Cover Story: The Art of Happiness

Tibetan arts aren't just pretty things

 
Joe Lamb


The Art of Happiness



Most artists would never dream of destroying their work the same day it's finished, especially if it took hundreds of hours to complete. But that's exactly what will happen at the Cincinnati Museum Center this weekend.

The Yamantaka sand mandala being created by the Gaden Shartse monks will be constructed from millions of grains of jewel-toned sand only to be swept away and poured into the Ohio River.

Why? This art has a higher purpose than immortalizing its creators.

"Mandala" literally means, "That which extracts the essence." There are many mandala designs but each one represents "an invitation to enter the Buddha's awakened mind," according to the Gaden Shartse Web site (gadenshartsetour.org). Tibetan Buddhists believe every person has the seed of enlightenment in his or her mind. Viewing, visualizing and contemplating a mandala helps uncover that seed.

Buddha Sakyamuni — also known as Siddartha Gautama, who is identified by many simply as "the Buddha" — shared a simple message as his last words: "All things are impermanent; work out your salvation with diligence."

In recognition of the principle that life is transient, the monks destroy the mandala after it's completed. The sand is collected and poured into a body of water as an offering to purify the surrounding environment.

Mind streams
Learning how to construct a mandala takes months or years of training, depending on the level of responsibility each monk has in the construction process.

"Most of the monks on the tour train for three or four months, but we need a main artisan who has trained for years," says Geshe Lobsang Sonam, master of the tour, speaking in Tibetan translated by his interpreter, Tenzin. "There is also one text of the art of the sand mandala, and in that text all the measurements were written for each sand mandala. In the text, you will find many mandalas."

Geshe is a title given to a student who has earned a geshe degree, the equivalent of a Ph.D. in theology, and is some monks' formal title. In addition to giving lectures and private healings, Geshe Sonam makes all critical decisions regarding the spiritual aspects of the tour and plays an important role in the mandala construction. He is the first to place sand at the beginning of the construction and he also dismantles the mandala.

The monks don't make up new designs. The details of each mandala and every aspect of the process have been passed from master to student for more than 2,500 years. A variety of materials can be used.

"Some people create a mandala in a solid form, like building with wood. Some use colored cloth, and another method is with the sand," Geshe Sonam says. "For mandalas in solid form, the monks train with mud. When they become good, they start with wood. That's why you will find some mandalas made of wood with precious jewels or gems."

Which mandala will be made at what time varies.

"The ceremonies or festivals decide the mandala — for a Medicine Buddha, we make a healing mandala or Medicine Buddha mandala," Geshe Sonam says. "If you go for a specific date, we check the Tibetan calendar for which date is a black date or white day. On a black day — that's a negative day — we do not start the creation of the mandala."

Regardless of the design, simply viewing a mandala is considered beneficial.

"Just seeing the mandala, there's a great benefit from that," says Venerable Kuten Lama, speaking in Tibetan translated by his interpreter, Venerable Jamyang Lama. "Without any motivation, anyone with a clear mind, just by seeing the mandala, is able to clear the negative karma for many lifetimes."

The resident teacher of Gaden Samdrup-Ling (GSL) Monastery in Winton Place (visit ganden.org) and host of the Gaden Shartse monks, Kuten Lama explains that the motivation a person has impacts her mental state and her experience of viewing the mandala. Motivation is very important — whether it's positive or negative, the person develops a relationship with the Buddha represented in the mandala. To get the most benefit, he says, a positive motivation is helpful.

The colors and symbols of the mandala design have specific meanings and purposes. The monks are happy to answer questions about these details and any other aspects of their tour. The string of prayer flags near the mandala, usually found hanging outside, sometimes prompts questions.

"The five colors of the prayer flag are the five elements of nature," Kuten Lama says. "On the prayer flags are prayers. So when the wind blows, it carries the prayers without obstruction to all different places and directions. They bring blessings to all the sentient beings to help them. They leave imprints in their mind streams."

The colors of the flags — blue for the sky, white for clouds, red for fire, green for water and yellow for earth — are an integral part of the positive imprints. Being available to the community to create that kind of positive impact is why GSL Monastery exists.

"Generally, the purpose of the monastery is to preserve the teachings of the Buddha, a place where the teachings are studied and contemplated," Kuten Lama says. "According to the Buddha's teaching, there is a way to help sentient beings to attain everlasting peace. So, to continue to help through the Buddha's teachings, one needs a way to sustain, to have a method to preserve that teaching. That means a place to study, contemplate, meditate and so forth, and there's no resource other than a monastery to do these things.

"How people can know about the monastery and benefit from the monastery is like coming to see the mandala. Just coming to the monastery leaves imprints in their minds, like positive thoughts. What benefit one receives from the monastery depends on the openness of one's mind and the readiness of oneself to receive benefits. So it depends on your motivation."

Numbers don't count
Those who want to learn about Buddhism from a highly trained master, such as Geshe Sonam or Kuten Lama, must ask to receive teachings. The monks won't be on the sidewalks pulling people into class.

"The teacher and the monks in the monasteries, their motivation is not to proselytize," Kuten Lama says. "Their thoughts do not fall on this view, and they are not supposed to do these things. Practicing any faith comes through one's own thoughts or motivation, through your own search. If you force something on other people, that is not appropriate and it is not stable."

