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Sands of Time: The monks' delicate sand mandalas will be an ongoing project throughout their stay in Napa.

Strangers in a Strange Land

Monks from the Gyudmed Tantric Monastery take residence in Napa

By M. V. Wood

On his first night in America, Lobsang Tsering, a Tibetan monk, sat by his tent on a hilltop and looked out over the Napa Valley. A string of Tibetan prayer flags, which are said to disperse prayers and blessing to the wind, flew above him.

"The view from there was beautiful," he says. "It was quiet and peaceful. I was surprised. In my imagination, I had always envisioned America as one big New York City, with skyscrapers next to skyscrapers. But it wasn't like that at all. I realized how little I knew about America. And I didn't know what to expect."

Tsering's voice crackles as he talks from a cell phone during the Colorado leg of an American fundraising tour. On Aug. 16 to Sept. 1, he and three other monks from the Gyudmed Tantric Monastery in India will be returning to Napa to raise money for Tibetan Living Communities, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of Tibetan refugees in India (www.tibetanlivingcommunities.org).

The series of events at Off the Preserve gallery includes ceremonies, prayers and workshops, and the creation of a sand mandala. The monks will spend their time at the gallery creating a beautiful, meticulously made mandala. And then at 2pm on Sept. 1, they will sweep it all up and lead a public procession to the Napa River, where they will disperse the sand into the water.

"The sweeping of the sand symbolizes the impermanence of life," explains Nancy Fireman, the tour's organizer. "No matter how beautiful something is, no matter how much time and thought and effort it took to create, no matter the intention behind it, it's still not permanent. It can all be swept away in an instant."

Creating mandalas is one of the many sacred arts the monks learned in their years at the monastery in Southern India. The Gyudmed Tantric Monastery was originally established in 1433 in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. In 1959, soon after the Chinese occupation, 150 monks from Gyudmed fled to India, following the Dalai Lama into exile. To this day, monks from the monastery in Lhasa, some as young as 11, will brave the dangerous escape route through the Himalayas and show up at the door of the monastery in India, so that they can obtain the religious instruction denied them in their homeland.

Of course, the monks were not the only ones to seek refuge in India. Thousands of Tibetans, including Tsering's parents, followed the Dalai Lama there. Tsering grew up in a Tibetan settlement and witnessed firsthand the difficulties of being a refugee in a country that was already poverty-stricken.

There wasn't even enough clean water or food. There still isn't. Families live in cramped, run-down quarters. Even the elderly sleep on cold floors. Children are routinely taken out of schools for months at a time because their parents must travel through India to try to sell sweaters on the roadside, often working from 4:30am to 11pm.

Tsering dreamt of someday being able to help his community, and the idea of TLC started forming in his mind. He had heard of monks traveling to America to raise money for their monasteries and thought that was a good start. But the hurdles of such a venture, especially with no budget, were enormous. Then he met Dianne Aigaki.

Aigaki is formerly of Napa. When she was 50, she came to India with a friend who was meeting with the Dalai Lama. "As soon as I got here, I knew I was going to stay," she says. "The decision to move here took about a second. The way the Tibetan's view life fit me like a glove. I had found my home."

When Aigaki agreed to help Tsering organize a fundraising tour, "I had no idea what to do, so I just had to shoot from the hip," she says. "I called up friends and family in the States and asked if we could stay with them. That's what the entire tour was based on--where can we stay for free.

"Of course, the first person I called was Barbara [Morris]," Aigaki continues. "We'd been best friends for 25 years. So I said, 'Hey Barb, can I and a bunch of monks come stay at your place for a while?' And she said, 'Well, OK, I've got some floor space and some tents we can put up outside.'"

And that's how Tsering found himself on a hilltop in Napa, looking out at the view and listening to prayer flags rustling in the breeze.

Tsering had no idea of whether the monks could raise enough money in America to pay for the expenses of coming here, let alone whether they could actually hope to ever start TLC.

