Balancing the Elements

The Stupas of Lama Karma Chötso

In this series on Khyentse Foundation grantees, we highlight selected dharma projects supported by Ashoka or Trisong grants through open application.

In this series on Khyentse Foundation grantees, we highlight selected dharma projects supported by Ashoka or Trisong grants through open application.

Lama Karma Chötso (aka Kay Hannesson), an American nun and a Khyentse Foundation Ashoka grant recipient, builds stupas in regions where they are not just rare but essentially unknown—Miami and Peru. She is a Kagyupa of many years, having connected with the lineage and practices after meeting Dorje Chang Kalu Rinpoche (1905–89) and attending the Kalachakra empowerment he gave in New York City in 1982. She was 33, a young woman in the city, and had been asking friends where to go to learn to meditate. She’d followed up on their suggestions, checking out various teachers and centers, but none of them satisfied her until a friend returning from a visit to India urged her to attend the Kalachakra empowerment. There, meeting Kalu Rinpoche, she realized immediately that he was the teacher she’d been seeking.

“He looked at me, I looked at him, there was the connection,” she recalled in an interview for the Achim Nowak Podcast a few years ago. “It felt like a connection I’d never had before … you could tell he’d accessed a realization of the nature of mind that none of the rest of us had.”

Without looking back, she dove in. Four years later, Kalu Rinpoche ordained her as a nun, and soon after that, she embarked on a traditional 3-year, 3-month retreat, in seclusion in upstate New York.

After subsequent years of study (in particular, Madhyamaka, with Khenpo Tsültrim Gyamsto Rinpoche), thangka painting studies, and pilgrimage to holy places in India and Nepal, she settled in South Florida. There, in 1997, she started one of the region’s first Kagyu centers, in Hollywood, and proceeded to attract students. She was invited to teach at local universities, public libraries, and events. She got involved with the community as a hospice volunteer chaplain, she taught tai chi and meditation to prison inmates, and she chanted mantras to the manatees at the Miami Seaquariam and to dolphins at the Dolphin Research Center in the Keys. Word of her teachings and her dharma center spread, and eventually a substantial donation enabled her center to buy property—a four-bedroom house with a half-acre garden, in El Portal, a neighborhood in South Miami. She named the center, which is no longer operational, the Open Awareness Buddhist Center. It was directly affiliated with Palpung International under the guidance of Tai Situ Rinpoche. (The Peru center where she now teaches, Palpung Lima Chöling, is similarly under his auspices.) And she and the Florida students, after renovating the interior to include a full shrine room, proceeded to raise money and work on the stupas.

The Stupa Garden of Merit at the former Open Awareness Buddhist Center, Miami, Florida.

Eventually, they built four medium-sized stupas, gold-spired, which face the four main directions, forming the Stupa Garden of Merit. Lama believes they are the first stupas in Florida and the only ones to date. When they were up and completed, the energy was palpable, she says. They drew visitors as well as the local practitioners. “Walking in the garden, everything had changed. The energy had changed. It was extraordinary. A mile down the road I started feeling something. That’s what stupas do. They’d hooked the energy of South Florida into the spiritual grid of the planet.”

In large part because of the pandemic, Lama says, support for the Miami property foundered and it had to be sold. The new owner is not Buddhist, but Lama is confident that they will respect and maintain the four stupas.

During those years, Lama Chötso connected, through a friend, with some people in Peru who were eager to study the dharma. She began going there twice a year. Her teaching garnered interest and more students, and with them, she led a second project to build a stupa. This time, a single, bigger one: 50 feet high, located in the province of Lamas, San Martin region, in the Amazon basin. When completed it will include a shrine room, and there will also be retreat cabins and a community hall for Buddhist teachings—a local Rimé master and a Gelug group are both helping with the project. It will be called the Great Stupa of Reconciliation, named for the Stupa of the Reconciliation of the Sangha—one of the eight primary kinds of stupas—which commemorates the Buddha’s reconciliation of the disputing factions within the sangha, which had been divided by the enmity of his cousin Devadatta.

The work on the Peru stupa, Lama says, is enthusiastic and ongoing. The Peruvian practitioners are in the process of making thousands of tsa-tsas, molded votive forms a couple of inches high made of clay with precious substances. The goal is 100,000, of which about 50,000 have been completed. They will be placed inside the stupa, along with small, printed mantras on rolled strips of paper and other sacred substances being collected for the stupa’s eventual completion and consecration in 3 or 4 years, says Lama.

Mantra strips hand-painted with saffron-colored water drying in the sun. They will be rolled and placed inside the Great Stupa of Reconciliation, Lamas Province, Peru.

The benefit is for the community, of course, and the province, but also, finally, for the wider region, with one intention being to help with world peace and with the calming of climate heating. Stupas, says Lama, are structures that can change the immediate and wider environment in powerful ways. “Stupas,” she says, “balance the elements.” That is the motivation for constructing them in places such as the southern US and in South America—to awaken sacred protection energies in lands across the world.

Featured image above: Lama Karma Chötso at the Great Stupa of Reconciliation, Lamas Province, Peru, 2023.

All photos courtesy Lama Karma Chötso.