Lisa Farnsworth, secretary of the board at GSL's sister monastery in Bloomington, Ind., Dagom Gaden Tensung Ling (DGTL) Buddhist Monastery, is a former Catholic who has been practicing some form of Buddhism for more than 10 years. Her Western upbringing gives her the unique ability to translate this non-Christian religion to those unfamiliar with any other kind of faith tradition.

"The point is not to see how many people you can get into the monastery," Farnsworth says. "There's a story about Sakyamuni getting ready to teach. ... As he got ready to teach, 500 people just got up and left, and he didn't do a thing. He didn't try to stop them, he didn't try to cajole them into staying.

"People will come in here and they'll sit down in the middle of a teaching on a Sunday, and people get up and leave. Kuten Lama's completely unfazed by it. Whether someone stays or not does not impact him at all. It doesn't make him any less of a person. It's not his problem. If I got up and left I'd say, 'Too bad for me.' But it doesn't negatively impact him at all."

Kuten Lama has spiritual and temporal responsibilities for both GSL and DGTL Monasteries. He defers the administration of each institution to Jamyang Lama and boards of directors.

"My main motivation is to be here to continue to help the people who are seeking to learn Buddhist teaching, to continue to impart those teachings without diluting what I received from my own teacher and to continue to pass that ancient wisdom to the next generation," he says.

Dance of the Skeleton Lords
This desire to preserve long-standing traditions is one of the main reasons the Gaden Shartse monks are touring the world — to build awareness about the cultural richness of Tibet. The country was invaded by China in 1950 under the assertion that Tibet was never a free nation; it was being re-claimed as Chinese territory. At that time and in the 56 years since, many Tibetans have fled to live in exile in India and other countries.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama is the leader of the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala, India. Tibet was a theocracy for thousands of years, and the Dalai Lama also served as the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism. Since he fled his homeland to preserve independent leadership for his people, those who remained behind have endured religious oppression, including the torture and imprisonment of countless monks and nuns, a cultural revolution that destroyed more than 5,000 monasteries and forced people to speak in Chinese, abandoning their own language.

It's impossible to extract Buddhism from Tibetan culture, according to Douglas Wissing, a Westerner who has spent a great deal of time in Tibet and learned about its history while researching the biography of a missionary for his book, Pioneering in Tibet: The Life and Times of Dr. Albert Shelton.

"The official Chinese line is to try to separate the religion from the culture," Wissing says. "You can't extricate Tibetan Buddhism from Tibetan culture; it just does not work. They're two sides of the same coin. You can't address one without the other. They just keep flipping. That's what makes Tibet what it is. A Tibetan is not going to make a distinction between religion and culture."

This interdependence is seen in the dances performed by the Shartse monks. A sampling of the different kinds of dances — such as Sha-nak Gar-cham, or Dance of the Black Hat Masters; and Dur-dak Gar-cham, or Dance of the Skeleton Lords — sound like they could be traditional folk dances.

"What they show is a glance, there are many different kinds of dances," Geshe Sonam says. "The dances are for celebrating, but also to please the deity who is part of the ceremony. It is a belief that, through this kind of dance or this kind of performance, we can please the deity or native protectors. Through that, we can receive protection or receive things like rain, so that everything can be in order."

The historically correct costumes are elaborate with detailed embroidery and appliqué that would take hours to explain, Geshe Sonam says. An unusual element of some of the hats is the fringe or some other covering in front of the performers' eyes. In one ritual, four monks sit on stage chanting and drumming. The purpose of this is to assist other sentient beings that need the help of humans.

"With the ritual with the drums, they are benefiting non-body-beings, like non-humans. They're trying to benefit them with the practice of giving," Geshe Sonam says. "So the monks want the non-body beings to be in front of them to gain the benefit. According to karma or rebirth, the practitioner has glorious powers. The non-body-beings can not come in front of them because of that power, so they want to hide their faces."

The fringe that covers the eyes is also to help prevent the monks from being distracted by these beings, so they can focus on their efforts to help.

Digging deeper
Whether or not these Buddhist rituals are specifically Tibetan in origin is irrelevant, according to Jeff Ryan, a senior student at DGTL who has been studying Buddhism for more than 30 years. He says what matters is the source of the teachings.

"Tibetan Buddhism came from India, so was it Indian Buddhism then?" Ryan asks. "Now it's here and in Europe. Is it European Buddhism and American Buddhism?

"In the beginning of a sutra, the first line will be in Sanskrit. The reason why is, that was the language of the Buddha. This is to show that it's a valid source — this comes from the Buddha or one of his chief disciples. This is a rich tradition that we ... are trying very hard not allow the dilution, to keep its essence."

Ryan's teacher, Kuten Lama, elaborates.

"The teaching of Buddha does not belong to any culture or any country," he says. "It belongs to the whole world. It's a treasure for the whole world. Anyone who teaches Buddhism could say it belongs to Buddha Sakyamuni. Buddha Sakyamuni is an enlightened being who doesn't have any discrimination toward sentient beings. He looks to all the sentient beings identically. That is the reason for saying Buddhism is a religion of all people.

"When the Buddhism came from India to Tibet, some of the rituals changed. But the teaching of the Buddha — the view and the ultimate thought — they definitely are not changed. They are the same as the Buddha taught many thousands of years back.

"When the Buddhism travels to many countries in the world, it adapts into the culture but the teaching of Buddha itself cannot be changed, cannot be diluted. It has to remain the same, intact through all the different countries, across the different boundaries."

