Labour of Love

The task of building a temple at Rigpa's main retreat centre in southern France presented huge challenges for all those involved, but the results have been spectacular.

Many different words have been used to describe the Lerab Ling temple since it opened in the summer of 2006: by the thousands of visitors who have been on guided tours, by the Tibetan masters who have given Buddhist teachings in the temple, and by the many students of Sogyal Rinpoche for whom it has become part of everyday life over the past few years.

One of the words that is mentioned is ‘miracle’. It was used by Professor Samdhong Rinpoche, the Prime Minister of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile, when he attended the opening of the temple, and by H.H. Sakya Trizin, the head of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism, when he visited Lerab Ling the following year.

A miracle was certainly what those given the task of seeing the project through to completion suspected might be needed when the work began in 2003. Ever since Rigpa had obtained the land at Roqueredonde, in the Languedoc region of southern France, in 1991, it had been the wish of Sogyal Rinpoche to establish a centre that could help to make available the immense wealth of teachings in the Buddhist tradition of Tibet, as openly and widely as possible. Integral to this aspiration was the creation of the temple.

The plans submitted to the French authorities in early 2002 were for a three-storey building, constructed in the style of a traditional Tibetan monastery, and capable of welcoming over one thousand people. Building work began in November 2003 and, in July 2006, the vision was realized when the Institute of Wisdom and Compassion opened in time for the start of Rigpa’s Three Year Retreat, which is taking place at Lerab Ling under the guidance of Sogyal Rinpoche and is due to be concluded in 2009.

The attention to detail was painstaking throughout, from the Tibetan masters who advised on the location of the temple and the building process, the officials who examined the plans during a public inquiry, and from the many different building contractors who worked together on the site.

The construction project presented a unique set of challenges for all those involved. Authentic principles of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition had to be integrated with the best and most appropriate of modern techniques, and a team of skilled artists and craftsmen from Tibetan communities in India, Nepal and Bhutan had to be assembled to work on the entire finishing and decoration. The remote location and unpredictable weather conditions added to the scale of the task.

The foremost concern throughout was to respect the authenticity of the spiritual traditions that were the source and inspiration for the project. A number of the most eminent Tibetan teachers and scholars were consulted, including His Holiness Sakya Trizin, Kyabjé Penor Rinpoche, Kyabjé Dodrupchen Rinpoche, Kyabjé Trulshik Rinpoche, His Eminence Dzogchen Rinpoche, Khenchen Pema Tsewang and Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche. Trulshik Rinpoche, for example, generously provided guidance and advice throughout; he visited Lerab Ling in 2003 to bless the site of the temple, and returned in 2005 to give teachings and empowerments at what was the first major event in the new building.

Every feature of the temple was drawn from the best examples to be found in Tibetan monasteries in the Himalayas. The temple design was originally inspired by the monastery of Rumtek, in Sikkim, northern India. Other monasteries in India, Nepal and Tibet were also studied, and the roofs of the Lerab Ling temple were modelled on those of the Potala Palace and the Tashi Lhunpo monastery in Tibet.

The result is perhaps one of the most authentic examples of Tibetan Buddhist architecture to be found in the West, and even in the Tibetan communities in exile in India.

At the same time, the temple features a number of modern innovations not seen before in traditional monastery design. 
At the suggestion of Sogyal Rinpoche and the architect, floor-to-ceiling reflecting windows were introduced on the ground floor to give panoramic views of the surrounding countryside, and a glass pyramid was installed above the main shrine in order to illuminate the centrepiece of the temple, the magnificent seven-metre-high statue of the Buddha Shakyamuni.

Throughout the process, Sogyal Rinpoche held and continually refreshed the vision of the project, and his mother Mayum Tsering Wangmo was a constant source of encouragement and support for the workers. Mayum-la has seen eighteen monasteries and temples built in Tibet during her lifetime because her family, the Lakar family, have been great benefactors of the Buddhist teachings in Tibet for more than seven centuries. A photograph taken of Mayum-la as she marked the installation of the Lerab Ling temple’s first pillar became one of the enduring images of the project (see page 59).

Another expert who played an integral role in almost all of the key stages was Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche. It was he who, along with Khenchen Pema Tsewang, advised on the exact location of the temple in 1998. He also carried out a ceremony to bless the land before construction began, and helped to select a team of Burmese craftsmen to work on the main statue of the Buddha.

At the time of the Chinese occupation of 
Tibet and the subsequent ‘Cultural Revolution’, almost all of the monasteries, libraries and great centres of learning in Tibet were razed to the ground, in an unprecedented wave of violence and destruction. Of the six thousand monasteries that once flourished in Tibet, only twelve survived intact. In light of this, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Samdhong Rinpoche and many other masters have observed that the temple and centres like Lerab Ling could play a vital role in helping to preserve the unique spiritual traditions, art and culture of Tibetan Buddhism, which are now so endangered in their homeland.

The construction of the temple took place against a backdrop of incredible generosity. The total cost of the project was eight million euros, all of which came from donations from friends or students of Rigpa. The need to raise funds fired everyone’s imagination and sparked a colourful variety of benefit events and activities, including a lively and unforgettable auction that was held during a retreat at Lerab Ling in August 2003, in the presence of Sogyal Rinpoche and Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche.

The end result is a structure that has drawn the admiration of Tibetan lamas, Dharma students and visitors alike. Since the temple opened its doors to the public, more than twenty thousand people from all around the world have travelled to Lerab Ling, arriving in a remote valley in southern France to marvel at an immaculate temple that could blend seamlessly into the landscape of the Himalayas.

As Samdhong Rinpoche observed during his visit to Lerab Ling, “I am very happy to see how this temple has come up, like a miracle, and to notice how, even in a Western country like this, you have been able to keep all the architectural details totally in accord with the Tibetan tradition…I have seen many huge temples, houses and monasteries. At first sight, they may appear very imposing and elegant but it is very difficult to translate the minute details presented in the Buddhist texts into concrete and cement. That is precisely where this temple is so special. Looking from the inside and the outside, I have noticed that everything has been made or constructed exactly according to the proportions and design given in the texts. So this temple will play a very large part in contributing to the spiritual and cultural heritage of Buddhism and Tibet.”