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One Grain of Sand at a Time: An Exiled Monastery`s Fight for Tibet

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BUSAN, South Korea – To build a sand mandala according to Tibetan Buddhist tradition–it requires the excruciatingly careful laying out of vibrantly pigmented grains over the course of many weeks. The most important details are assembled one grain of sand at a time by thoughtful, precise hands.

All across Busan–at all the major Buddhist temples in the area–monks from the TibetanDrepung Loesling Monastery sat and shielded their work from the winter winds. One grain of sand at a time–they built the whole history of their belief structure–stretched out on canvas.

Over the past two years–they have spread the color and passion of their message thinly across the entire world, one grain of sand at a time.

One grain at a time–they've been roaring for change. Praying for peace. Praying for prosperity. Paving a better road to the future.

But for Gaeshe Danchoe and his fellow monks–the sand may be finally running out.

Danchoe and his band of high-level monks have been bouncing all across the world for the past two and a half years. Their mission was based out of the Tibet’s Drepung Loseling Monastery. Founded in 1416 AD Drepung Loseling is one of the oldest monasteries of the Tibetan Buddhist order.

It was also one of the wealthiest–before the Chinese invaded Tibet and drove Tibetan Buddhists into exile.

Now Drepung is located in East India and home to over 3,000 Tibetan monks forced from their home..

One of the most fundamental missions that the monastery has is sending out its monks to all corners of the world to make sand mandalas and conduct Tibetan rituals at any and all sites that will receive them. Monks like Gaeshe Danchoe typically are sent on missions lasting two and a half years.  Danchoe and his band of about 20 monks spent the better part of their mission at college campuses all across the United States. From there they cut a quick path across Japan and made Busan, South Korea their final stop before heading home.

“Ours is a mission of peace,” Danchoe said. “We go to our destinations to increase positive energy.”

Every stop on Danchoe’s tour has the initial focus of building as many sand mandalas in as many places as possible.  The mandala is a perfectly circular symbol dating all the way back to ancient Hinduism. According to Danchoe, Buddhist mandalas are supposed to be a visual “offering of the entire universe.” It mainly shows a view of the world as seen by an enlightened person–with the vista muddled and distorted by the view of a ‘confused’ person. The mandala image is a series of concentric circles–with wisdom typically on the outside. From there, each circle represents an aspect of the universe combined with a path to enlightenment–until the viewer reaches the center of the image–Nirvana, where the Buddha resides.

Due to the delicate and ritualistic nature of its construction–the Sand Mandala is especially valued in Tibetan Buddhism. The mandala is constructed by several monks working and meditating in tandem. They pray over their work and therefore send their blessings into themandala itself. The result is a bright, intricate and technicolored portrait of the entire universe. 

The final piece is impossibly detailed–and so circular that it’s hard to believe that it was constructed by hands and prayer alone.  Not only that–but according to Danchoe–the prayers make the Mandala a sacred space in and of itself. Only peace and enlightenment can exist within its borders, and therefore it can be used as a meditation guide for all that kneel before it. More importantly–the positive energy contained within the mandala can diffuse out across the whole geographic area that surrounds it.

“The most important part of the mandala is the positive energy,” Danchoe said. “ We wanted to come to this area because there has been so much suffering lately.” He cited the earthquake and tsunami in Japan as well as the recent tension between the two Koreas as reasons the region was “in need of the peace of a mandala.”



The finished masterpiece, which will then be swept away.


While the mandala ceremonies Danchoe and his monks perform  initially serve the religious purpose of promoting peace throughout the world–their mission has a far greater second purpose.

“We also want to spread…cultural knowledge,” Danchoe said. The monks or Drepung Loseling Monastery have been tasked with the daunting duty of spreading Tibetan culture as far and wide as possible–since it has been all but eradicated in the highlands where it was born. This is done chiefly to preserve Tibet’s old way of life.

“People must learn Tibetan culture,” Danchoe said. “And we must learn from American and world culture as much as we can.”