Tibetans work to practice their religion in their customary way outside the borders of their homeland. David Tape, president of the GSL Board, has visited India twice and been to Dharamsala. He studied at a monastery while in India.

"My sense of Dharamsala is that the Tibetan Government in exile is doing everything possible to make sure that the Tibetan culture is alive and well," he says. "In Dharamsala is Norbulingka; it is the recreation of the Dalai Lama's summer palace in Tibet, which was called Norbulingka, and it is completely dedicated to all aspects of the Tibetan culture. There are individuals going to school there in literature, drama, furniture making, jewelry making, dance — which is very different from what would necessarily be going on in the monastery."

This effort to keep traditions and practices alive has proven to be helpful for many westerners who encounter Buddhism. Raised a Catholic, Ryan says he found Catholicism was unable to address some critical questions.

"When I was in high school I was interested in studying the Bible — John's Revelations, as I recall — things that were a little more esoteric," he says. "I remember asking a brother at my school, 'What does this mean?'

" 'Well, it's a divine mystery.'

"Divine mystery didn't sit well with me; I wanted to dig in deeper. The bottom line came to be, it's a matter of faith. The answers that I wanted were, 'Why are children born with spina bifida? Why is there so much suffering?' God does not do this to me. I just could not buy, 'It's God' will,' and 'It's God's answer, and it's not yours to know.' I'm just thinking, 'This isn't valid. It just doesn't wash.' So I looked at other religions."

Introduced to Buddhism by his older brothers, Ryan enrolled as a student at Indiana University and took an independent study program of Tibetan language and culture.

"The more I learned about Buddhism, the more it resonated with me," Ryan says. " 'This fits in with what makes sense.' There were answers to these questions that I had. Fundamental mysteries of life are pretty much answered in Buddhism. Either through logic or through investigation, you can actually see it for yourself. And some things you can't see, at least you can prove it through logic. Now it's a long train and you've got to have your fundamentals...but when you hear it it's like, 'Yeah, yeah, there's no other explanation. This is a fact.'

"Buddha himself said, 'Don't take my words blindly. Check my teachings like a merchant checks gold.' You bite it, and you make sure it's real. It resonates with you, otherwise it's useless. I approached it like that. I was walking in a big pessimist, almost. I was like the guy from Missouri, the Show Me State."

Debating as art
This expectation of questioning and challenging teachings is as much about deepening a person's understanding as it is about remaining true to the traditions and rituals laid out by the Buddha. In monasteries, debating is an integral part of the educational process. It is a way for students to be tested on their wisdom and a way for teachers to impart more knowledge. The Gaden Shartse monks perform a short demonstration of this debating practice as part of their cultural performance.

"The student who is going to complete his degree, on the last day he has to go to a celebration, and this is kind of like a last examination that he is given through the debate," Geshe Sonam says. "The students from the most junior to the most senior will ask the questions. The teacher will check how he is answering according to the text.

"In the monastery, debate sessions go for two and a half or three hours. Some kinds of festivals begin at 9 or 10 in the evening and debate until the morning, sunrise.

"In debate, we use clapping. In the left hand of the monk who is debating you will find a rosary or prayer beads. He claps first. When he claps he uses the word dhih (pronounced "dee"). You hear this in the mantra of Manjushri: 'Om ah ra pa tsa na dhih.' With the dhih, he is invoking the goodness of Manjushri to use his intelligence or wisdom."

The teacher/student relationship is extremely important in Buddhism. Even though a person can read a book and learn a lot, there is still more information that only a teacher can provide. Each person follows her own path; therefore, only a well trained teacher who knows his student offers the appropriate assistance.

As a senior lecturer at IU Law School, Lisa Farnsworth knows what it means to be a teacher in the Western sense. This is different, she says. A student is told to observe a potential teacher for 12 years before asking him to be her teacher. Then the student must ask three times, proving her commitment and the sincerity of her desire to work with that teacher.

"It's very, very discriminating and very sharp mentally, and I think there are a lot of people who are very intellectual who are attracted to Tibetan Buddhism for that reason," Farnsworth says.

That challenge turns a lot of people off, according to Venerable Lobsang Dorje, a professor at IU who lives in Indianapolis and also teaches at GSL. The monk, formerly known as Leon Pettiway, grew up in North Carolina, earned a Ph.D. in urban geography and became a fully ordained monk after studying Buddhism for about five years. Lobsang equates Buddhism with the experience of going down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland.

"Very few people really want to look deeply and do the kind of introspection and radical transformation of the mind," he says. "It takes a lot of dedication and courage to do that, because you expose the ugly part, the shadow side. It is in the exposing of that that you are able to purify it, so you're not relying on something outside of yourself to bring that transformation about. You are willing to take on that responsibility of doing that to yourself. And even when you decide to take on that responsibility, it's difficult to live up to the challenges that you're confronted with.

"It's not to say that the process is all sad and sorrowful, there's some joy along the way. When you break through a particular barrier and you realize something that you hadn't realized before, that's a very joyful moment, a source of real rejoicing. But to get there can be ugly. Ugly in the sense that it can be troubling, so that takes a certain amount of fortitude, a certain amount of courage to be willing to take that on."

The ultimate goal of this self-work is to serve others. While it seems this could be a contradiction, Farnsworth explains it in very practical terms.

