I spent my Thanksgiving in Sedona, Arizona, where I stayed in a stranger’s AirBnB rental room. For me, the big selling points for this particular housing option were its relatively inexpensive price tag and its proximity to a mountain biking trailhead. I also liked the fact that it had a patio, since the weather had turned wintry in Flagstaff, and I had been dreaming about some work time in a sunny outdoor setting.
The AirBnB listing pitched one additional selling point. “The stupa is practically in the backyard,” it said. Stupa? What stupa? I knew what a stupa was, of course, but I had no idea why one was being mentioned in this description. I booked the room for four nights and promptly forgot about all of its features until I arrived on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.
The house was as close to the trailhead as advertised, and, upon arrival, I received the standard property tour from the host. When we stepped out onto the patio (which I did end up doing quite a bit of work on), she gestured towards an adjacent patch of undeveloped land and said, “And there’s the stupa, of course, right there. You can’t walk through the yard, though; you have to go around. But it’s right behind us.”
Indeed, there it was. The sun was setting in such a way that the very top of the shrine cast a striking silhouette against the sky. Since it was too late to walk over, I decided that Thanksgiving morning would be the perfect time for exploration.
A stupa is a Buddhist monument. Typically, it is in the shape of a mound – sometimes adorned with a steeple-like needle. The inside of a stupa is filled with sacred objects. These can be relics of any nature, but quite often they are sacred texts. According to the Kunzang Palyul Choling website, the thirty-six foot high stupa in Sedona, called the Amitabha Stupa, is filled with “sacred mandalas for prosperity, well-being and peace which antidote specific causes of suffering, close to a billion mantras for peace, compassion, and the pacification of negativity, precious medicines from around the world, and earth from every continent.”
In the morning, as soon as the sun was high enough to shed my coat, I walked towards the large pink structure. Along the way, I discovered that it is the centerpiece of what is called the Amitabha Peace Park, a fourteen acre preserve. The land is owned and maintained by the Kunzang Palyul Choling community, a Vajrayana Buddhist group founded by an American teacher named Jetsunma Ahkon Norbu Lhamo. Jetsunma hired a world-famous stupa builder for this project, which was completed in August of 2004 after eighteen months of work.
The Peace Park is aptly named. As I wandered the red dirt trails that weave through the area’s characteristic pinon-juniper Sedona landscape, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of calm respect for my surroundings. The towering Amitabha Stupa watched me from above with a comforting omniscience. I passed numerous shrines and offerings – small statues of the Buddha, glass beads, God’s-eyes, painted rocks, jewelry – and was forced to think about the intentions that accompanied the placement of each one of those objects. Prayer flags of every shape, size, and arrangement are strung throughout the property; some are clearly fresh, while others have faded almost to white in the powerful Arizona sun. Benches are positioned to allow contemplative time in key locations.
A sign posted in front of the stupa reads, “It is most beneficial to circumambulate a stupa, walking in a clockwise direction, at least three times, while reciting mantra or making heartfelt prayers for the benefit of loved ones, the state of the world, or all sentient beings.” That seemed more than reasonable to me, so on each of my four days in Sedona, I did stupa laps, making sure to conclude them by spinning the gorgeous copper prayer wheels mounted alongside the central plaza.
During one of my visits, I was almost alone on the property. There was only other person there, and he was under the palapa, meditating. On other visits, there were anywhere from five to thirty other people meandering through the park. Dogs are permitted – as are cell phones, apparently, because I saw more than a few people talking on them. Sometimes, the place has a distinctively sacred feel to it, while other times it feels more like a social gathering spot. Like so many places and events, the atmosphere depends largely upon who shows up to create it.
The land is there every day, however. No matter how amazing I found the intention and execution of the stupa to be, it paled in comparison to the red rock around it. The park sits up against Thunder Mountain, an obvious feature on the Sedona skyline. There’s a half-moon of stunning orange and red cliffs around the northern border of the park that consistently drew my eye. The cliffs change shades with the light, and different layers are accentuated as shadows shift throughout the day. The contrast between the sandstone hues and the rich arrays of greens blanketing the valley floor is remarkable, and in this particular spot, impossible not to notice.
In Sedona, everyone talks about energy. Supposedly, there are four vortexes in the area – places where energy is said to be especially alive, swirling like a tornado and drawing into itself. I’m not sure about all of that, but I do know that the Amitabha Peace Park has something going for it. It might be a result of the setting, or it might be the manifestation of the power of positive thought regularly channeled into this one particular location. It might also be an outcome of something we can’t yet comprehend, something having to do with the speed of the spinning prayer wheels or the wavelengths of the mantras inscribed and buried deep in the stupa.
Whatever it is, it’s working on me. I went back to the stupa this weekend. This time I brought an offering to place in front of the Laughing Buddha statue. I figure it can’t hurt.