The West’s largest Buddhist stupa rises in Spain
Benalmádena’s Enlightenment Stupa is a karmic surprise amid the Moorish minarets and ancient Christian steeples.
Dressed in dark jeans and jacket, Dizi Btissam fingers a motorcycle helmet as she listens to a young man with thick eyelashes and wavy hair. Behind them, a gilded statue of Buddha looks benignly down at a row of poinsettias.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
“He is not a god,” Ivan Baez explains, as a low tremolo of chants filters through the sound system. “For us he represents the natural qualities that we all possess but that are obscured by our emotions, personalities...”
He is interrupted by the jingle of a cellphone from Ms. Btissam’s pocket. She dashes outside to answer. Mr. Baez smiles. He wears a collarless cotton shirt dyed the deep red of uncooked saffron, and he gives the impression that life is equally good whether or not Btissam returns. She does come back, though, minutes later, to listen without further interruption as Baez speaks about enlightenment, about “resting fully in what is” and experiencing “our highest potential.”
Buddhism is not what I expected to learn about in Spain. As I drove along the coast south of Malaga, my mind filled with the sound of lapping waves and the imagined clack of castanets. I pictured the rhythmic arches of Cordoba’s mosque and the intricate floral carvings of the Alhambra. The last thing I expected to see, rising above the guardrail, was the gold spire of a stupa, a moundlike monument that commemorates Buddha. And it was huge, soaring 108 feet high and stretching 82 feet across at the base – the largest stupa in the West.
Granted, this is Andalucia, a region known for its history of religious diversity. In many towns, the church bell tower encases an older minaret. In Cordoba and Toledo, 14th-century synagogues feature intricate Moorish carvings. And ensconced among Cordoba’s grand 10th-century mosque is a Roman Catholic cathedral. These are the legacies of La Convivencia, the time between 711 and 1492 when Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived peaceably together in lively intellectual and artistic exchange.
But a Buddhist stupa? What is it doing here?
• • •
Stupas began as funerary mounds containing relics of Buddha, and they have evolved into highly symbolic monuments that commemorate events in the life of Buddha and enshrine holy objects and prayers. They vary geographically, and the Benalmádena stupa, which commemorates Buddha’s enlightenment, conforms to the Tibetan style: an irregular dome that flares at the top and narrows at the base, resting on a square, tiered platform.
Usually these monuments appear where there is a thriving Buddhist community, and this is where the Benalmádena stupa breaks with both Buddhist and Andalucian traditions. When Toledo’s synagogue was built, the city’s Jews were wealthy and politically influential. Similarly, Spain’s great mosques and cathedrals were built by the rich and well-connected members of their respective religious communities. But Spain’s Buddhists, though increasing in number, don’t coalesce into a socially or politically relevant community. As elsewhere outside Asia, most Buddhists here are converts who gravitate to one of many Buddhist traditions, including newer variations combining Buddhist practice with Christian beliefs.
This isn’t to say that the Benalmádena stupa is devoid of political overtones. “The target may be other Buddhist groups,” suggests Martin Baumann, a professor of religion at Lucerne University (Switzerland) who researches the political impact of religious buildings. Many Tibetan Buddhists believe that their tradition is the purest. “In this way,” Dr. Baumann adds, “the Dalai Lama and other lamas are seen as being the carriers of unpolluted spirituality.” Built in strict accordance with traditional prescriptions and rituals, the stupa thus gives Tibetan Buddhism high visibility in the West’s Buddhist landscape.