When we travel on a fixed route from A to B, we often miss so much in between. We’re so focused on getting there on time to check in, eat dinner, or do whatever we plan to do that we don’t stop along the way. Of course, if we’re planners, we do the research and plan extra stops into our itinerary. And if we’re wingers, we might just build in the time anyway and take it as it comes. We follow the signs.
We were heading to the Kreinbacher Estate in Somlóhegy for dinner and a wine-tasting. Check-in was a 3 pm. The journey would take less than an hour. So we left at 10 that morning, just to make sure we’d have time to stop if anything caught our fancy along the way. A sign pointing to an old cemetery or a ruined castle or a roadside market – anything.
Driving out of Zalaszántó, a village that was once home to the fab Florridora’s Pantry, an English tearoom in the middle of the Hungarian countryside, we remarked on how we’d never before driven through it. We’d come for tea more than once, but had never ventured beyond the corner. I’d a vague notion that there was some big Buddha somewhere in the ‘hood but I’d no idea where or what to expect. And then we saw the sign – Stupa.
I hung a left and drove until the paved road ended. Then we hit the dirt roads with their potholes and weed-ridden centre lines. Poor old Ime took a battering. At one turn, some people had parked and were walking uphill. The sign said another kilometre. I kept driving. Finally, we could go no further. About ten cars were parked and a handful of people were milling around the stand selling all things Tibetan. Wind chimes, incense sticks, prayer flags, posters of sayings from the Dalai Lama. The bells sent out their messages in the breeze and the waft of incense made an already humid day slightly headier. We walked further, passing a meditation centre on our left and more stalls on the right. I was excited about seeing Buddha. But I’d gotten it wrong.
We had seen our fair share of stupas in Thailand but somehow my brain had difficulty transporting one to Hungary. I was missing the connection. But there it was, in all its glory – the largest stupa in Europe, built in the village of Zalaszántó by a chap from South Korea. Could it get any stranger?
Zalaszántói Sztupa stands 30 metres high and 24 metres wide. From its perch, some 316 metres high on a hill above Lake Balaton, it has a beautiful view. It’s home to some tiny pieces of Buddha’s remains that made their way from Tibet via India and Switzerland only to end up encased in Zalaszántói Sztupa, reportedly making it the only place in Europe with a Buddhist relic and a holy place of pilgrimage. The idea belongs to Bop Jon (Jin Sui Lí), a Buddhist monk from South Korea who was part of the Buddhist Peace Foundation in Hungary. Back in 1990, he was on the lookout for a country in the midst of a regime change where he planned to build a stupa to represent peace, happiness, and enlightenment. But he also needed somewhere where the locals would be amenable to accepting of the Buddhist tradition. somewhere construction would be facilitated rather than hampered. Mayor Zoltán Huszti Ferencz issued the invitation and the rest, as they say, is history.
Using donations from South Korea, Hungary, and Austria (some 40 million HUF, equivalent to about 630 million today), the stupa was erected between March and September of 1992. And on 17 June 1993, the 14th Dalai Lama, Gyo Tendzin came to Hungary to dedicate it. By 2007, the weather had taken its toll; the stupa had to be refurbished and rededicated. Today, it’s a gleaming beacon of peace and serenity in the middle of a forested hill – the aerial view must be spectacular.
While I’m well-versed in Roman Catholic rituals and have a reasonable grasp of Protestant ones, I’m a loss as to what to do with Buddhism. We sat at the base, waiting for someone to stride confidently forth and begin. We weren’t looking for tourists, like ourselves… we wanted someone who really knew what they were doing. We didn’t have to wait long to find someone we could mimic.
We walked clockwise around the lower Pradakshina path and then the middle and then the top, where we paused and paid homage to the golden statue inside the glass casing. The top pradakshina was lined with 50 prayer wheels that we brushed as we passed. We did this three times, sending our prayers out into the world. The first time I counted – I had to. The second time, I tried to think of a Buddhist or Hare Krishna chant but failed miserably. The third time I prayed. It was lovely.
On the way out, we passed by the meditation centre again, not realising it was a temple, too. Next time. And there’ll be a next time. Of course, we stopped to buy some wind chimes and prayer bells – I love the sounds they make. There’s a lot to be said for the simplicity of Buddhism and more to be said about following the signs.