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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Traditional painters from Tibet and India work to transform new temple

June 25, 2008

By RON SEELY, Lee Newspapers
LaCrosse Tribune (USA)
June 25, 2008

OREGON, Wis. -- Though they seem not much different from the other
workers who are finishing the new temple at the Deer Park Buddhist
Center, the three men working in the quiet of the temple's basement
have traveled from halfway around the world to lend their unique
skills to the completion of this special place.

They are artists from Tibet and India, painters trained in the
traditions of Buddhist artwork with its brilliant colors, charismatic
deities and layered meanings. The painters have lived on the grounds
of the temple for months, devoting long days to their work and
transforming the imposing temple into a showplace of Tibetan artistry.
Their hours have stretched into the evenings during these recent
weeks as they race to finish before a much-anticipated visit of the
Dalai Lama in July.

The Dalai Lama will visit Madison on July 19-24. He is scheduled to
conduct a series of teachings as well as give a public lecture, set
for July 19 at the Dane County Coliseum. But for the Deer Park
Buddhist community, perhaps the most significant moment of the visit
will be when the Dalai Lama conducts a special ceremony to dedicate
the new temple.

This will be the Dalai Lama's second visit to the temple,
construction of which has been overseen by an old friend, Geshe
Lhundub Sopa, director and abbot of Deer Park since its founding in
1979. The first visit was last year and, though the structure was
complete, the temple was bare of the brilliant ornamentation,
carvings and paintings that now bring it alive.

A good part of that artwork has been created in the intervening
months by the three visiting artisans -- Tenzin Choephel from Lhasa,
Tibet; Tashi Dorjee from Dharamsala, India; and Lodoe Choedar, a
Buddhist monk from Tsang, Tibet. All have been trained since their
youth in traditional painting techniques.

Dorjee, in fact, comes from a centuries-old family of traditional
artists, known as thangka painters for their painted silk
wall-hangings. Dorjee can trace his lineage back nine generations and
one of his direct relatives, Lhamo Kunga, was among those artists
summoned in 1645 by the Great Fifth Dalai Lama to create artwork
during the renovation of the Potala, the palace of the Dalai Lama in Tibet.

Choedar most recently lived at Sera Monastery, the home monastery
near Lhasa, Tibet of Geshe Sopa. Choedar's family, too, has a history
of working in the arts. And Choephel, who speaks English and
frequently translates for his friends, laughingly remembers his
youthful interest in creating drawings that, initially, had little to
do with Buddha.

"I was in school in India in the 10th grade," Choephel said. "And in
school, I liked to draw Superman and Batman."

Little did any of the artists know that they would one day find
themselves in the American countryside, creating the art for a temple
a world away from those temples with which all are more familiar. For
all of them, this is the first visit to the United States.

And though all have practiced their art for years, Choephel said,
this work is very special. They are aware that they paint not only to
complete a rare traditional temple in the United States but also to
create in the face of tragic times a lasting repository of a besieged
culture's artistic traditions and spiritual beliefs.

Choephel said all have been witness to China's destruction of temples
and the murder of monks and Tibetan citizens. Destroyed along with
those temples are the works of art that are as much a part of
Buddhist teachings as the ancient texts from which the old lessons of
Buddhism are drawn.

Speaking of the loss of old ways and of the threat to the culture,
Choephel wastes few words.

"It is facing extinction," he said, standing near the artists'
paintings at the entrance to the temple. "And it is our
responsibility to preserve it."

The artists, Choephel explained, draw their inspiration and the
directions about what to paint from religious texts. Such has been
the process of painting temples for centuries. In the entrance to all
traditional temples, he added, one is likely to find the same artwork
that now adorns the walls at Deer Park.

"Our traditions are very old and very specific," said Choephel.

Throughout the temple and in many places along its outside walls are
other decorative paintings completed over the months by the three
artists. They have climbed and clung to tall scaffolds to paint on
the high walls and sat for long hours in their makeshift basement
workshop, painting in the light that slants in through the windows and doors.

They practice the slow and painstaking methods they learned as
youngsters, using needles to punch intricate designs in paper
stencils and then transferring the designs to wood ornament by
tamping a chalk-filled bag on top of the stencil. They then use
acrylics to paint the designs in the rich, traditional colors.

These days, Choephel said, they work from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., hoping to
finish in time for the Dalai Lama's visit.

"Your eyes get tired," said Choephel, 45. "And at night, when you go
to bed there is always pain in your back and arms."

John Martens, an architect who helped design the temple and who has
directed the arts project, has watched in awe as the painters ply
their talents.

Their work, he said, is in keeping with the thought that has driven
the project from the beginning, a belief that the temple should rise
from its oak-shaded hillside as a unique blend of American
engineering and traditional Tibetan design. Key to maintaining the
direct link to the richness of Tibetan culture and religion, he
added, is the art that is as much a part of the temple's spiritual
core as the old teachings.

"The temple is actually a manifestation of the teachings," Martens said.

Or, as Geshe Sopa has written, "from the doors to the rooftops, each
aspect of Tibetan Buddhist buildings has a symbolic significance,
allowing visitors to encounter the Buddha's teachings in a powerful
visual form.''

Geshe Sopa, who carries with him the knowledge of all that is being
lost in Tibet, walks across the grounds of Deer Park from his
residence to the temple nearly every day, visiting with the workers
and the artists and sharing a moment with them as they pause to
survey what they have built.

Surrounded now by the green of a Wisconsin countryside, the temple
seems more than ever to be the symbol of hope and of long-lasting
commitment that Sopa intended and the art that now gladdens its walls
"a gift of three painters far from their families and homes" and a
prayer for better times in a distant, troubled land.

Ron Seely is a reporter at the Wisconsin State Journal.
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