Evicted stupa finds good karma in Carnuel - Albuquerque Journal

Evicted stupa finds good karma in Carnuel

This Tibetan stupa was evicted from the grounds of the Petroglyph National Monument after a complaint about a religious structure on federal property. It found a home with John Ojile, a Tibetan Buddhist lama, on his property in Carnuel. A stupa is considered a representation of the Buddha's enlightenment and seeing one is considered a blessing. That's good news for travelers on Interstate 40 through Tijeras Canyon, where the stupa can be glimpsed on the highway's north side. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)
This Tibetan stupa was evicted from the grounds of the Petroglyph National Monument after a complaint about a religious structure on federal property. It found a home with John Ojile, a Tibetan Buddhist lama, on his property in Carnuel. A stupa is considered a representation of the Buddha’s enlightenment and seeing one is considered a blessing. That’s good news for travelers on Interstate 40 through Tijeras Canyon, where the stupa can be glimpsed on the highway’s north side. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

CARNUEL – John Ojile is well over 6 feet tall and he has the bearing of a holy man, which he is. A carpenter and cabinet maker by trade, he was ordained as a Tibetan lama in 1998. With his white ponytail and long white beard, he looks like a cross between Nostradamus and Jimmy Page.

When I first met him, Ojile was wearing the traditional maroon skirt worn by Tibetan monks, along with a Carhartt T-shirt and Crocs. He was sitting on a bench in the morning sun, facing a tall glowing stupa, rolling his mala beads in his fingers and reciting a mantra in Sanskrit.

The stupa looked familiar. It is the same Tibetan Buddhist shrine that stood at the Petroglyph National Monument for decades. The same shrine that was ordered removed from the park by a legal ruling that it violated the Constitution. When the stupa got its eviction notice, Ojile stepped in to offer it a home on his property in Tijeras Canyon.

It’s a fitting return, because Ojile is one of the people who built the structure back in the late 1980s on the West Mesa property of Ariane Emery and her husband, Harold Cohen. They had the stupa consecrated by a Tibetan lama and opened it up to anyone who wanted to visit.

After their home became encircled by the new Petroglyph National Monument, Emery and Cohen sold their land to the federal government and the stupa became the odd duck greeting visitors to a national monument devoted to ancient Native American rock art.

A stupa is meant to represent the enlightenment of the Buddha, and it is not inert; it collects energy from people walking around it in a clockwise direction.

“It tends to bring an inner calm and peace,” Ojile said. “If you’re having a bad time, just go and circumambulate a stupa for a while.”

This stupa is 11 or 12 feet tall, and built of formed concrete and covered with white stucco. It is filled with Tibetan relics and hundreds of pages of mantra texts.

When the stupa was at the petroglyphs, it had occasional visitors. Since it’s been moved on a flatbed to Ojile’s lane, a compromise to settle the church-state conflict, it sits on a promontory overlooking Interstate 40.

Cars and trucks whiz by by the thousands each day and, this being New Mexico, tumbleweeds are growing around its base, and a pit bull is on patrol in a neighboring yard.

“I thought it might go good up here,” Ojile told me. “It just needed a home.”

The new arrangement has been convenient for Ojile, a devout practitioner who circumambulates the stupa several times a day. But he’s also excited that legions of people will now also benefit from the stupa.

“This is a blessing for anybody who passes by it,” Ojile said. “Just passing by, there’s an energy that comes off it.” Seeing the stupa, which thousands of travelers along I-40 can do each day if they glance north and up the hill, brings even more blessings.

Speaking of karma, I’ve been questioning mine.

In 2008, I wrote a column about rumors the Petroglyph staff was preparing to demolish the stupa to make way for an amphitheater. The rumors weren’t true and the column headline said, “No need for alarm; Stupa is staying.”

That piece brought the stupa to the attention of a watchdog group of federal employees, which asked for a legal opinion about whether the separation of church and state embedded in the Constitution prohibited the stupa, a religious structure, from being displayed on national park land. The legal opinion was that it did and that the stupa had to be moved.

In Tibetan Buddhist tradition, one accumulates merit through virtuous acts and also by taking part in building a stupa or by walking around it. Merit contributes to a fortunate rebirth, as well as blessings in this lifetime.

My original column, putting in motion the stupa’s eviction, didn’t feel very meritorious.

But Ojile said it all turned out OK for the stupa.

“I’m very happy,” he said. “I’m just so glad it’s over. It’s been so uncertain. Now I think it can calm down. Government employees don’t have to worry about it, and atheists can just drive on by.”

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Leslie at 823-3914 or llinthicum@abqjournal.com. Go to abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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