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17 Oct 17

Buddhists Add Unusual Touch to Bulgarian Mountain

Mariya Cheresheva

The Stupa Sofia is drawing thousands of curious visitors to a mountain near the capital of Bulgaria – a country where followers of Eastern faiths are far from common.

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After a lifetime mostly spent in Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, I have always had the self-confidence of a person who knows the hidden secrets of my hometown and its surroundings well.

This is why I was surprised last weekend when a friend suggested that we should go and see the Stupa Sofia, a Buddhist monument located near the village of Plana in the mountains, some 30 kilometres from Sofia.

She could not answer my questions about who built a Buddhist monument in a remote village in Bulgaria – a country where following Eastern religions is unusual – but she said the place was great for pictures.

So, there we were, after a short hike in Plana mountain, staring at a Tibetan Buddhist stupa, a monument symbolizing the Body of Buddha in meditation.

Situated on a plateau with a stunning 360° view to mountains Vitosha, Rila and Verila, the monument exuded a feeling of peace and harmony, even to clueless passers-by like us.

We were not the only ones that chose to spend their Saturday afternoon exploring this unusual site.  

People sat on the nearby benches surrounding the stupa, chatting and enjoying the beautiful scenery, while others just stopped by for few photos.

From a sign next to the monument, we learned that it was built in the summer of 2015 at Retreat Center Plana, a site that includes a few buildings for meetings and meditation, by practitioners of Diamond Way Buddhism. The largest Buddhist movement in Bulgaria, where most people are Orthodox Christians, it has several hundred followers.

The sign, however, did not answer the question about why a Buddhist shrine, and why here, in Bulgaria?

“We have been practicing this way of Buddhism [the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism] for over 20 years. The idea for the stupa was born in our community,” Ralitsa Golemanova, a filmmaker and member of the Diamond Way of Buddhism-Bulgaria group, told me.

Golemanova witnessed the whole process of the creation of the stupa and put it in a documentary, The Jewel, made together with director Nikolay Stefanov. The film was shown as part of the Sofia Biting Docs film festival, which took place earlier in October.

The filmmaker recalls that the Diamond Way group chose the location for the stupa around 2007-2008, when Buddhist practitioners were looking for somewhere to set up a retreat center “surrounded by nature, far from the buzz of the city”.

The idea for the monument was born later. The support of Sherab Gyaltsen Rinpoche, a respected lama [teacher] of the Kagyu way, was crucial. He agreed to lead the spiritual and practical process of construction. Another prominent lama, the Danish-born leader of the Diamond Way movement in the West, Ole Nydahl, also joined in.

“The experience was very exciting because despite being [Buddhist] practitioners, we had never spent so much time together with such lamas on a project which completely idealistic. All the work was voluntary,” Golemanova explained, adding that people from all around the world had donated to the stupa.

She explained that the Diamond Way movement has over 660 centres globally, which have not been built as places of worship but as symbols of the perfection of the human mind.

“Stupas are known in all Buddhist cultures in different ways. Their goal is to actively show us our nature, the transformation of all ordinary disturbing feelings ... in a form that inspires us and make us more useful to others and to ourselves,” Lama Ole Nydahl says in The Jewel.

According to the various Buddhist teachings, there are eight types of stupas, each of which represents an important event in the life of Buddha. The Stupa Sofia is an Enlightenment Stupa, a symbol of the moment when Buddha reached Enlightenment – the state of a fully awakened mind.

It is the only one in the Balkan region. The nearest other ones are located in Greece and Hungary.

The opening of the Stupa Sofia on August 14, 2015, brought Buddhists from around the world to the village to honour the holy site.  And, since it was unveiled, thousands of people, Buddhists and curious tourists, have visited it.

It is believed that after their inauguration, stupas become sources of positive energy, which makes them popular as places for mediation.

In the Buddhist tradition, these monuments can bring happiness and even fulfill people’s wishes, but only those that have come with good intentions.

“Everyone is welcome to come and visit. The stupa is on our own territory, but we had made it public,” Golemanova said.

She, too, warned that people should not expect the monument to magically make their wishes come true.

“The idea is for the people to circle clockwise around the stupa, making wishes, to strengthen the power of their own desires,” she explained.

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