"It's really hard to serve somebody else if you yourself are a cripple," she says. "If I'm an emotional cripple and I'm neurotic and have all these delusions ... how can I possibly help somebody else until I deal with my own issues? It's not like we're completely incapable of helping each other. But hopefully, as you become less and less deluded, you have a greater capacity to really do service for other people."

New way of being
Questions about the Chinese occupation of Tibet and the struggles of the Tibetan people have entered U.S. consciousness, as well as the rest of the world's, as a result of the work of the Dalai Lama.

"It's a very complex picture," Wissing says. "There are many, many parallels with what the Chinese are doing in Tibet to the indigenous people and what we did with Native Americans. ... When people say, 'When will the Chinese free Tibet?' I say, 'About when we free Arizona and Texas.' They're doing what imperial powers do, what we did. They stole it fair and square."

He goes on to explain improvements and modernization unheard of before the Chinese invasion — roads, bridges, telephone lines and electricity — make it possible for people in remote villages to travel, communicate and enjoy a few luxuries their adobe houses have never seen.

"The politics of Tibet is as complex as the Medicis," Wissing says. "There were always lots of assassination, always lots of regions having control of things not wanting to give up power. ... It was as nasty as anything that happened in Renaissance Italy. To talk about old Tibet, even monks nowadays will say, 'There were a lot of problems.' Thieves got their hands cut off, poor people were really, really poor. "

Tibet has a better position on the world stage now than it did 60 years ago, as exemplified by the Dalai Lama himself, according to Wissing.

"The first time the Dalai Lama came to Bloomington, he came in a Chevy," he recalls with a chuckle. "It was 1977 or something like that — he came in a Chevy with a couple of guys. It took him hell to get a visa. He came to visit his brother. Now he comes with Secret Service. It's a whole different thing."

As the tug of war continues between the Tibetan people and the Chinese, the drive to preserve the Tibetan culture is strong. That is what has inspired GSL to build an expanded monastery and a new Tibetan Buddhist Cultural Center on 8.5 acres of land it just purchased in Colerain Township. People from all over the region attend classes at GSL, which has outgrown is current location in Winton Place, Tape says.

"Just to be one of the anchoring Buddhist offerings in Cincinnati is pretty good, and I do believe that the offering will be an understanding of culture as well as the possibility of studying Buddhism," he says.

Inviting people of all faiths and cultural backgrounds to experience that artistry of Tibet is a major goal of the Gaden Shartse tour.

"Some people misunderstand that we are only representing religion or are like missionaries, but we are not," Geshe Sonam says. "We share with people wisdom and culture.

"If you really want to understand the thread which binds all of these things, it's Tibetan culture or tradition. Inside that you will find some spiritualism. If Tibetan Buddhism is destroyed, then Tibetan culture is destroyed. If you want to go deeper, every sentient being desires happiness. All of the things we do can benefit the beings regarding happiness."

The fundraising the monks are doing will help support the monastery. Without any support from the Indian government, Tibetans living abroad and tours like this one provide the primary source of capital needed to operate the monastic college.

"The meaning is to continue to provide help with education for the younger generations to continue to study Buddhism and engage in Buddhist practice," Kuten Lama says.

What Americans can gain from this cultural exchange is much more than providing financial support to a worthy cause, according to Lobsang. It's an opportunity to learn a new way of being in this life.

"We live in a fear-based culture," he says. "When we look around, we just simply see and have many kinds of experiences that help to validate our fears. We have to learn to confront those things that are projections of our own mind and be willing to let them go and be willing to embrace a different system of thought. (We can) transform our minds to think that there is real purity, that every being that we come into contact with ultimately is purity — the notion of a Buddha nature. If you want to use another term for it, like Christ, you can. Those two things are not contradictions."

Geshe Sonam believes all human beings want happiness and don't want suffering. Buddhism is simply one path to achieving the goal of eliminating suffering from our lives, illustrated by the artistry of the mandala, dances and the dharma or teachings of the Buddha.

"Happiness, which we all desire, is the art of the mental," Geshe Sonam says. "For us, this is the dharma. If you really want to understand this, you need to study cause and effect. If you study cause and effect, one can understand how happiness comes into being." ©

Buddhist Resources

To learn more about the Gelugpa lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, look for books by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. Visit a local Buddhist center for information and other Buddhist resources:

Buddhist Dharma Center

Vipassana meditation

www.cincinnatidharma.org

513-541-1650

Cambodia Buddhist Community of Cincinnati

10036 Menominee Drive

513-851-7111

Cincinnati Zen Center

Kwan Um School of Zen

www.cincinnatizencenter.org

513-684-4216

Daiun-Ji

Blue Lotus Assembly, Tendai, Tibetan Buddhism

www.daiun-ji.org

513-238-4639

Gaden Samdrup - Ling Buddhist Monastery

Tibetan, Gelugpa

 
Joe Lamb


The Art of Happiness



Most artists would never dream of destroying their work the same day it's finished, especially if it took hundreds of hours to complete. But that's exactly what will happen at the Cincinnati Museum Center this weekend.

The Yamantaka sand mandala being created by the Gaden Shartse monks will be constructed from millions of grains of jewel-toned sand only to be swept away and poured into the Ohio River.

Why? This art has a higher purpose than immortalizing its creators.

