Sonam Lama was born in the countryside of Tibet when the Cultural Revolution was raging in China, resulting in the destruction of thousands of temples and monasteries. 

As a young boy, Sonam dreamed of becoming a monk, but while helping to rebuild the destroyed monasteries, he learned the skill of stone masonry and Sonam’s life took a turn. 

After leaving Tibet in the 1980s, Sonam settled in Deerfield, Massachusetts and opened Sonam’s Stonewalls. Producer Dave Fraser visited Sonam for an up-close look at his work crafting custom stonewalls. 

This story originally aired on July 16, 2021. 

Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer: Sonam Lama was born in the countryside of Tibet during the time when the Cultural Revolution was raging in China, causing thousands of temples and monasteries to be destroyed.

His dream as a young boy was to become a monk, but the rebuilding of these monasteries taught Sonam the skill of stonemasonry, and his life took a turn.

He now calls Deerfield, Massachusetts, his home and producer Dave Fraser visited Sonam recently on the job site to bring us his story.

Dave Fraser: As you drive north on Route Five in Deerfield, you may notice a stone structure on your left sitting in front of what looks like an old motel. This structure is a Tibetan stupa built by local stonemason Sonam Lama.

Sonam Lama, Stonemason: Tibetans believe that stupa has healing power and also all kinds of elements and a lot of benefit merit if you go around it and be nearby.

Dave Fraser: Lama created his stupa of stone under the guidance of a Buddhist teacher. It is topped with a spire and the main mound sits on a stepped Goshen Stone platform.

One side features a brass plaque and there are two urns that are kept filled with plants during the summer. Flying from the stupa are two long lines of Tibetan prayer flags, and buried inside are prayer books and relics.

Lama has built other stupas before.

Sonam Lama: One is in Chicago, we did in North Chicago. And I did one for New York City for actor Richard Gere. And I also did in Vermont. So, I done for other people, but finally I got a chance to do my own.

Dave Fraser: The stupa sits in front of a Tibetan plaza, a former motel that Lama has converted into a set of shops. There is also a bed and breakfast called the Tibetan Inn.

When Lama was young, he had aspirations of becoming a monk. But the Cultural Revolution changed those plans and he learned the skills of a stonemason.

Sonam Lama, Stonemason: You know, during the Cultural Revolution in Tibet, monasteries, temples basically, most of them destroyed. I wanted to add the temple back and then I learned how to build a stone walls. Instead of becoming a monk, ended up a stonemason.

Dave Fraser: In 1986, he left his native land and came to western Mass. He started out in Shelburne Falls looking for work, building stone walls, walkways, and patios.

Sonam Lama, Stonemason: To put pictures, brochures at the grocery store like, you know, Costco’s and, you know, greenfield’s market. And everywhere, basically, I can’t put it up, I put it up.

Then, people keep calling me and that’s how I became my own business.

Dave Fraser: The stone work of Sonam Lama can be found around the Valley, including several walls on the campus of Eaglebrook, a private boarding and day school in Deerfield.

Using picks, shovels, and pry bars, Lama and his assistant sculpt each rock before sliding it into place, setting it on a bed of crushed stone.

Sonam Lama, Stonemason: It’s hard work, but when you get used to it. I don’t mind hard work, especially when you finish the job and [the owner] be very happy.

And I feel like I created something that beautiful. After I’m gone, I know this stone wall will be here, so that’s part of it, very satisfying and very good.

And I’m obviously one of the fortunate immigrants. Became own business and became successful and always kept busy.