Everywhere they go–Danchoe and his monks have done everything possible to raise awareness about Tibet’s struggle for “higher autonomy”.  Since 1951–Tibet has been under the harsh, militaristic control of China.

“The years I have been on this journey have filled me with hope,” Danchoe said of Tibet’s situation.


Tibet Was Never A Utopia

Danchoe's hope is well placed–as all roads appear to be point towards reform in the highlands. The Chinese takeover in 1951–while reprehensible–has somewhat violently laid down a path for a better way of life in Tibet.  The popular notion that Tibet was a peaceful, religious utopia before the Chinese cruelly came in and clamped down on the region is an utterly false one.

Before the Chinese invaded–Tibet was an entirely feudal society–Leaders of Tibetan Buddhism were also in charge of government and owned most of the land. They gave control of this land to feudal lords who collectively ruled over the entire country. The vast majority of Tibetan people were either slaves, or scratched out a desperate existence on the highlands as peasant farmers. Regular people were locked into a hereditary hierarchy supported by warped Buddhist beliefs. Peasants were in their situation due to misdeeds during their past lives–and lords and religious leaders were in their station as a reward for virtue in previous incarnations, so it was claimed.

Because of this–lords and religious leaders ruled with impunity. Their will could not be questioned and they took whatever they want. Peasant daughters were taken for Lordly use at a moment’s notice. People caught stealing from lords had their hands severed. People who resisted the system were beaten half way to death and then "left to god" out in the wilderness–only because Tibetan Buddhism did not allow people to kill each other.

Then the Chinese came in 1950 and the Tibetan ruling elite fled with the Dalai Lama in 1959. In those first years–the Chinese did little to interfere with Tibetan life–but a good number of Tibetans welcomed the Chinese as "liberators." After the flight of the Dalai Lama–the Chinese began instituting reforms–allowing people to own their land and select which crops they could grow for the first time in Tibetan History. While the Chinese broke down monasteries, they built secular schools and roads and hospitals. In those first years–ordinary Tibetans gained a level of freedom that was impossible under the old unshakable theocracy. The Chinese brought positive social revolution to the highlands.

Now, if the story ended here–it would make Danchoe’s mission seem superfluous and unnecessary. However–as history often shows–the truth avoids simplicity.

Granted, in the 1950s and 60s things got marginally better for common Tibetans. Even the lesser monks and nuns of the Dalai Lama’s order were allowed to stay in Tibet and keep the culture alive. Tibet only had to deal with a lack of sovereignty. Otherwise Tibetans were more free than they had ever been.

But then in 1979 China began its now-infamous program known as the Cultural Revolution. In this–Chairman Mao called upon his followers to destroy any vestiges of pre-communism culture. Hundreds of thousands of eager, indoctrinated youths were encouraged to destroy temples, cultural sights and anything that went against the contemporary values of Maoism.

In Tibet–this meant the PRC ruthlessly began trying to bleach Tibetan Buddhism off the face of the highlands. Almost 90 percent of the temples in Tibet were destroyed. Thousands of monks and nuns were captured and  tortured or killed. The Cultural Revolution drove even more Tibetans into exile.

In the end– ordinary Tibetans were left somewhat freer–but fully uprooted from their society. 

Throughout the remainder of the twentieth century–China has made every effort to make Tibet as purely Chinese as possible. And all the while–Monks like Gaeshe Danchoe have travelled the world–fighting to save Tibetan culture from the firestorm.

“I think of Tibet every day” Danchoe said. “I pray for my people every day. I dream of the moment we can go home.”

While Danchoe has been on the road–he has gained a great reverence for college age Americans and their way of life. In a lot of ways–Danchoe’s journey was also a fact-finding one.

"It was overwhelming," Said Danchoe of the many sights and experience he took in while traveling across the U.S.

“I feel…greater,” explained Danchoe. “Like my mind has expanded. I feel a grander understanding–a greater empathy for the people of the world.

