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Sacred sounds

June 29, 2008

Simon Broughton
New Statesman (UK)
June 26, 2008

The monks of Tashi Lhunpo preserve Tibet's ancient culture in exile

The notation looks like billowing clouds with swirling trails. The
voice of the chant leader Kachen Lobsang traces the notation from
left to right. The small letters form the words and then the vowels,
in red, are surrounded by bulbous lines that represent the swelling
of the chant. The squiggles are imitated in the intensity of the
note. This is a prayer to Mahakali, one of the terrifying Buddhist
gods who protect Tibet's Tashi Lhunpo Monastery.

Lobsang is actually singing from a laptop printout. The original
"manuscript" of the chant was brought out from Tibet after the
Chinese _annexed the country in 1959, and is kept in exile at the
Tashi Lhunpo Monas tery, in the southern Indian state of Karnataka.
"I'm not an expert," says Lobsang, at reading the notation. "It's
something they do in the Tantric College." It was Kachen Lhakdor, a
monk now about 100 years old, who brought the manuscripts from the
original Tashi Lhunpo monastery in Shigatse, Tibet's second city. It
is unlikely that anything like this survives there.

The Tashi Lhunpo ("heap of glory") Monastery in Tibet was founded in
1447 as the seat of the Panchen Lama, the second most important
spiritual leader in Tibetan Buddhism after the Dalai Lama. The
identity of the current Panchen Lama is one of many disputes between
Tibetan religious leaders and the Chinese authorities. The Chinese
seized the six-year-old boy declared to be the reincarnated Panchen
Lama in 1995 and nominated their own replacement candidate; the boy's
present whereabouts are unknown.

The Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in exile was founded close to several
other Tibetan monasteries in south India in 1972. There are about 300
monks in residence. As well as bringing the old chant notations,
Kachen Lhakdor also memorised the monastic dances performed in Tibet
and has re-created them in exile. Led by Kelkhang Rinpoche, the monks
from Tashi Lhunpo whom I met are a group of eight taking their
traditions on tour. "First, we have to preserve our Tibetan culture
and religion," explains Rinpoche. "Second, we want to show them to the world."

This tour is well timed, coinciding as it does with all the publicity
the situation in Tibet has had since the protests in Lhasa and the
demonstrations surrounding the Olympic torch. But in fact, this is
the third UK tour by the Tashi Lhunpo monks in three years. They made
sand mandalas at the House of Commons in London and in Nottingham to
mark the Dalai Lama's recent visit. The mandala is an intricate
cosmic diagram, made over several days out of millions of grains of
coloured marble. "It represents impermanence," explains Rinpoche. "It
is very beautiful and very hard to make, but then we destroy it and
throw it into the water."

The monks are performing in venues from Cam bridge and Gateshead to
Portland Prison and Womad, and have released a CD of chants, Dawn
Till Dusk. "We don't feel this is a show," insists Rinpoche. "What we
do in the mon ast ery, we are doing here." One of their chants is a
tantric ritual called Kunrik ("all-knowing"). Five monks with long,
dark fringes and ceremonial headdresses start to chant and move their
hands in a meticulous sequence of hand gestures that represent 37
deities. The goddess Green Tara, for instance, is represented by
three fingers of the right hand raised upwards and the third finger
and thumb touching as if holding a flower.

As the mantras to the deities are spoken, fing ers are raised, palms
are opened, hands cupped; it looks like sign language in slow motion.
It takes 12 minutes on stage, but more than five hours in the
monastery. So what are we missing? On tour they simply do the hand
gestures, but in the monastery they invite each of the deities to
come. They converse with them and make them offerings. "It's like
inviting somebody into your house," explains Rinpoche. "All our music
is offered to the gods and goddesses. But we don't invite them when
we're here, to make it shorter, but also because they might come."

The monks include in their performance a pair of the three-metre-long
dung chen trumpets, the sound of which seems to come from the depths
of the earth itself. They perform dances such as Dur-dak Gar-cham
("lords of the cemetery"), in which two skeletons remind you that,
however rich and important you may be, you can take nothing with you
when you die. Another message of impermanence.

The monks-in-exile feel that spiritual teaching is lacking in Tibet,
which is why they want to re-create it outside the country. Rinpoche
has visited the original Tashi Lhunpo, but could not risk saying
anything that connected him to the monastery in exile. He believes he
is the reincarnation of a Tashi Lhunpo abbot who died in the 1960s
during the Cultural Revolution. "When I went back there, I felt very
strongly I'd been there before." The rituals and the dances may seem
esoteric, but for him and the other monks, their preservation and
demonstration has become a mission. "We are all hoping to go back to
Tibet one day and when we do we can transplant very quickly because
we have preserved our culture. None of us knows when that will be,
but if I can't go in this life, I will go in the next."

For details of the Tashi Lhunpo monks' tour see: www.tashi-lhunpo.org.uk
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
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