Gerry Kopelow

Eight Tibetan monks from the Drepung Gomang Monastery will be performing and teaching in Winnipeg, March 15 through March 19, at the Ste. Norbert Arts and Cultural Centre. Many programs and events will be offered, including traditional polyphonic chanting, workshops in sand painting and mask-making, performances of traditional dancing, and teachings on Buddhist meditational practices.

The original Drepung Monastery was founded in 1416 near Lhasa, Tibet. Before the Chinese invasion in 1949, there were more than 10,000 monks in residence. Only about a hundred managed to escape with the Dalai Lama to southern India where they are working to establish a new monastic centre for 2000 refugee monks.

China’s plan for Tibet, “The Seventeen Point Agreement for Peaceful Liberation”, has been vigorously implemented by the People’s Liberation Army. In the process, the political, cultural, and religious identity of an entire nation has been almost extinguished. Over a million Tibetans, one fifth of the population, have died since the takeover. Thousands of monks have been imprisoned or exiled. Over six thousand monasteries have been destroyed. Today the Chinese in Tibet outnumber Tibetans by two to one. Tibetans, most of whom cannot speak Chinese, are unemployed, impoverished, and cannot afford to educate their children.

We in the west are regularly shocked by news of brutal assaults on helpless populations in Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Our automatic reaction to these horror stories is usually anger, fear, and frustration, very unpleasant feelings that more often than not evoke demands that our military forces launch remedial actions. The Tibetan monks have chosen a different response: Their mission is to communicate a message of peace, wisdom, and compassion to heal anxious minds in these troubled times.

Over the course of their week-long visit, the monks will construct a detailed two-dimensional Medicine Buddha mandala. (Mandala means ‘circle’ in Sanskrit; Mandala art refers to symbols that are drawn, sketched, sculpted, or painted in a circular frame.) The Medicine Buddha is considered by Tibetans to be a manifestation of healing energy, a dispenser of spiritual medicine. Contemplation of this being is said to evoke joyous feelings that pass through each organ and circulate through the body. In this way, mental, physical, and bio-chemical energies are transformed and balanced.

The mandala, about five feet in diameter, is painstakingly constructed from colored sand: Its unique design represents the celestial residence of the Medicine Buddha. Just a glimpse of the completed mandala is believed to create a positive impression on the mind stream of the observer, who, for a moment, is in touch with all-encompassing compassion.

The monks will work on the elaborate sculpture for five days. Upon completion, the sand will be gathered up and scattered during a Medicine Buddha puja. (The literal meaning of Puja: worship, honour, adoration, respect, homage.) The Drepung Gomang Monastery is dedicated to the survival of Tibetan Buddhism. In India, the monks are impoverished refugees. The Sacred Arts Tour is their cultural-counter-genocide initiative. It is an energetic effort to bring endangered ritual arts and practices to the West, but also and effort to attract donations for much needed food, medical and building supplies.

Interested Winnipegers will have the opportunity to view and participate in the unique Tibetan Buddhist culture though teachings, performances, and hands-on workshops. The monks will also bring with them a multi-media exhibition called the Sacred Art of the Land of the Snows, which includes ancient and modern images of Buddhist deities, ceremonial masks, ritual objects, and historical photographs from the famous monasteries of Tibet. Paintings and other handmade artifacts will be available for sale to the public.

The Sacred Arts Tour is visiting Winnipeg at the invitation of the Dharma Centre of Winnipeg. To view a schedule of the planned events and performances, visit dharmawpg.com.