The Story of the Life Pole of the Tashi Gomang Stupa

In this post we interview two of the original builders and artisans of the Tashi Gomang Stupa back in the 90s, and examine some of the sources of the stupas’ unique character and energy: in particular, the tsok-shing, or life pole.

Crestone, Colorado, Thanksgiving morning 1989. A team climbs up to a tall juniper tree on the mountainside, carefully cuts it down, drags it to a pickup and takes it to a barn where it lies for five years. A tree that would be essential to the building of the Tashi Gomang Stupa – as the central axis, the tsok-shing life pole. 

Since its beginning in North America, the Tibetan dharma has had to contend not only with the many different linguistic and political cultures of the West, but also with the special geographic and geomantic conditions encountered while finding correct locations for its dharma centers, sacred spaces, and particularly, its stupas.

What is that makes a stupa more than just a stone memorial? What is it that gives each stupa its own particular dynamism?

It has to do with both what is contained within the stupa as well as where and how it is placed in its surroundings.

All stupas contain what we call relics, objects that are imbued with the blessings of teachers and enlightened beings. By putting these inside the stupa it empowers the stupa with these same blessings.

In a stupa, all the relics, ritual objects and mandalas are centered around a central vertical axis: the tsok-shing, or life pole. This life pole is carved from a suitable tree which has its cardinal east side specially marked. Here geomancy pays an important role in the creating the particular sort of energy that radiates from a stupa.

The person who cut down the juniper tree that forms the center of the Tashi Gomang Stupa, Paul Kloppenburg, had a few obstacles before him, both finding and marking the true east of the tree before it was cut, as well as attempting to respect as much as possible the old Tibetan traditions.

Paul “It was important most of all to find true east on the tree, but also to bore an identifying mark carefully enough that it would still be identifiable, even after we eventually carved it into its traditional obelisk form. According to tradition, the cut had to be made by someone whose parents were still living. That was not my case, so I had to give it a lot of thought before starting to cut. 

“Traditions are not always kept necessarily; things have to adapt – and in a way this keeps things alive. There’s a certain flexibility. In Tibet you might see things done one way and you get on your horse and ride a day and a half to another valley and, surprise, they’re doing things a little differently.”

After the tree was felled and thoroughly cured for five years, the tsokshing pole was carved by Bo Wiberg into the shape of an obelisk, with a half dorje (vajra – thunderbolt) at the bottom and a small stupa at the top.

Bo: “I think they selected me to carve the tsok-shing because I have done things like that before as a goldsmith, carved in bone and horn and other materials. I had always wanted to carve in wood. Paul helped me cut the juniper into a tapered square pole. I didn’t know how to do that precisely. But he had an idea using electric tools and we put up some planks to get some straight lines. 

Two of the sides were easy, the others more difficult. I’ve been told that it’s because it’s a red juniper tree, compared to white juniper, more prevalent elsewhere. You can work more easily with white juniper – the grains are much easier and steady. The red juniper here in Colorado is more difficult.

The carving of the ‘half dorje’ at the bottom is actually a sculpture depicting four water monsters, a kind of naga serpent described to me by Khenpo Tsultrim Rinpoche. At the top I carved a miniature stupa.  When it was done, I cut inserts in the east side of the tree, and we carefully placed relics of great masters in these.”

Precious relics were placed in the life-force pole while the tsok-shing was painted, inscribed in gold with the Buddha’s teachings, and wrapped in silks and brocades.


Bo: “A young monk from Bhutan came and spent a week inscribing. gold mantras all the way down the tree, from the top down in a continuous spiral.” 

The installation of the life-pole and its crowning with a spire, sun, moon and jewel was a dramatic moment. Lamas stood on the hillsides watching. The tsok-shing was lifted by a crane, and Paul and a friend maneuvered it to lower in precisely the correct orientation – with the east side of the life pole facing the buddha in the portico – down to a resting spot on the second mandala.

Using the hole bored into the tree five years before, the final placement of the tsok-shing was aligned towards the front of the stupa, towards “Stupa East” – taking the energy of the sunrise-facing side of the tree so that its power could shine out towards all those facing the stupa. The stupa could then be sealed and its function as energizing presence could begin to be fulfilled.

Paul: “When I was in Vachon Island near Vancouver in 1974 we asked Chôgyam Trungpa about stupas and building them in a new land. And he said putting a stupa somewhere in a new land is like Padmasambhava’s activity when he came to Tibet. And here the function of the stupa would then have a subjugating quality, magnetizing and pacifying aspects of the surrounding areas. Especially here on the Rocky Mountain spine of the continent.”

 Bo: “Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche said that we would have to tell the spirits here what was going on with our building a stupa. Because these spirits were used to Native American traditions, and this is a Buddhist tradition. So we had to let them know in one way or another what we were doing so that they could see what it was.” 

From the moment it was built to the present day, the tsok-shing has formed an Axis Mundi in the center of the Tashi Gomang Stupa.  The living quality of the juniper tree continues to generate a vitality and warmth that forms part of the unique and powerful attraction the stupa has for us today.

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