Bloomington’s Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center & Kumbum Temple

Kumbum Chamtse Ling Interfaith Temple, Bloomington, Indiana

Kumbum Chamtse Ling Interfaith Temple, Bloomington, Indiana (photo by Lori Erickson)

One of oldest and most important centers for Tibetan Buddhism in the United States is located in Bloomington, Indiana: the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center & Kumbum Chamtse Ling Temple. The site has surprising ties to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, part of whose extended family lives in the area (see The Dalai Lama’s Family in Bloomington).

The eldest brother of the Dalai Lama, Thubten Jigme Norbu, escaped Tibet in 1950 and, after being granted political asylum by President Harry Truman, became a professor of Tibetan Studies at Indiana University. Though he had been a high lama in Tibet, when he left his homeland he gave up his monastic vows and later married. Throughout his life he was a passionate advocate for his nation, helping to publicize human rights abuses in Tibet, campaigning for Tibetan independence, and educating students about his native culture and religious traditions. In 1979 he established what is now the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center. Over the years the center has grown to include nearly a dozen buildings on 108 wooded acres in the southwest corner of Bloomington. This is a sacred place, with a peaceful and contemplative atmosphere.

Buddha at Kumbum Chamtse Ling in Bloomington, Indiana (Lori Erickson photo)

Buddha at Kumbum Chamtse Ling in Bloomington, Indiana (Lori Erickson photo)

After passing beneath an ornately decorated Tibetan-style gate, a winding road leads to the cultural center, which houses a library, gift shop, meeting room and educational displays. Here people can learn about the distinctive features of Tibetan Buddhism, which arrived in the Himalayas from India in the ninth and tenth centuries. In Tibet, it mingled with indigenous, shamanistic religious practices, producing a tradition that is distinct from other forms of Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism places particular emphasis on the idea of bodhisattvas, Buddhas who have pledged to forego final liberation until all sentient beings are enlightened. It also stresses the development of compassion and believes that its esteemed teachers, known as lamas, have the ability to return over multiple lifetimes. While the Dalai Lama is held in highest reverence in Tibetan Buddhism, there are other reincarnated lamas who are also honored as enlightened teachers.

On a more prosaic note, I was amused to learn in the cultural center that butter sculptures are also a feature of Tibetan Buddhism. As an Iowan, I’m used to seeing such creations at the Iowa State Fair (including, most notably, a life-size butter cow). In Tibetan Buddhism, butter sculptures are traditionally made by monks from yak butter and dyes, though one can use cow butter, fat or wax if one’s yak herd is meager. The designs are typically made for the Tibetan New Year and, in addition to being beautiful in themselves, are a symbol of impermanence.

As you drive farther into the complex, you pass two tall stupas (known in Tibetan as chorten). The first stupa, the Jangchub Chorten, was dedicated by the Dalai Lama in 1987 in memory of all who have lost their lives in the fight for freedom, including the millions of Tibetans who have died since the Chinese invasion. The second shrine, the Kalachakra Stupa, was dedicated by the Dalai Lama in 1999 as a symbol of world peace. A popular spiritual practice is to walk around the dome-shaped monuments, praying and meditating.

Tibetan prayer wheels at Kumbum Chamtse Ling (Lori Erickson photo)

Tibetan prayer wheels at Kumbum Chamtse Ling (Lori Erickson photo)

On the grounds, I was particularly intrigued by the Mani Korlo, a structure containing large Tibetan prayer wheels. The bronze wheels come from the Kumbum Monastery in Tibet and contain more than 800,000,000 copies of the Om Mani Padme Hum mantra, a central prayer in Buddhism. It is believed that when a person reverently turns the wheel (always in the direction of the sun), blessings will be bestowed upon all suffering beings.

The heart of the center is the Kumbum Chamtse Ling Temple. Chamtse Ling means “Field of Compassion” in Tibetan, while Kumbum is the name of one of the most important monasteries in Tibet. Upstairs is a residence for monks as well as a two-room suite for the Dalai Lama (he has been here six times). Downstairs is a shrine room, bookstore, reception room and kitchen.

Before we entered the shrine room, our guide translated for us a Sanskrit sign above its entrance. “It says that all who enter this room should have a pure heart, so please lay your negative thoughts and worries outside this door,” she said. “Don’t worry–you can pick them up again on the way out.” (Would that Christian churches had a similar sign!)

Shrine room at Kumbum Chamtse Ling Temple with spiritual teacher Geshe Kunga (Lori Erickson photo)

Shrine room at Kumbum Chamtse Ling Temple with spiritual teacher Geshe Kunga (Lori Erickson photo)

In keeping with the temple’s interfaith mission, in addition to Buddhist statues, ornamentation and iconography, the shrine room also contains sacred objects from a variety of other faiths, from a Koran and Jewish shofar to an Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. Members of eleven traditions helped consecrate the temple in 2003: Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Methodist, Society of Friends, Bahai, Jewish, Hindu, Shinto, Sikh, Unitarian, and Native American. Muhammed Ali, a Muslim, was a special guest who co-hosted the ceremony with His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Interfaith symbols at Kumbum Chamtse Ling Temple (Lori Erickson photo)

Interfaith symbols at Kumbum Chamtse Ling Temple (Lori Erickson photo)

Fittingly, when Thubten Jigme Norbu died in 2008, his body was cremated on the grounds behind the temple and his ashes were interred at the altar. Without his efforts, this center would not exist, and his benevolent spirit is still honored here.

Recognizing the importance of this center in the worldwide Tibetan Buddhist community, the Dalai Lama has named it Kumbum West, an institution that is meant to be the western counterpart of the original Kumbum in Tibet. Buddhist teachers and scholars from around the world frequently visit here to offer teachings.

Another indication of the center’s importance is that the Dalai Lama appointed Arjia Rinpoche as its director after Norbu’s death. Arjia, a Tibetan lama of Mongolian descent, is one of the most prominent Buddhist teachers and lamas to have left Tibet (rinpoche is a term meaning “precious one” and is a title given to highly esteemed teachers). He is the author of Surviving the Dragon: A Tibetan Lama’s Account of 40 Years under Chinese Rule. (I had a delightful visit with Arjia Rinpoche that’s described here: Tea With Arjia Rinpoche.)

I like to think of those prayer wheels spinning blessings out into the world, through the neighborhoods and city streets of Bloomington, across the farm fields, over the woodlands, and far across the ocean and mountains to Tibet:

As Wind carries our prayers for Earth and All Life, may respect and love light our way.
May our hearts be filled with compassion for others and for ourselves.

As Wind carries our prayers for Earth and All Life, may respect and love light our way.
May our hearts be filled with compassion for others and for ourselves.
May peace increase on Earth. May it begin with me.

If You Visit: For overnight accommodations, stay at the center’s cozy retreat cottages, which are built in the shape of Mongolian yurts.

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