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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.

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The stupa also plays into an internal dispute within one of the four principal schools of Tibetan Buddhism, the Karma Kagyu. The Dalai Lama is the most prominent international spokesman for Tibetan Buddhism and for the Tibetan diaspora. This shines the spotlight on the school he heads, the Gelugpa school. Some speculate, however, that upon his death, focus could shift to the Karma Kagyu school and its head, known by the title of “Karmapa,” as the rallying point for Tibetans in exile.

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That makes the question of who actually is the legitimate Karmapa more important. And it’s an unresolved question. The group behind the Benalmádena stupa supports Trinley Thaye Dorje as Karma Kagyu’s 17th Karmapa. Others in Spain and elsewhere support Ugyen Trinley Dorje, whose escape from his Chinese guards in 2000 made headlines around the world. Both men have been recognized by different authorities as the reincarnation of the previous Karmapa, who died in 1981.

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So much for the effects of the stupa. What about its origin? “There is always a story,” smiles Margarita Lehnert, who for many years, worked as assistant and translator for the late Lopon Tsechu Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher who, in 1994, built a 42-foot stupa at a Buddhist retreat northeast of Benalmádena. About three years later, he and Ms. Lehnert drove to the coast for lunch. The monk’s robe caught the eye of a portly man who introduced himself as Enrique Bolin, Benalmádena’s mayor.

Mr. Bolin subsequently traveled to Nepal, where, Lehnert says, “he got so impressed and found it so inspiring, that he said he wanted a stupa for his town as well.”

“There are thousands of towns Lopon Teschu Rinpoche visited in the West,” Lehnert adds, “and this was the first mayor who wanted to build a stupa. So there must be what we call a very strong karmic connection.”

Bolin, who stepped down as mayor in 2007, gave about $300,000 of public funds as well as the land, while Lehnert founded the Karma Kagyu Cultural Association, which raised about $1 million for the project. Construction began in 2001 and, before the stupa’s inauguration in October 2003, lamas “activated” it with special offerings and rituals. Lehnert explains, “because the stupa is a living monument, it’s all the time sending, let’s say, positive energy.” In this sense, it functions somewhat like a Tibetan prayer wheel that spins prayers into the universe.

When the stupa was inaugurated, Bolin expressed the hope that the monument would be an added tourist attraction. But the stupa has proved pale competition for the town’s sunny beaches and charming, whitewashed streets. This could change, though. Btissam, the young woman with the cellphone, is studying tourism at the University of Malaga, and she was gathering information for one of her classes.

And while the stupa may not physically fit in with Andalucia’s Moorish and Mudéjar architecture, the life surrounding it embodies the Convivencia spirit of interfaith exchange.

A short drive down the hill, Lehnert perches with perfect posture in her living room. Behind her, windows overlook the Mediterranean as she visits with Mipham Rinpoche, a high lama in the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, and his wife, Mayum. The Polish-born Lehnert moves seamlessly from Tibetan to English as she explains facets of Tibetan Buddhism to a couple of unexpected American visitors.