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Jason Olson, Deseret Morning News
Jean Gardner walks though Urgyen Samten Ling Gonpa in Salt Lake City Tuesday. The newly renovated building was built in 1910 and has been used for many purposes.

In a silent answer to ongoing Chinese government efforts to eradicate Tibetan Buddhism, a pair of local practitioners have fashioned a new temple for their faith in downtown Salt Lake City.

And though it is a world away from the shrines and monasteries of Tibet that are now threatened with extinction as places of worship, the new temple — called Urgyen Samten Ling Gonpa — will also preserve the workmanship of a Tibetan craftsman, whose singular mission since coming to Utah has been creating a large alcove for Buddha and the faith's sacred texts.

A master wood carver, Kalsang Diwatsang has spent the past three months crafting a large altar entirely from memory, using specialized tools he has fashioned himself. Power tools aren't part of his universe, and he likely "wouldn't know what to do with them," resident teacher Lama Thupten Dorje Gyaltsen says.

The enterprise adds another new bit of diversity to a state often known more for its religious uniformity. Considering that Utah's 19th century settlers fled religious persecution, some may also find it fitting that the temple also provides a new haven for a persecuted faith whose leader, the Dalai Lama, lives and works in exile, his followers persecuted and jailed in the land of their birth if they dare practice their beliefs. Its new location — in an old LDS meetinghouse — underscores the connection.

Sitting on a busy downtown thoroughfare partially obscured by trees, the old red brick church likely wouldn't be noticed if you weren't looking for it. Built in 1910, the structure first housed the sacred, then the profane, and now it's back as a spiritual refuge for those who will worship there.

Inside what was once the main chapel, one wall now serves as the centerpiece of the shrine room, complete with a golden statue of Buddha and an elevated throne for his holiness, the Dalai Lama, whose photo will rest there unless he comes to visit in person. Colorful pillows and rugs cover much of the hardwood floor, redeemed from its last incarnation as the dance floor for a Gothic nightclub that was housed there.

Years earlier, when Lama Thupten and his partner, Jean Gardner, first toured the building, even the old textured glass windows had been painted black and what carpeting there was had been "drenched with beer," Gardner remembers. In another of its former lives, the building was home to an escort service.

Attempts to buy the place using conventional financing foundered, they said, when bank representatives would visit. "They'd just shake their heads" after walking inside.

"They couldn't see the vision we had" amid the garbage, the grime and the grim reputation.

But volunteers relied on that vision and began cleaning inside the building in May. They pulled up carpet, replaced bathroom fixtures, scraped windows and hauled trash. As light came through the formerly darkened windows, walls were reconfigured and painted, new carpeting was installed and a golden archway was created above where the shrine now rises.

"We wanted to establish an authentic place for the development and practice of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition," Lama Thupten said, adding the temple will host Sunday "pujas," or ceremonial meetings, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. where traditional group practice will be offered to any who care to participate.

The gatherings seek to "awaken our natural qualities of wisdom and compassion," according to the temple's literature. A Sunday School class for children that teaches Buddhist precepts will also be offered, along with introductory and intermediate courses in Buddhism and a variety of general meditation classes. The temple also houses two retreat rooms for those seeking a place for prolonged spiritual meditation of at least three days or more. One adherent has already spent time in contemplation there, though the temple is still being completed, they said.

Gardner said she and Lama Thupten, who married 13 years ago after studying their faith in Nepal, first established the temple 10 years ago in a 600-square foot space near Pioneer Park, along with the Red Lotus School of Movement. He teaches Wing Chun Kung-Fu, Tai chi Chu'an and Qi Gong, and she teaches toddler creative arts. The school will move into a basement studio inside the new temple, and other small non-profit tenants will also inhabit the building.

The two say their congregation of about 30 people has helped get them into the building with donations, and they've also done fund raising, though they don't own the 9,000-square-foot structure. Negotiations for financing with private investors are ongoing, Gardner said, adding they are working to raise money for the purchase. They hope their grand opening celebration next week, featuring a visiting lama, will help (see related story link).

While they don't yet know how the purchase will proceed, they've come further with their dream than they believed possible a decade ago, so they say they're not discouraged. "Our feeling is that it's a juncture where spiritual pursuits and material gain clash," Lama Thupten said. "So, we intend to establish a place of spiritual development only. We're not looking to build a profit-making place."

To date, their quest has inspired volunteers, who have donated what they estimate is $12,000 worth of materials and labor. Even contractors hired to work inside have put forth superior effort, they say. "We have had quality people continue to work beyond what you ask them to do. We don't have any money, so on a hope and a prayer it's coming together." Programs at the center are run entirely by volunteers as well.

The Tibetan Buddhist temple is the only such facility for 800 miles in any direction, Lama Thupten said, and complements the other Buddhist congregations, including Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese and Zen, found in the valley.

"We are supposed to be in Salt Lake City," he said, noting he and Gardner had contemplated settling in Seattle or Boulder, Colo., once they had completed their studies with a Tibetan Buddhist master, but he encouraged them to come to Utah.

"We're here to add to the diversity of the community from a mind, body and spirit approach."

E-mail: carrie@desnews.com