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The West’s largest Buddhist stupa rises in Spain

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But a Buddhist stupa? What is it doing here?

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Stupas began as funerary mounds containing relics of Buddha, and they have evolved into highly symbolic monuments that commemorate events in the life of Buddha and enshrine holy objects and prayers. They vary geographically, and the Benalmádena stupa, which commemorates Buddha’s enlightenment, conforms to the Tibetan style: an irregular dome that flares at the top and narrows at the base, resting on a square, tiered platform.

Usually these monuments appear where there is a thriving Buddhist community, and this is where the Benalmádena stupa breaks with both Buddhist and Andalucian traditions. When Toledo’s synagogue was built, the city’s Jews were wealthy and politically influential. Similarly, Spain’s great mosques and cathedrals were built by the rich and well-connected members of their respective religious communities. But Spain’s Buddhists, though increasing in number, don’t coalesce into a socially or politically relevant community. As elsewhere outside Asia, most Buddhists here are converts who gravitate to one of many Buddhist traditions, including newer variations combining Buddhist practice with Christian beliefs.

This isn’t to say that the Benalmádena stupa is devoid of political overtones. “The target may be other Buddhist groups,” suggests Martin Baumann, a professor of religion at Lucerne University (Switzerland) who researches the political impact of religious buildings. Many Tibetan Buddhists believe that their tradition is the purest. “In this way,” Dr. Baumann adds, “the Dalai Lama and other lamas are seen as being the carriers of unpolluted spirituality.” Built in strict accordance with traditional prescriptions and rituals, the stupa thus gives Tibetan Buddhism high visibility in the West’s Buddhist landscape.

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