"Mandala" literally means, "That which extracts the essence." There are many mandala designs but each one represents "an invitation to enter the Buddha's awakened mind," according to the Gaden Shartse Web site (gadenshartsetour.org). Tibetan Buddhists believe every person has the seed of enlightenment in his or her mind. Viewing, visualizing and contemplating a mandala helps uncover that seed.

Buddha Sakyamuni — also known as Siddartha Gautama, who is identified by many simply as "the Buddha" — shared a simple message as his last words: "All things are impermanent; work out your salvation with diligence."

In recognition of the principle that life is transient, the monks destroy the mandala after it's completed. The sand is collected and poured into a body of water as an offering to purify the surrounding environment.

Mind streams
Learning how to construct a mandala takes months or years of training, depending on the level of responsibility each monk has in the construction process.

"Most of the monks on the tour train for three or four months, but we need a main artisan who has trained for years," says Geshe Lobsang Sonam, master of the tour, speaking in Tibetan translated by his interpreter, Tenzin. "There is also one text of the art of the sand mandala, and in that text all the measurements were written for each sand mandala. In the text, you will find many mandalas."

Geshe is a title given to a student who has earned a geshe degree, the equivalent of a Ph.D. in theology, and is some monks' formal title. In addition to giving lectures and private healings, Geshe Sonam makes all critical decisions regarding the spiritual aspects of the tour and plays an important role in the mandala construction. He is the first to place sand at the beginning of the construction and he also dismantles the mandala.

The monks don't make up new designs. The details of each mandala and every aspect of the process have been passed from master to student for more than 2,500 years. A variety of materials can be used.

"Some people create a mandala in a solid form, like building with wood. Some use colored cloth, and another method is with the sand," Geshe Sonam says. "For mandalas in solid form, the monks train with mud. When they become good, they start with wood. That's why you will find some mandalas made of wood with precious jewels or gems."

Which mandala will be made at what time varies.

"The ceremonies or festivals decide the mandala — for a Medicine Buddha, we make a healing mandala or Medicine Buddha mandala," Geshe Sonam says. "If you go for a specific date, we check the Tibetan calendar for which date is a black date or white day. On a black day — that's a negative day — we do not start the creation of the mandala."

Regardless of the design, simply viewing a mandala is considered beneficial.

"Just seeing the mandala, there's a great benefit from that," says Venerable Kuten Lama, speaking in Tibetan translated by his interpreter, Venerable Jamyang Lama. "Without any motivation, anyone with a clear mind, just by seeing the mandala, is able to clear the negative karma for many lifetimes."

The resident teacher of Gaden Samdrup-Ling (GSL) Monastery in Winton Place (visit ganden.org) and host of the Gaden Shartse monks, Kuten Lama explains that the motivation a person has impacts her mental state and her experience of viewing the mandala. Motivation is very important — whether it's positive or negative, the person develops a relationship with the Buddha represented in the mandala. To get the most benefit, he says, a positive motivation is helpful.

The colors and symbols of the mandala design have specific meanings and purposes. The monks are happy to answer questions about these details and any other aspects of their tour. The string of prayer flags near the mandala, usually found hanging outside, sometimes prompts questions.

"The five colors of the prayer flag are the five elements of nature," Kuten Lama says. "On the prayer flags are prayers. So when the wind blows, it carries the prayers without obstruction to all different places and directions. They bring blessings to all the sentient beings to help them. They leave imprints in their mind streams."

The colors of the flags — blue for the sky, white for clouds, red for fire, green for water and yellow for earth — are an integral part of the positive imprints. Being available to the community to create that kind of positive impact is why GSL Monastery exists.

"Generally, the purpose of the monastery is to preserve the teachings of the Buddha, a place where the teachings are studied and contemplated," Kuten Lama says. "According to the Buddha's teaching, there is a way to help sentient beings to attain everlasting peace. So, to continue to help through the Buddha's teachings, one needs a way to sustain, to have a method to preserve that teaching. That means a place to study, contemplate, meditate and so forth, and there's no resource other than a monastery to do these things.

"How people can know about the monastery and benefit from the monastery is like coming to see the mandala. Just coming to the monastery leaves imprints in their minds, like positive thoughts. What benefit one receives from the monastery depends on the openness of one's mind and the readiness of oneself to receive benefits. So it depends on your motivation."

Numbers don't count
Those who want to learn about Buddhism from a highly trained master, such as Geshe Sonam or Kuten Lama, must ask to receive teachings. The monks won't be on the sidewalks pulling people into class.

"The teacher and the monks in the monasteries, their motivation is not to proselytize," Kuten Lama says. "Their thoughts do not fall on this view, and they are not supposed to do these things. Practicing any faith comes through one's own thoughts or motivation, through your own search. If you force something on other people, that is not appropriate and it is not stable."

Lisa Farnsworth, secretary of the board at GSL's sister monastery in Bloomington, Ind., Dagom Gaden Tensung Ling (DGTL) Buddhist Monastery, is a former Catholic who has been practicing some form of Buddhism for more than 10 years. Her Western upbringing gives her the unique ability to translate this non-Christian religion to those unfamiliar with any other kind of faith tradition.

"The point is not to see how many people you can get into the monastery," Farnsworth says. "There's a story about Sakyamuni getting ready to teach. ... As he got ready to teach, 500 people just got up and left, and he didn't do a thing. He didn't try to stop them, he didn't try to cajole them into staying.

