Friday, May 7, 2010

Sakya Monastery in Seattle

Tucked into the story of Sakya Monastery in the neighborhood of Greenwood, Seattle, is also the story of adaptive reuse of a historic structure whose original purpose served an entirely different religious group. The colorful building that now houses Sakya Monastery was originally constructed in 1928 as a Presbyterian Church. Sakya Tegchen Choling center, founded in 1975 in other locales in Seattle, acquired the building in 1974 which later became the current incarnation of the center, as Sakya Monastery.

It's often interesting to see the historic cycle of spaces occupied by dharma centers. What mingles in the presence of active Tibetan Buddhist teachings in many dharma centers across North America are clear echoes of American architectural history and many other stories to be told. I am reminded of the third Tibetan Buddhist center in the US that I visited- Karma Triyana Dharmachakra in Woodstock, New York. At the time (2005) vast progress had been made on the beautiful new temple- but there also sat Meads Mountain House, which had served the Center for some years and whose rustic interiors I regret having not delved into and explored in more depth....

But staying on topic and in the realm of the Emerald City, Sakya Monastery itself has, in the past few decades, built a history of it's own. Scores of pages have been written on the relationship of media and the publicity of Tibetan Buddhism in the West and popular movies have certainly been at the forefront of this. Sakya Monastery was featured in the 1993 production Little Buddha, which tracks a fictional plot of a group of Lamas seeking the incarnation of one of their teachers which takes them to, among other places, the key location of Seattle in their search. As with other prominent films centered on a Tibetan Buddhist themes, Tibetan monks and lamas themselves were cast in critical roles.

The Pluralism Project (Diverse Buddhist Communities Make a Home in Washington), quotes a December 2003 article in The Daily:

"In 1960, drawn by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, and by the help of the UW Tibetan studies program, the only program of its type in the United States, Deshung Rinpoche, or 'Precious One' to his followers, moved his family to Seattle. Rinpoche worked with the Tibetan studies program for three years... Rinpoche’s congregation gradually outgrew a number of locations, from Ravenna to Capitol Hill to the U-District. Eventually, the large step was taken to buy the old Presbyterian church in Greenwood and convert it."

The white stupa outside the monastery is in honor of the late Ven. Dezhung Rinpoche. Dezhung Rinpoche arrived in Seattle in 1960 after forced exile from Tibet, and rooted here. Sakya Monastery is currently led by H.H. Jigdal Dagchen Sakya. It maintains the tradition of the school of Sakya, but, like many other centers, is non-sectarian in it's approach to offering a wide range of teachings from all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

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