Legacy Project Helps Prepare For Fire At Shambhala Mountain Center

Post 26 of 28

Last month, the High Park fire in northern Colorado burned more than 80,000 acres of forest and threatened the Shambhala Mountain Center, established by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in 1971. The center is the home to the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya, the monument built to honor Trungpa Rinpoche. It houses many important body and speech relics of the Vidyadhara Trungpa Rinpoche and many precious art objects.

John Perkins, past director of the Shambhala Archives and an expert in the preservation of historical monuments (he worked on the Egyptian pyramids and the Buddhist cave at Dunhuang) stepped forward to offer his services to prepare the stupa for the fire, should it come to the land. John and I wrote to Jon Barbieri, the Executive Director at SMC, to suggest that John Perkins come up to the land. Within a day, we had a go ahead and John was on a plane to Denver.

The Legacy Project came forward with modest funding ($1,500)  to cover John’s airfare, car and other expenses to get to SMC. We didn’t have time to raise the funds; we just reached into our small bank account and came up with this amount! You are welcome to contribute to help defray the costs.

Here are John’s reports and his photos, showing the work he did to protect the Stupa. To everyone’s relief, the fire stopped short of the Stupa — but it was good to do the work to prepare and points out the need for disaster planning for our lineage treasures.


John Perkin’s Reports on the Protection of the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya at Shambhala Mountain Center
FIRST REPORT: June 24,2012

The stupa  is the best defendable building on the land because of it’s solid concrete construction and siting.  Since it contains precious artwork and objects the first priority is to do all we can to get maximum protection. The SMC crews have been watering the lawns and placing precious objects inside.

The stupa’s massive solid concrete walls offer excellent protection but the windows are vulnerable to the intense radiant heat of a forest fire.  To give you a sense, I was told the temperature of the fire is likely to be in the 1500 degree range for 2 hours. If windows break because of this the interior would suffer serious smoke, heat and possible fire damage. The radiant heat can go right through glass and ignite interior “fuels” in the firefighters lingo.

So the first priority is to place metal screens in front of the glass starting with the most vulnerable window in front of the mahakala.  Yesterday we erected scaffold to which we will attach sheet steel in front of the window. The advice from forest fire experts was to shield the glass from radiant heat leaving an air space behind to vent the conducted and convected heat.  You can see the structure and the first layers of steel in the second photo.  We expect by the end of the day today to have this completed.  We hope the screen will protect the mahakala window and the mahakala too while allowing him to keep emanating protection outwards in the southerly direction.  Every evening the remaining staff gather in front of the mahakala to do the protector and evening chants. Friday night it was a very powerful experience.

Next we will turn our attention to protecting other windows by attaching steel sheet via various methods.  After that we will do another survey in consultation with Jon, Joshua, Bob and Lindy on things that we can move into the stupa.  There are some objects still in the stupa support building that we will move too- moulds etc. for the decorative elements of the stupa. We will also move the Vajradhara thanka over the main entry door.

Once we have everything inside we will then seal all the fire doors with metal tape and block off the stairwell to the upper floors to prevent a possible chimney effect should we have a breach.

It was 95 degrees yesterday with gusting winds and low humidity, what the fire managers call a red flag day. The fire is a lurking presence just over the hill and we see the giant smoke plumes each time we look up.  The fire flares and subsides and moves in response to many factors and it is impossible to predict what will happen.  We may have a few more days to prepare, maybe longer or maybe only a few hours.  It may not come at all. So we are taking one priority at a time, one moment at a time.  We will do what we can under these conditions.

The staff of SMC have been marvelous.  It is inspiring to see the dedication and expertise and level of preparedness and continuing cheerfulness after such a long time of stressful and uncertain conditions under which they work.  Last night Jon hosted a dinner for the 16 remaining people on the land. We had a pasta feed and everyone cleaned up and dressed up.  Thanks Jon.

Two SMC staff were assigned to work with me (thanks Austin and Zane) and Bob King and Lindy came up yesterday.  Bob will help today but he also has his own land to protect.  It is wonderful to be working with them again. Thanks you two.

So we are cheerfully going on.  Thank you Carolyn for instantly supporting this work and thanks also to Jon and Joshua for being so welcoming and supportive. And thanks to the SMC staff on the ground for all their help.

Baring evacuation that could come at any moment I will keep working until we feel we are ready. I am available until July 11 when I must return to renew my Mexican visa although i am checking to see if there is a consulate nearby where I could do this.

Ki Ki So So….. Andale!

SECOND REPORT:  June 26,2012

It’s strange but the fire seems to be much less of a presence today. With the departure of some of the crew for a few days rest it seems even more quiet.

Yesterday we finished covering all the stupa windows with sheet steel and we removed  the parasols. Today we protected the window behind the standing Buddha to a height of 8ft.- all we could reach.  We are now cleaning up our debris and installing a smoke/air barrier at the stairs to the second floor. We want to minimize any chimney effect if a window breaks.  We are moving more materials , what you might say second priority stuff,  from the stupa support building to the stupa and organizing the storage in the main hall.  By the end of the day today stupa access will be restricted to the level of the mahakala and the main hall.  The fire doors will be sealed. I gave John Olm a tour and we worked out a protocol for the final steps in closing the stupa in case of evacuation.  I think we have now done what we can to defend the stupa itself while leaving it open in the main hall for practice.  We are all confident that even in the worst case the building and the contents will be safe.  Whew…

Also yesterday we tested a spray fire retardant called Barricade on the decorated tababs. Bob King is using this product on his own house and the research shows it to be very effective. Our test with their home owner kit that Bob brought over was disappointing. He’s talking to them today for more info but we suspect we just need a more robust system which they make and costs about 5k.  The logic is that if we , and by that i mean the firefighters can spray the protection on the tababs within 8 hours or so of the fire coming we can most likely save all the decoration.   To Jon Barbieri, there are logistics implications of this so we are not advocating getting the system but I wanted you to know about this for future consideration.

In fact, if you have time when you are back on the land I’d like to have a short meeting with you on a number of things like how long i might stay and what to do, how we eventually undo what we’ve done and how we can capture what we’ve learned and incorporate it into a disaster plan for future use.

The rest of today is for taking care of smaller items. I will take a video/pics of the contents of the support building as a make-do inventory for insurance purposes.  Somehow I’ll figure out how to email it .