As the anniversary of the earthquakes in Nepal approaches, LEVEKUNST art of life asked me to put a spotlight on architect Peter Oudshoorn’s intriguing task of reconstructing the first large-scale Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Nepal, Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling. Begun in the early 1970s by the illustrious meditation master Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche and his eldest son Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche, the temple complex has now become a university for both Tibetan and English-based studies–the first of its kind to award B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in Buddhist Studies by combining the traditional Indian and Tibetan approaches to academic inquiry with modern academic approaches. –Tracy Joosten
I came to Nepal about a year ago because I was asked to help with building projects here. Then the 7.8M earthquake happened on April 25, 2015, followed by the 7.3M quake on May 12, and these really focused my work in a one-pointed way.
A happy surprise was to find an office ready for me when I arrived, the most beautiful office I’ve ever had. Even the drawing table had already been made for me! It is a beautiful space with an inspiring view of the monastery. I can see the Great Stupa from the terrace which is also a tremendous support. So, this was a very smooth start, a good support for my work. The conditions feel like a conducive environment in which to work; the fact that the monks infuse the space with their joyfulness and openness, and the abbot, Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche, is often here, and also that the international sangha are all very nice, beautiful people, contribute to this positive environment which is much more conducive than any of the environments in which I have worked in the West.
The challenges connected with building projects here in Nepal compared to those in the West are different and come in a larger or more structural way. The workers who actually do the work need a lot of attention. In the West, they do too, but here the need for attention to detail and direct management is stepped up. The same goes for working with contractors: they need more attention and continued checks and guidance, as well as on-going discussion.
How did the idea for the new design come? What are your structural priorities?
The main priority is to provide the monastery with the support it needs to grow its activities in the future. It was most important for me to start with a master plan for the complex, which I have done, and now the focus is on the existing lhakhang (tr. assembly hall) damaged in last year’s earthquakes and what to do with it.
It was very beautiful to see how the monks reacted and responded after the earthquake. Witnessing this has informed my understanding of the needs of the community. To me, their qualities came out blazing–in no time at all, they put up shelters for people here, and then went out to over one hundred villages to help people. They provided food for five hundred people per day here at the monastery! These activities made me see that, from an international point-of-view, we think we have an idea of what the monks need and how to support dharma activities worldwide, but I understand now that the basic needs are actually the monks’ community itself: their qualities, and the development of those qualities–the nurturing of those qualities. My aim is to be able to design the master plan in such a way that the whole complex will support the development of those qualities.
Traditionally, a monastery is a very secluded environment in order to nurture such qualities. Here at Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling, the monks have interactions with the international sangha and the outside world quite often. I think how these two realities connect in the design can inform how we might protect or give a secluded, more introspective environment to the monks and then more connection to public spaces for the lay sangha. The question is how to organize this in such a way where both groups have their own spaces, as well as ample opportunities for connection and interaction, all with more clarity in the design than there is now, where people can move anywhere through the monastery without feeling the sense of being in a monastery. This feature exists in the current structures but is a feature that should be strengthened.
What kind of design points grow out of such attention?
On the larger architectural scale, it’s about how to organize spaces. Some of the models we’ve developed have more courtyards which is a traditional means in both the West and the East to create spaces for specific functions, more secluded or more public. We can have a large central courtyard, a public entrance courtyard, and more secluded courtyards for monks in different parts of the monastery. Young monks will need a different environment than will older monks. So, from an architectural point-of-view, more courtyards, and of course relating those courtyards to each other, is a design aspect that will be helpful to work with. And, I think the rest of the design will follow from that.
The details of symbolic qualities of Tibetan architecture is something I have to get to know better, and thankfully there are many people who can help with that like Michael Schmidt and Thukme Lama who worked on Thupten Chöling and many monasteries here in Asia. I think Rinpoche will guide us in a very clear way with this topic. So, seeing what will emerge from this theme is more of a process of discovery for me.
Each time I look at the existing monastery and make an analysis of its qualities, I am more and more impressed. It looks like a relatively simple building at a cursory glance, but if you look at how it’s organized, it is really like a beautiful mandala with the monks’ quarters climbing up toward the highest point. You enter through the front gate and see how the main façade of the building works with the elevation; it capitalizes on perspective as it recedes into the distance and into the height. It’s very beautiful. It has the stability of a mountain and at the same time the more ephemeral quality of something that vanishes into space. These details are then combined with very simple ornamentation which supports the elegance of the whole, relatively simple design. So, I am learning from the existing qualities of the monastery; it’s very important for me to keep these observations as the guidance for the design process.
Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche was the main original designer of the monastery in the traditional sense. Apparently, it was a part of all of his qualities that he designed the monastery and the statues inside the main temple. That’s a fact of tremendous strength and power to realize–I can connect with his qualities and, if possible, use them as guidance for the new design. I didn’t meet Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche in person, but I met Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche four or five years ago now, and somehow I feel there is a strong connection between me and Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche as well. It’s difficult to say that he is the reason I am here, but somehow I feel that there is something that guides me, a connection that supports me, or makes it logical for me to be here.
Do you see any parallels for Tibetan-style temple designs in other cultures?
