“A chapel in the form of a Stupa”
In 1987, a group of Buddhists from the Athens centre were walking with Lama Ole in the mountains of Corinth on a road that had been destroyed by the rain. We were looking for a place suitable for short meditation retreats. When we reached our destination, Lama Ole’s inspiration was the decisive factor to purchase the land: he had a vision of the protector Mahakala, “Black Coat.” Together we sang the invocation of the protectors and made the promise to develop our activities for the benefit of all beings here. Lama Ole named the site “Karma Berchen Ling” — “The place of Mahakala.” At this time, our lineage had already existed for already 15 years in Greece, and it was a big step to want to build a place for retreat and a Stupa.
Until then, our connection to Buddhism had consisted of our trust in the teachings and the regular activities in the weekly program of our centre in Athens. Our biggest achievement, with which we could test our building skills, was the renovation of a building at Sonierou Street 15a, from September 1984 until May 1985. The building had been given to us as a gift by the Mangari family.
The attitude of the local population and the church toward our plans was diverse. In the time to come, it became clear that our success would not depend on our building skills, rather on our ability to adapt to these social situations. The term “Buddhism” either was completely unknown by most of the population or was associated with unreliable and dangerous sects rather than with recognised philosophies and religions.
In Greece, as well as in other European countries, Buddhism has spread because there is a need for a tested philosophy and psychology that deal with the daily and existential problems of modern human beings. However, conservative groups in Greece couldn’t see the need of Buddhism in a country with previously established philosophies and religious traditions. There were law suits between the Karma Berchen Ling group and the Orthodox diocese of Corinth, but this helped us clarify our position and the respective relationship.
One year after the land had been purchased, the construction work began at KBL with a manually driven machine for the production of bricks. Lama Ole had brought it to us from Columbia in 1989. The original plan was, after constructing the meditation place and the facilities for the activities of the centre, to develop the infrastructure of the site and ultimately build a stupa. Lama Ole had repeatedly encouraged the building of the stupa in the most south-eastern point of Europe, in order to protect our freedom. Also the words of Tsechu Rinpoche had embedded themselves deeply in our minds: “The construction of a stupa leads to growing peace in the whole area. It protects the freedoms and the equality of the people. To build a stupa, positive outer and inner conditions need to appear, both in the practitioners and in the society.”
The political issues within our lineage in 1992 however, didn’t create good conditions for the construction of the stupa. Yannis, Dora and Yorgos even had to go to court to ensure that our group could use the site because followers of the other Karmapa-candidate wanted to prevent us from going there. In 1994, a summer course took place at KBL with Lama Ole Nydahl. The court definitively placed Karma Berchen Ling under the responsibility of the group lead by Lama Ole.
In January 1996, our unsupervised facilities in the snow-covered mountains were burnt down, something that showed us just how serious the situation actually was. Through this event, the international team responsible the Karma Berchen Ling – with Patricia and Alex as main coordinators – realised the severity of the conditions in Greece at that time. Tsechu Rinpoche said that it would take ten years for the growth and the activities in KBL to continue again.
In the following summer, together with Lama Ole we decided which steps to take next. In the following years, we built new facilities and developed a better exchange on a human level with the people in the area; in this way, an environment of trust and security appeared. When the ministry for education and religion gave us permission to found and run our centre in Athens, they also invited us to participate in the Olympic Games in Athens, which provided us with a strong foundation of respect and acceptance in the society. Since 2003, we have been trying to obtain the building permit for the construction of the Kalachakra Stupa. Due to the previous conflicts we had with the church, we took a strictly legal approach. But as there had been no similar precedent in Greece, and the laws don’t support the growth of other religions, obtaining the permit became very difficult. A whole series of documents was sent back and forth between the different administrative agencies and our group in an effort to find an adequate way to grant us the permit. The fact that the phrase “religious construction” didn’t exist in the legal terminology of the ministry of education and religion made the situation even more difficult. They would only accept the terms “Temple” or “Chapel.”
Our presence at the Olympic village (see article from Sören Hechler in “Buddhismus Heute” magazine #39) enabled us to finally get the proper information from the ministry. The “soft pressure” exercised from our side started to have an effect; the authorities realised the potential risk that the “freedom of religion” issue would pose for Greece, at such a delicate time, if it were to reach the broader public. A decree issued by the high court finally granted us the legal means to achieve our goals.
In the summer of 2005, the 17th Karmapa, Trinley Thaye Dorje, visited us for the first time. His visit was the culmination of the work of many people over many years. He blessed the site, did a Mahakala-invocation and mentioned in a speech that we would have a chance to develop and grow through the obstacles we encounter. We were especially fascinated when he said that he would like to do a retreat at KBL sometime in the future. During a course with Lama Ole a short time thereafter, many friends signed a petition stating that we would like to build and run a “chapel in the form of a stupa” there.
The bureaucratic hindrances were quickly overcome, and the petitions of Lama Ole and the members were handed over to the ministry of education and religion. Two months of the usual exchanges followed with the respective authority, in which we could present and discus our activities personally. On Wednesday, 30 November 2005, the ministry decided to give us the building permit for the construction of the first stupa in Greece, a great moment for our activity and for Buddhism in general at the most south-eastern point of Europe.
Lopon Tsechu Rinpoche’s prediction was truly remarkable: exactly ten years after our facilities had been burnt down, “the growth and activities of KBL to go on again.”
By Yorgos Diakofotakis