Danchoe also found an appreciation for American culture.  “I really like Coca-Cola,” he said.

But, most important was what was happening in Tibet while Danchoe was away. Even though they were thousands of miles from their home in exile–Danchoe and his fellow monks stayed hotly focused on the news coming out of China and Tibet–always full of hope.

“[And] this year–we have changed very much" said Danchoe when he was asked about the situation in the highlands.

Indeed, 2011 was a tumultuous and almost euphoric year for Tibetan exiles–for events took place that all Tibetans see as huge progress towards freedom. First of all, the Dalai Lama stepped down from his position as a political leader in Early march. He did this largely because of China’s refusal to even consider Tibetan sovereignty with the old Buddhist order still in charge. The hope here was to have Tibet negotiate autonomy as a more secular state–thereby avoiding the Chinese government’s distaste for the Dalai Lama.

“We are just seeking a higher autonomy,” said Danchoe.

The new strategy of the Tibetan government is seeking an EU style union with China.

 “We don’t want to be alone anymore,” said Danchoe. “We want to be autonomous, yet united. Like one big family.”

The exiled people of Tibet made another move further towards this goal by electing Lobsang Sangay as the first prime minister of the Tibetan government in exile. Officials  claim that any and all Tibetans who registered with the government in exile could have voted in the elections. However–questions have been raised as to the legitimacy of the election.

“It’s all small steps towards the larger goal,” said Danchoe. “The Chinese are not too open [to an autonomous Tibet]…They have manysuspicions.”

Suspicions aside–this hasn’t stopped China from accomplishing a few small reforms to the policies of the cultural revolution.  

“They have started teaching Tibetan language in Chinese schools!” exclaimed Danchoe. “This news made me very happy.”  Every small step helps in the preservation of Tibetan culture.

“There are more human rights in Tibet now,” said Danchoe. While things aren’t perfect–Danchoe is confident that thing will continue to improve.

All this hope takes place amidst a new round of unrest that is washing over Tibet. In January, a CNN crew was detained when they tried to enter the Tibet Autonomous Region during a severe police crackdown. They reported police officers at every street corner–keeping the area in an iron grip.

While the reasons for the crackdown remain uncertain–it has been linked to several monks who have immolated themselves both in Tibet and in mainland China recently. There were unconfirmed reports of small protests cropping up all over Tibet as a response to these immolations. The Tibetan people have been protesting in support of the very autonomy that the Government in Exile has been fighting for since the Dalai Lama stepped down last march.

“[Those monks] sacrificed themselves because they would like to receive teachings from the Dalai Lama himself,” Danchoe said. “[those sacrifices] are why things must continue to change.”

“It will take much time,” said Danchoe. But he is confident that despite the incredibly rough history–Tibet is moving towards a better future.

At the end of their visit,  Gaeshe Danchoe and his monks perform a small ceremony where they quietly sweep away the grains of themandala they had just spent weeks working and praying over.

“It is the most important part of the ceremony,” said Danchoe–because it teaches a very important lesson.

I asked him what that lesson was.

“Well, think about it,” said Danchoe. “You and I took a very long time to create–and yet we can be destroyed so quickly. This is one of the most important lessons in Buddhism. That is why we dismantle the mandala.”

The sand that once made the incredibly complex visual offering is then surreptitiously swept into the nearest river–so that more areas can receive the benefits of all the blessings the monks bestowed upon the grains.

“This is an  important lesson for Tibetans too,” said Danchoe. “Since what we are working for in Tibet may easily be swept away one day. The lesson is that it is still worth fighting for.”

Gaeshe Danchoe and his band of monks have since returned to India and have been regrouping and reflecting with their brothers atDrepung Loesling Monastery.

However–the next crop of monks have already begun their long two year tour in Atlanta Georgia–with Danchoe’s exact same mission. For the cycle goes on forever. The path to peace in Tibet is a long one–with constant vigilance being the only tool the Tibetan people have.

And they make progress–one grain of sand at a time. 


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