"People will come in here and they'll sit down in the middle of a teaching on a Sunday, and people get up and leave. Kuten Lama's completely unfazed by it. Whether someone stays or not does not impact him at all. It doesn't make him any less of a person. It's not his problem. If I got up and left I'd say, 'Too bad for me.' But it doesn't negatively impact him at all."

Kuten Lama has spiritual and temporal responsibilities for both GSL and DGTL Monasteries. He defers the administration of each institution to Jamyang Lama and boards of directors.

"My main motivation is to be here to continue to help the people who are seeking to learn Buddhist teaching, to continue to impart those teachings without diluting what I received from my own teacher and to continue to pass that ancient wisdom to the next generation," he says.

Dance of the Skeleton Lords
This desire to preserve long-standing traditions is one of the main reasons the Gaden Shartse monks are touring the world — to build awareness about the cultural richness of Tibet. The country was invaded by China in 1950 under the assertion that Tibet was never a free nation; it was being re-claimed as Chinese territory. At that time and in the 56 years since, many Tibetans have fled to live in exile in India and other countries.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama is the leader of the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala, India. Tibet was a theocracy for thousands of years, and the Dalai Lama also served as the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism. Since he fled his homeland to preserve independent leadership for his people, those who remained behind have endured religious oppression, including the torture and imprisonment of countless monks and nuns, a cultural revolution that destroyed more than 5,000 monasteries and forced people to speak in Chinese, abandoning their own language.

It's impossible to extract Buddhism from Tibetan culture, according to Douglas Wissing, a Westerner who has spent a great deal of time in Tibet and learned about its history while researching the biography of a missionary for his book, Pioneering in Tibet: The Life and Times of Dr. Albert Shelton.

"The official Chinese line is to try to separate the religion from the culture," Wissing says. "You can't extricate Tibetan Buddhism from Tibetan culture; it just does not work. They're two sides of the same coin. You can't address one without the other. They just keep flipping. That's what makes Tibet what it is. A Tibetan is not going to make a distinction between religion and culture."

This interdependence is seen in the dances performed by the Shartse monks. A sampling of the different kinds of dances — such as Sha-nak Gar-cham, or Dance of the Black Hat Masters; and Dur-dak Gar-cham, or Dance of the Skeleton Lords — sound like they could be traditional folk dances.

"What they show is a glance, there are many different kinds of dances," Geshe Sonam says. "The dances are for celebrating, but also to please the deity who is part of the ceremony. It is a belief that, through this kind of dance or this kind of performance, we can please the deity or native protectors. Through that, we can receive protection or receive things like rain, so that everything can be in order."

The historically correct costumes are elaborate with detailed embroidery and appliqué that would take hours to explain, Geshe Sonam says. An unusual element of some of the hats is the fringe or some other covering in front of the performers' eyes. In one ritual, four monks sit on stage chanting and drumming. The purpose of this is to assist other sentient beings that need the help of humans.

"With the ritual with the drums, they are benefiting non-body-beings, like non-humans. They're trying to benefit them with the practice of giving," Geshe Sonam says. "So the monks want the non-body beings to be in front of them to gain the benefit. According to karma or rebirth, the practitioner has glorious powers. The non-body-beings can not come in front of them because of that power, so they want to hide their faces."

The fringe that covers the eyes is also to help prevent the monks from being distracted by these beings, so they can focus on their efforts to help.

Digging deeper
Whether or not these Buddhist rituals are specifically Tibetan in origin is irrelevant, according to Jeff Ryan, a senior student at DGTL who has been studying Buddhism for more than 30 years. He says what matters is the source of the teachings.

"Tibetan Buddhism came from India, so was it Indian Buddhism then?" Ryan asks. "Now it's here and in Europe. Is it European Buddhism and American Buddhism?

"In the beginning of a sutra, the first line will be in Sanskrit. The reason why is, that was the language of the Buddha. This is to show that it's a valid source — this comes from the Buddha or one of his chief disciples. This is a rich tradition that we ... are trying very hard not allow the dilution, to keep its essence."

Ryan's teacher, Kuten Lama, elaborates.

"The teaching of Buddha does not belong to any culture or any country," he says. "It belongs to the whole world. It's a treasure for the whole world. Anyone who teaches Buddhism could say it belongs to Buddha Sakyamuni. Buddha Sakyamuni is an enlightened being who doesn't have any discrimination toward sentient beings. He looks to all the sentient beings identically. That is the reason for saying Buddhism is a religion of all people.

"When the Buddhism came from India to Tibet, some of the rituals changed. But the teaching of the Buddha — the view and the ultimate thought — they definitely are not changed. They are the same as the Buddha taught many thousands of years back.

"When the Buddhism travels to many countries in the world, it adapts into the culture but the teaching of Buddha itself cannot be changed, cannot be diluted. It has to remain the same, intact through all the different countries, across the different boundaries."

Tibetans work to practice their religion in their customary way outside the borders of their homeland. David Tape, president of the GSL Board, has visited India twice and been to Dharamsala. He studied at a monastery while in India.

"My sense of Dharamsala is that the Tibetan Government in exile is doing everything possible to make sure that the Tibetan culture is alive and well," he says. "In Dharamsala is Norbulingka; it is the recreation of the Dalai Lama's summer palace in Tibet, which was called Norbulingka, and it is completely dedicated to all aspects of the Tibetan culture. There are individuals going to school there in literature, drama, furniture making, jewelry making, dance — which is very different from what would necessarily be going on in the monastery."