"I was nervous," he says. "We come from a different culture and a different religion. We're Buddhist and we're refugees. And often foreigners--especially refugees--are looked down upon. I was afraid we wouldn't be accepted here." There were people back home counting on the monks, and Tsering says he was worried about letting them down.

The worries subsided on their very first day of touring. "Our first stop was Half Moon Bay, and the response was overwhelming," Aigaki recalls. "The community was so open to us and so many people came to the events. It was amazing."

Tsering, who was initially afraid that he and the other monks would not be accepted, found things to be "completely the opposite," he says. "Americans have been very respectful of our culture and very open-minded and kind. Everywhere we go, we're treated well."

But it's not all praise. In addition to thinking of Americans as open-minded and respectful, Tsering also says we're spoiled materialistically and we waste too much of the world's resources.

A Tibetan woman who traveled with the group on their second tour was even more blunt. "She was a doctor so people would often ask her medical questions," Aigaki says. "She, as well as all the monks, was absolutely amazed at how much stress Americans feel. So when someone asked her why we're all so stressed out, she said, 'Well, of course you're stressed. You're so self-centered. Everything is about me, me, me.' Another time a woman asked why Americans are so unhealthy, and [the doctor] said, 'Well of course you're unhealthy, you're sooo fat.'"

Despite the Tibetans' sometimes harsh observations, they were well-received and the tour was a success. So the monks returned in 2001. By that time, Tsering had already made concrete plans for TLC. From 2002 on, proceeds would go to the newly-formed Tibetan Living Communities instead of the monastery.

"I know there are other groups of monks raising money for their monasteries," Fireman said. "But as far as I know, this is the only group raising funds for the community."

Near the end of the 2001 tour, the monks were tired but happy. They were nearing the end of another successful fundraiser, and Tsering's dreams of starting TLC were soon to become a reality. And then suddenly, all of their plans for the future seemed so tenuous. For a while, everyone in America understood the impermanence of life. Everyone realized that the best-laid plans, the highest skyscrapers, the most peaceful of valleys, can be swept away in an instant. From the television in Morris' home, Tsering, along with the rest of the nation, watched the flames in New York City, on Sept. 11, 2001.

Two months later, the monks traveled to New York. With their robes and shaven heads, they looked obviously foreign. Tsering wondered if Americans, especially New Yorkers, might not be as open-minded and respectful of different cultures as they had been before. It wouldn't be surprising if the thought of whether Americans would still be as open to helping others also crossed their minds. With so much suffering at home, could Americans really be expected to reach out? And would TLC become a reality?

Tsering had a lot to think about. But right then, all he remembers wanting to do was find his way to the top of a skyscraper and look out over New York City. So he decided to go to the Empire State Building. Tsering waited in line and then handed over his money for admission. The cashier stared at the foreigner dressed in robes, then he shook his head and pushed the bills back. "I can't take your money," he said. "Just do me a favor. When you get to the top, say a prayer for us all, OK?"


The monks of the Gyudmed Tantric Monastery will be in residence in Napa, Aug. 16 through Sept. 1. All events take place at Off the Preserve gallery, 1142 Main St., Napa. 707.253.8300. Opening ceremonies, Aug. 16, noon. Morning meditation and chanting, Aug. 17-Sept. 1, 10-11am. Free. Sand mandala creation, Aug. 16-Sept. 1, 11am-6pm Free. Sand painting workshop, Aug. 20, 7pm. $25. Reservations required. 707.253.8300. Dispersal of the sand mandala, Sept. 1, 2pm. Free. In addition, Healing Sounds of the Universe, an event focusing on peace and nonviolence, with chanting and Tibetan ritual music, takes place Aug. 28 at 7:30pm at the Di Rosa Preserve, 5200 Carneros Hwy., Napa. $25. Reservations required: 707.226.5991.

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From the August 14-20, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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