This is part of the discovery that I am in the middle of–I think it’s clear that Tibetan architecture developed in a very specific, isolated situation. High plains, a very strong climate which significantly shaped temple design: thick walls, small openings, not a lot of light inside, with beautiful wooden details. We know that wood was very difficult to obtain, and that was the context in which Tibetan architectural style developed. In a parallel way, gothic architecture developed in Europe in reliance upon specific technical conditions. People were able to construct higher arches like flying buttresses outside gothic cathedrals, large windows, etcetera. It was the technological development of the time combined with the idea of creating a space that would reflect the divine quality–high, airy, spacious–where light was the main substance in the cathedral that inspired the gothic style to come together. In both cases, the technological development actually informed the architectural style.
So, it’s not just developing some idea about architecture and then making it, it’s the whole cultural and technological condition that gives rise to a specific form of design. To reflect on the design details developed 1,500 or 2,000 years ago in Tibet and then consider how present day conditions support just about anything we could wish for in terms of materials and technological possibilities is an exciting prospect.
What is interesting for me is that despite the 1950s diaspora of Tibetan culture, most of the Tibetan temples I have seen in Nepal are built using concrete. Design details made from wood that you see in traditional Tibetan architecture are now being reproduced in concrete. It’s a very weird transition from something that had to do with craftsmanship and special, prized wooden materials simply transferred into using a material that is very easy to work with. For me, this is a very big question–you lose something in that transition. It will be interesting to see if we can understand the intention of the traditional design and consider how to preserve that intention in this modern environment. What are the important qualities preserved in the original design, and can we bring them into the modern design, and with that, into the quality and the feeling of the spaces?
Facilitating this kind of work in Nepal is not difficult, but it is not simple either. Things are very pragmatic and limited because of the technology and craftsmanship on one hand. On another, there is perhaps one of the world’s strongest developments of craftsmanship right here in the Kathmandu valley in the Newari tradition. It would be very interesting to connect the Tibetan and Newari traditions as they have a history of influencing each other, or to see what Newari craftsmen would say how to build a temple. This is not so much about symbolism, but more about how to make something.
As I said, the symbolic process is a discovery for me of what means what. And, this is something that has been lost in the West; study of symbols was hardly part of my education as an architect. On the other hand, I know, with 25 years of experience in building, that you really have to know how to make something in order to support any ideas about symbolism. Ideally, it would be beautiful if both the material aspect and the conceptual aspect could be combined. In architecture, both sides need to be present, like the previous example of gothic architecture. You cannot have the technology without an idea, nor the idea without the technology to support it. A bit like wisdom and skillful means, yes? I think that’s a good parallel, but of course from a more mundane level.
To what extent can you let playful creativity be a part of the design process?
It has to be always! One thing I realize after I met the dharma five years ago is that creativity is basically about being open. You have to be as open as possible. That, for me, is the design condition–the mental condition–that you have to be in in order to produce or come up with something. I say, ‘Come up with something’, but the process is more that something comes up. I discovered this in the beginning of my studies: if you load yourself up with all sorts of conditions that inform the design–like the site, the materials, like ideas, like problematic aspect, like function, all the proper things that you need for the design–then give all of that space, or openness, something will come up. This is the amazing process that we call creativity.
During my studies, I tried to figure out exactly what was happening in that process; I still haven’t figured it out. I don’t think it is possible to figure it out, but in a certain way, dharma gives a perspective on that. If you are really open, then things will arise, and exactly that which is necessary will arise. I think the more open you are, the more precise it will be. At least, that’s what I think now. In the first years of my studies, the ideas that came up were still very much informed by ego considerations like pride and status–wanting to design something that would be perceived by people as beautiful, extraordinary. There was a certain ambition and arrogance which defined what came out of the creative process; it was still constrained. I found that the less you cling to these ego-considerations, the more relaxed you are, the easier the creative process becomes, and even in a more precise, accurate way. Solutions to problems come easily, and they are more amazingly accurate, and appropriate. This is very interesting to experience–the more you let go, the more appropriate the things are that come up. It feels like a gift.
The six options for the redesign that we have now for the new temple complex are in a certain way–especially the ones that came later–just as much a surprise to me as it might look like from the outside because it simply comes up, and I am like, ‘Okay, yes, this feels good, or seems appropriate.’
One difference compared to my current process is that during my studies, I was so taken by learning this process of effective creativity that a concept would arise in the mind and I would directly take hold of it and fall in love with the idea thinking, ‘Wow, this is amazing! I came up with this idea!’ which already limits the potential and the possibilities of it. Now, I feel that there is no need to do that. The idea can simply be the idea and it doesn’t feel like I am the one who comes up with it anymore. The idea simply arises and I have no control over it; it simply appears. It’s detached from personal ownership, you might say. This detachment makes it easier to deal with all the processes that come after you present an idea. Usually, I would see input from people as a difficult thing to deal with because it would constrain what I imagined would be best. Now, it’s much more open and relaxing, and I am also able to facilitate people giving their input in a precise way. In that sense, the design has become a more enjoyable, social process. First, it was a very personal process; now it has opened up and the design has grown in that way and become much more broad.
Photos by Peter Oudshoorn, Ali Williams, and Tracy Joosten.
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