The Great Stupa of Northern Colorado: Service and Resilience

Annie Lindgren | North Forty News

Shambhala Mountain Center in Red Feather Lakes, CO, recently renamed Drala Mountain Center, is a very special place in northern Colorado. They had several tough years before a recent Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing, but a lot of good things have happened in the meantime and they are excited about their future. Here is their story of growth and resilience.

The Great Dharmakaya Stupa. Photo provided by Drala Mountain Center.

Drala was founded in 1971 by a Tibetan Buddhist meditation teacher and is one of the oldest of its kind in the United States. Originally a Tibetan Buddhist retreat, it has expanded to include a wide range of secular and secular traditions and activities. Located in a peaceful mountain setting, the facilities offer meditation and meeting spaces, meals, lodging, year-round programs on meditation, mind and body awareness, contemplative arts, leadership, outdoor activities, yoga, among their offerings.

With its colorful decorations and golden top, the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya is an icon of Buddhist architecture and a place of pilgrimage and refuge for thousands of people each year. The Stupa is a multi-generational project that began in the late 80s and took 14 years of volunteer labor to bring it to its consecration in 2001. Spiritual leaders from around the world have visited, including the Dalai Lama. It is considered inauspicious to “finish” a stupa, so if you see scaffolding, know that it is a sign of work in progress and a reason to return again and again to see the transformations.

People entering the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya at the Drala Mountain Center for a visit.

What is the name change?

In February 2022, Shambhala Mountain Center changed its name to Drala Mountain Center (DMC) to signify its new status as a 501c3 independent educational association. Drala Mountain continues to host programs related to Shambhala International, a worldwide organization serving Shambhala centers in fifty different countries. DMC’s mission is to bring people together to experience wisdom and serve as a catalyst to create an enlightened society based on wisdom and kindness to individuals, the community and the natural environment.

On February 28, Drala Mountain Center filed for voluntary Chapter 11 Subchapter 5 bankruptcy. This came after a few financially difficult years. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the cancellation of in-person programs and retreats for sixteen months. In 2020, the Cameron Peak Fire caused evacuations, destroyed 17 buildings, and damaged electrical and water infrastructure for a total of $1.9 million in damage. In 2018 and 2019, programs were hit after a sexual misconduct scandal broke involving the leader of the international Shambhala community. Some retreats were canceled and an investigation ensued. Drala Mountain Center established a level of independence in 2020 and then completed legal independence in 2021. Changes to training policies and practices have enabled the organization to address all concerns.

Michael Gayner, executive director of the Drala Mountain Center, joined the team in 2010. He shares, “for organizations facing pandemic, fire-related or other challenges such as we have encountered in recent years, but who have a viable business model and a demonstrable path to financial stability, Chapter 11 Subchapter 5 is a powerful tool that can streamline and thereby reduce the costs of a reorganization. It’s a positive process, and we plan to emerge within about 6 months, with strong finances and much less debt.

Michael Gayner describes the importance of land formations to DMC personnel on the western side of the Great Dharmakaya Stupa. Photo courtesy of DMC.

Despite the struggles, there has been growth. They offered programs online via Zoom, received over $600,000 in donations to rebuild and repair the fire-damaged property, and were able to reopen in July 2021. Additionally, they received a matching donation of $500,000. $ from the Pema Chödrön Foundation to help pay off the debt they are on track to match. During the Chapter 11 process, DMC continues to host a range of programs and retreats and programming extends through 2022 and beyond.

While working with fire, finances and the pandemic, they also found time for interesting projects.

One such project is their forestry work, which has earned them international and regional recognition. In 2019, they received the Larimer County Land Stewardship Award for their Phase 1 forestry work. In 2021, they completed Phase II, restoring over 225 acres of forest to health. Mac McGoldrick, Senior Director of Built and Natural Environments, was recognized in November 2021 as Land Manager of the Year. They partner with many regional conservation, education and forestry agencies. Their work illustrates how fires become more manageable in healthy forests.

An ermine near the Stupa, photo by Michael Gayner

Another project is social impact work, where they partner with other organizations to provide space for retreats, spiritual gatherings and rituals, workshops and more. “We want to contribute and support organizations doing meaningful work with communities that normally wouldn’t have access to resources like DMC,” shares Michael. Partnerships vary depending on the needs of those involved, so contact us to find out more.

Preparation for Ihasang (smoke offerings) behind the Hall of Sacred Studies. Photo credit Miles Greenlee.
Demonstration of Kyudo (contemplative archery). Photo credit Miles Greenlee.
Dhi Good, Marketing Director of Drala, shares her excitement at seeing more new visitors and young attendees. “There has been a strong demand for a simple meditation teaching, without an emphasis on any particular tradition, just a simple meditation teaching. Many guests are in the helping professions and need respite, Rejuvenation and Renewal Those interested in seeing what Drala offers in programs and retreats can register via dralamountain.org.
Yoga and Meditation Retreat in the Hall of Sacred Studies at DMC

Stay tuned for a follow-up story that digs deeper into what’s going on with forestry work. Drala Mountain Center is a shining example of how good land management creates thriving environments for people, plants and animals.

Moose in the snow at DMC, photo taken by Michael Gayner from his home on the property.

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