in my spiritual journey. I felt like I had put down a lot of my emotional baggage—light and free.
It felt like some sort of transmission, like Trungpa became a part of me and my practice. Like crazy wisdom was in my future.
After an endless and deep sit, I came back to my body. I stood, opened the door, and stepped out. The sun was shining brighter, everything was infused with wonder. As I walked down the path, a deer walked right up to me. We stood for a moment, looking at each other. Then it ran off.
I made my way down the mountain.
I spent that evening exploring Fort Collins and the entire next day exploring Boulder. These were wonderful places. I saw a man in an African tribal mask playing bongos. I went to a jazz festival that had food trucks, just like the festivals here, but there was no unhealthy food. It was all kale shakes and salads and vegan burritos instead of chicken fingers and ribs like here in Kansas City, which is probably why everyone I saw in Boulder was fit and thin. That, and the bicycles. There are bike lanes on all the streets and I saw people riding bikes everywhere.
A cute hippy girl tried to sell me a pendant with a secret compartment to hide my stash in. I wondered why I would need such a thing in Colorado. I didn’t travel to Colorado to party, but I did buy pot in a store, just because I could.
I expected Boulder to be full of Buddhist temples. I only found three and the only one that really seemed like it got a lot of visitors was the Boulder Shambhala Center.
Sunday morning I returned home, bringing a little of the mountain back with me.
Editor: Dana Gornall