This effort to keep traditions and practices alive has proven to be helpful for many westerners who encounter Buddhism. Raised a Catholic, Ryan says he found Catholicism was unable to address some critical questions.

"When I was in high school I was interested in studying the Bible — John's Revelations, as I recall — things that were a little more esoteric," he says. "I remember asking a brother at my school, 'What does this mean?'

" 'Well, it's a divine mystery.'

"Divine mystery didn't sit well with me; I wanted to dig in deeper. The bottom line came to be, it's a matter of faith. The answers that I wanted were, 'Why are children born with spina bifida? Why is there so much suffering?' God does not do this to me. I just could not buy, 'It's God' will,' and 'It's God's answer, and it's not yours to know.' I'm just thinking, 'This isn't valid. It just doesn't wash.' So I looked at other religions."

Introduced to Buddhism by his older brothers, Ryan enrolled as a student at Indiana University and took an independent study program of Tibetan language and culture.

"The more I learned about Buddhism, the more it resonated with me," Ryan says. " 'This fits in with what makes sense.' There were answers to these questions that I had. Fundamental mysteries of life are pretty much answered in Buddhism. Either through logic or through investigation, you can actually see it for yourself. And some things you can't see, at least you can prove it through logic. Now it's a long train and you've got to have your fundamentals...but when you hear it it's like, 'Yeah, yeah, there's no other explanation. This is a fact.'

"Buddha himself said, 'Don't take my words blindly. Check my teachings like a merchant checks gold.' You bite it, and you make sure it's real. It resonates with you, otherwise it's useless. I approached it like that. I was walking in a big pessimist, almost. I was like the guy from Missouri, the Show Me State."

Debating as art
This expectation of questioning and challenging teachings is as much about deepening a person's understanding as it is about remaining true to the traditions and rituals laid out by the Buddha. In monasteries, debating is an integral part of the educational process. It is a way for students to be tested on their wisdom and a way for teachers to impart more knowledge. The Gaden Shartse monks perform a short demonstration of this debating practice as part of their cultural performance.

"The student who is going to complete his degree, on the last day he has to go to a celebration, and this is kind of like a last examination that he is given through the debate," Geshe Sonam says. "The students from the most junior to the most senior will ask the questions. The teacher will check how he is answering according to the text.

"In the monastery, debate sessions go for two and a half or three hours. Some kinds of festivals begin at 9 or 10 in the evening and debate until the morning, sunrise.

"In debate, we use clapping. In the left hand of the monk who is debating you will find a rosary or prayer beads. He claps first. When he claps he uses the word dhih (pronounced "dee"). You hear this in the mantra of Manjushri: 'Om ah ra pa tsa na dhih.' With the dhih, he is invoking the goodness of Manjushri to use his intelligence or wisdom."

The teacher/student relationship is extremely important in Buddhism. Even though a person can read a book and learn a lot, there is still more information that only a teacher can provide. Each person follows her own path; therefore, only a well trained teacher who knows his student offers the appropriate assistance.

As a senior lecturer at IU Law School, Lisa Farnsworth knows what it means to be a teacher in the Western sense. This is different, she says. A student is told to observe a potential teacher for 12 years before asking him to be her teacher. Then the student must ask three times, proving her commitment and the sincerity of her desire to work with that teacher.

"It's very, very discriminating and very sharp mentally, and I think there are a lot of people who are very intellectual who are attracted to Tibetan Buddhism for that reason," Farnsworth says.

That challenge turns a lot of people off, according to Venerable Lobsang Dorje, a professor at IU who lives in Indianapolis and also teaches at GSL. The monk, formerly known as Leon Pettiway, grew up in North Carolina, earned a Ph.D. in urban geography and became a fully ordained monk after studying Buddhism for about five years. Lobsang equates Buddhism with the experience of going down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland.

"Very few people really want to look deeply and do the kind of introspection and radical transformation of the mind," he says. "It takes a lot of dedication and courage to do that, because you expose the ugly part, the shadow side. It is in the exposing of that that you are able to purify it, so you're not relying on something outside of yourself to bring that transformation about. You are willing to take on that responsibility of doing that to yourself. And even when you decide to take on that responsibility, it's difficult to live up to the challenges that you're confronted with.

"It's not to say that the process is all sad and sorrowful, there's some joy along the way. When you break through a particular barrier and you realize something that you hadn't realized before, that's a very joyful moment, a source of real rejoicing. But to get there can be ugly. Ugly in the sense that it can be troubling, so that takes a certain amount of fortitude, a certain amount of courage to be willing to take that on."

The ultimate goal of this self-work is to serve others. While it seems this could be a contradiction, Farnsworth explains it in very practical terms.

"It's really hard to serve somebody else if you yourself are a cripple," she says. "If I'm an emotional cripple and I'm neurotic and have all these delusions ... how can I possibly help somebody else until I deal with my own issues? It's not like we're completely incapable of helping each other. But hopefully, as you become less and less deluded, you have a greater capacity to really do service for other people."

New way of being
Questions about the Chinese occupation of Tibet and the struggles of the Tibetan people have entered U.S. consciousness, as well as the rest of the world's, as a result of the work of the Dalai Lama.

"It's a very complex picture," Wissing says. "There are many, many parallels with what the Chinese are doing in Tibet to the indigenous people and what we did with Native Americans. ... When people say, 'When will the Chinese free Tibet?' I say, 'About when we free Arizona and Texas.' They're doing what imperial powers do, what we did. They stole it fair and square."

