Arson Suspected after Fire Destroys 400-year-old Building at Karma Ling Buddhist Community in France
A statement released by Shangpa Karma Ling over the weekend suggests that arson is the likely cause of the blaze that destroyed the main building of the Shangpa Karma Ling Buddhist Center in the French Alps early this month. The statement revealed that the center had received a series of threatening letters before and after the devestating fire, and had also been the target of earlier arson attempts.
The fire broke out around 1am on 1 December at the south side of the grand temple. The flames quickly spread to the roof and engulfed the rest of the building. The blaze was discovered by one of the center’s instructors, who noticed an orange glow from his balcony. He sounded the gong at the entrance to the temple to wake the other members of the community, who quickly gathered around the center’s stupa to witness the flames consume their home. None of the center’s 30 residents were harmed in the incident.
It took 44 firefighters more than 12 hours to subdue the fire, which was all but extinguished by the morning of 2 December, apart from some minor fires in hard-to-reach places that were doused in the days that followed. Only the walls of the 400-year-old building have survived.
The other buildings of the complex located close to the main hall—including retreat centers and cottages—were not damaged. The main hall, also known as the Charterhouse of St. Hugon (Chartreuse de Saint-Hugon), dates to 1676, and was once a Christian monastery of the Carthusian Order. The Karma Ling Institute purchased and renovated the building in the 1970s. Until the fire, the Charterhouse served as the central building of the community, housing four halls that were used for retreat programs, the comunity’s kitchen, and administration offices, among other functions.
Shangpa Karma Ling Buddhist Center in Savoie was founded in 1979 by the prominent Tibetan master Kyabjé Kalu Rinpoche, and Lama Denys Rinpoche, his oldest Western disciple. In 2000, the site of the community was named Domaine de l'Avalon. In addition to the buildings that house the community the Domaine de l'Avalon includes 55 hectares of forestland.
At present, 15 of the center’s staff remain onsite, working to reorganize life at the center by gathering up what can be salvaged, installing make-shift offices, and re-establishing the kitchen and dining facilities. The fire also destroyed the majority of the center’s computers, along with paper records. The community is posting updates on the situation via smartphone when they are able to connect to the Internet.
All scheduled activities for the winter have been suspended until further notice, although since the retreat centers remain undamaged there is hope that the center will be open for retreat programs next summer, and that makeshift accommodation such as tents can take over the function of the Charterhouse.
Because the center will miss out on revenue from the canceled programs, community members fear the financial consequences of the fire.
Despite the challenging situation, the community expressed gratitude for the outpouring of support it has received from the international community in the past week, and emphasized the lessons that could be learned from the recent events. “[T]his event reminds us of the reality of impermanence,” an online statement said. “It also reminds us of the values of friendship and solidarity that connect us and have manifested themselves with great focus in this very place, as well as among all of you who have given your attention and support. Of course, the most important thing today is to maintain our spirit and motivation. If we approach it well, this event can be the occasion of a new start.” (UniRimay)
The police are still investigating cause of the fire, but a newsletter posted by Shangpa Karma Ling last weekend revealed that there had been several threats and previous arson attempts at the center. The newsletter reads:
Yesterday morning, exactly one week after the December 1 fire, we received what is likely a third threatening letter from the person who claims to be the perpetrator. This letter claims the burning of the Chartreuse and urges residents to evacuate, at the risk of suffering the consequences of a new attack.
After a stressful night, and facing the next to come, we decided to tell you a little bit more about the situation that led us to the December 1st fire.
On the night of November 17th to 18th, we suffered a first arson at the House of Wisdom, which fortunately had no serious consequences. A short time later, a first letter, received on November the 23rd, claimed the facts. On November 28th a second fire attempt was foiled at the Chartreuse’s kitchen. A second threat letter reached us on the morning of the 30th. The same evening, shortly after midnight, we suffered the fire that destroyed the entire Chartreuse.
We then evacuated all the people present for a one-time stay and we proposed relocation solutions to residents living on the site in the long term. However, about fifteen people chose to stay, not wishing to leave the place during these difficult times, because to evacuate the place today would be to leave the way free for a new act of malevolence. The disappearance, before our eyes, of the Chartreuse building encourages us today to do our best to preserve the other buildings.
In addition, one of the retreat centres is currently housing the participants of the 3 year retreat initiated in 2015. The situation is therefore delicate: we do not know when the author of the facts will strike, or where, nor how. Many of us sleep with one eye open.
These days, the national police accompany us and do its best to help us, to the extent of its means and attributions. But, while waiting for the investigation to identify the arsonist, we are led to organize ourselves on our own to prevent further fire on the site.
In response to the threats, Denys Rinpoche released the following statement:
In recent days, a great surge of solidarity and support has emerged to help Shangpa Karma Ling after the arson of its main building, “the Carthusian monastery”. It is personally and on behalf of the entire Rimay community that I would like to thank those who help and are still helping.
I would also like to encourage you to practice the mantra of the Buddha of Immense Goodness: “Om Mani Padme Hum” associated with a special benevolent dedication intent for the person claiming the fires and continuing to threaten. This person is in great pain and we want to help him or her as much as we can. I personally make prayers and wishes so that he or she become free from any torments.
In these circumstances, let us remember the stanza of the thirty-seven Bodhisattva practices:
“If someone I cherish and protect as my child
Come to think of myself as his enemy,
Just like a mother for her child with an illness
To give him even more affection, such is the practice of a Bodhisattva. “
From heart to heart,
May everything be auspicious.
Lama Denys Rinpoché
Fire at Shangpa Karma Ling Buddhist Center in Savoie, France (The Mirror)
Denys Rinpoche (Facebook)
Shangpa Karma Ling Buddhist Center website (UniRimay)
Fire destroys main building at Buddhist monastery in France (Tricycle)