As I drive in spirals towards the Chagdud Gonpa Buddhist Centre, a compound at the top of a mountain in Brazil’s deep south, it feels as if I am nearing a heavenly experience.
I am 60 miles north of Porto Alegre, the capital of Rio Grande do Sul state, but could be thousands of miles from this place. The mist barely allows me to see the trees ahead, so this really looks like inner Tibet, no South American twist to it. The first sight as I arrive is that of a simple house where a video awaits. In the tape, a soap opera star wears funny clothes – and invites you inside. A few metres away, the voices chanting ancient Tibetan Buddhist mantras cannot hide a certain trace of a Bossa Nova lilt. Hundreds of visitors flock here in silence, but I am visiting a residing friend, who came to overcome depression. It worked for her.
Chagdud Gonpa Khadro Ling Buddhist Centre – that means “the sacred place of the sky dancers” in Tibetan – is a secret treasure. It lies in a 200 metre tall hill above an area filled with German and Italian immigrants, all very keen on chocolate and wine production. Seeing all of this from the Buddhist Centre is even more impressive, a vastitude of pine trees and multiple creeks below. It is a scenario very untypical of Brazil, but this piece of Tibet was placed more than 700 miles away from the tropics anyway.
The first thing anyone notices upon entering the Centre is the colourful buildings inside, lovingly painted over and over since its inauguration back in 1994. The care taken in this task is clear to see. After the parinirvana of their guru, in 2002, it is a responsibility left for those who were close to him.
Gonpa, as the inhabitants call it, is a space for Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism – in the nation with the highest number of Catholics in the world. Remember those monks trying to overthrow the government in Myanmar? That’s them. No take-it-easy Zen Buddhism here. Founded by Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche (1930-2002), a Tibetan who was passionate about Brazil, it hosts a vast complex with statues, temples and palaces.
As of now, it is the only place in Latin America dedicated to the Guru Rinpoche, the man who first established Tibetan Buddhism in the Himalayas in the eighth century. For some, the place in an isolated mountain is not tropical at all – Southern Brazil offers a kind of rebirth in a new philosophy. For others, it is the solution to regain the calmness and balance they have lost living amongst Latin America’s giant urban sprawls. About 100 people live there, in the outskirts of tiny Três Coroas. Strangely, mostly women. Strangely, few of them seem open to talk to me.
The daily routine is not unlike in any other Buddhist Centre, with prayer bookending the beginning and close of every day. Prayer whenever they feel like it. Prayer to celebrate and to mourn. Some go off on retreats for months, so they can cleanse their souls and pray some more for mankind.
Tulku’s widow, American Chagdud Khadro (formerly known as Jane Dedman), is the Spiritual Director of the centre. “You Brazilians know faith, so it wasn’t a difficult decision to stay,” she told me upon my arrival. As an Agnostic, I didn’t quite understand what she meant, but the positive energy and the calmness she and the venue emanate would be eye-opening even to the likes of Richard Dawkins. “In this part of the world, people are more receptive, and they connect. In the US, there is more questioning of faith,” she says, with a smile on her face.
There is no noise except for people praying and buses arriving. There is more talk during meals, rarely laughter, but a real sense of care-about-thy-neighbour is clearly present. During lunch, I talk with one of the residents, Ana Paula, 37, an artist from São Paulo.
“I came for a few weeks, and went back home then I realised I am much happier here with the nature, friends, the shrines,” she said. That seems to be the story for most people there, clearly educated, fluent in languages and former enthusiasts of life’s many pleasures. “I gave it all up, because I get much more here,” Ana says.