He goes on to explain improvements and modernization unheard of before the Chinese invasion — roads, bridges, telephone lines and electricity — make it possible for people in remote villages to travel, communicate and enjoy a few luxuries their adobe houses have never seen.

"The politics of Tibet is as complex as the Medicis," Wissing says. "There were always lots of assassination, always lots of regions having control of things not wanting to give up power. ... It was as nasty as anything that happened in Renaissance Italy. To talk about old Tibet, even monks nowadays will say, 'There were a lot of problems.' Thieves got their hands cut off, poor people were really, really poor. "

Tibet has a better position on the world stage now than it did 60 years ago, as exemplified by the Dalai Lama himself, according to Wissing.

"The first time the Dalai Lama came to Bloomington, he came in a Chevy," he recalls with a chuckle. "It was 1977 or something like that — he came in a Chevy with a couple of guys. It took him hell to get a visa. He came to visit his brother. Now he comes with Secret Service. It's a whole different thing."

As the tug of war continues between the Tibetan people and the Chinese, the drive to preserve the Tibetan culture is strong. That is what has inspired GSL to build an expanded monastery and a new Tibetan Buddhist Cultural Center on 8.5 acres of land it just purchased in Colerain Township. People from all over the region attend classes at GSL, which has outgrown is current location in Winton Place, Tape says.

"Just to be one of the anchoring Buddhist offerings in Cincinnati is pretty good, and I do believe that the offering will be an understanding of culture as well as the possibility of studying Buddhism," he says.

Inviting people of all faiths and cultural backgrounds to experience that artistry of Tibet is a major goal of the Gaden Shartse tour.

"Some people misunderstand that we are only representing religion or are like missionaries, but we are not," Geshe Sonam says. "We share with people wisdom and culture.

"If you really want to understand the thread which binds all of these things, it's Tibetan culture or tradition. Inside that you will find some spiritualism. If Tibetan Buddhism is destroyed, then Tibetan culture is destroyed. If you want to go deeper, every sentient being desires happiness. All of the things we do can benefit the beings regarding happiness."

The fundraising the monks are doing will help support the monastery. Without any support from the Indian government, Tibetans living abroad and tours like this one provide the primary source of capital needed to operate the monastic college.

"The meaning is to continue to provide help with education for the younger generations to continue to study Buddhism and engage in Buddhist practice," Kuten Lama says.

What Americans can gain from this cultural exchange is much more than providing financial support to a worthy cause, according to Lobsang. It's an opportunity to learn a new way of being in this life.

"We live in a fear-based culture," he says. "When we look around, we just simply see and have many kinds of experiences that help to validate our fears. We have to learn to confront those things that are projections of our own mind and be willing to let them go and be willing to embrace a different system of thought. (We can) transform our minds to think that there is real purity, that every being that we come into contact with ultimately is purity — the notion of a Buddha nature. If you want to use another term for it, like Christ, you can. Those two things are not contradictions."

Geshe Sonam believes all human beings want happiness and don't want suffering. Buddhism is simply one path to achieving the goal of eliminating suffering from our lives, illustrated by the artistry of the mandala, dances and the dharma or teachings of the Buddha.

"Happiness, which we all desire, is the art of the mental," Geshe Sonam says. "For us, this is the dharma. If you really want to understand this, you need to study cause and effect. If you study cause and effect, one can understand how happiness comes into being." ©

Buddhist Resources

To learn more about the Gelugpa lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, look for books by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. Visit a local Buddhist center for information and other Buddhist resources:

Buddhist Dharma Center

Vipassana meditation

www.cincinnatidharma.org

513-541-1650

Cambodia Buddhist Community of Cincinnati

10036 Menominee Drive

513-851-7111

Cincinnati Zen Center

Kwan Um School of Zen

www.cincinnatizencenter.org

513-684-4216

Daiun-Ji

Blue Lotus Assembly, Tendai, Tibetan Buddhism

www.daiun-ji.org

513-238-4639

Gaden Samdrup - Ling Buddhist Monastery

Tibetan, Gelugpa

www.ganden.org

513-542-7116

Gar Drolma Buddhist Center

Tibetan, Drikung Kagyu

www.gardrolma.org

937-439-3964 (Dayton, Ohio)

Ohio Buddhist Vihara

Theravada

www.lanka.info/ohio/index.html

513-825-4961

Tri-State Dharma

Mahayana

http://www.tristatedharma.org

513-793-0652

Gaden Shartse Tour Schedule

Avaloketishvara Mandala — Northern Kentucky University, University Hall

Nov. 7-9, 9 a.m.-3 p.m., mandala construction

Nov 9, 3 p.m., dismantling ceremony

Yamantaka Mandala — Cincinnati Museum Center

Nov. 10-12, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., mandala construction

Nov 12, 5 p.m., dismantling ceremony

Cultural performance — Cincinnati Museum Center

Nov. 11 at 5:30 p.m.

Tickets sold at the door

$15 for adults, $12 for seniors and students, free for children 12 and under

Lectures — Cincinnati Museum Center

Nov. 11, 1 p.m., "The Art of Happiness"

Nov. 11, 2:30 p.m., "Creating Harmony in Mind, Body and Spirit"

Suggested donation $10

For more event information, call GSL Monastery 513-542-7116 or visit www.ganden.org

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