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Monks on the road for peace

September 13, 2008

From Toledo Blade
By David Yonke

Seven Tibetan Buddhist monks from India’s Gaden Shartse Monastery have been touring the nation, including a stop in northwest Ohio this week, and say they keep running into the same problem everywhere they go: “No one wants us to leave. They say, ‘Stay here, we’ll find a house for you to live in. Stay in our city,’” Lobsang Wangchuk said. “We’ve had this happen over and over again.”

The reason, he said, is that Americans are intrigued by the monks’ peaceful countenance and want to experience the same kind of tranquility and happiness.

Teaching Westerners how to find peace, harmony, and understanding is one of the reasons the Buddhist monks have been trekking across the United States since November, with another eight months scheduled on their current tour.

The two other primary reasons for the U.S. tour, Lobsang Wangchuk said, are to demonstrate Buddhist art and to raise funds for a newly opened hospital the monks built in southern India.

In an interview at a spacious Maumee home where the group has been staying, Lobsang Wangchuk said one thing the monks do not try to do is convert people to Buddhism.

“We see all religions as having the same purpose. We always try to harmonize with other religions. We never try to convert anybody,” said Lobsang Wangchuk, wearing the monks’ familiar maroon-and-saffron robes.

Geshe Jampa Norbu, one of the tour’s two main teachers, sat cross-legged on a wooden dining room chair during the Wednesday morning interview, offering comments in Tibetan that were translated by Lobsang Wangchuk or another monk, Tenzin Lobsang.

Several other monks milled about, eating breakfasts of cereal and jam-covered toast or heading out for walks along the Maumee River.

“Geshe says over and over again that maybe it’s better that you stay with your own religion,” Lobsang Wangchuk said, “and if Buddhism helps you understand your religion, then integrate some of the principles into your religion to help you understand it better.

“It’s almost like we’re a shopping mall: Whatever you like, you take with you. And what you don’t like, leave behind. If we can help you, wonderful. But we don’t try to convert people to Buddhism.”

The Gaden Shartse Monastery was founded in Lhasa, Tibet, in 1416 and at one time housed 5,000 monks. The monastery was destroyed during the Chinese takeover of Tibet in the 1950s, when many Tibetans fled to India.

The Shartse monks built a monastery in exile in 1969 and now have more than 1,000 monks at their facility in Karnataka State, in southern India.

“India has been very kind to us,” said Lobsang Wangchuk, a native of Southern California. “The Indians have given us a place to stay until maybe, perhaps someday, Tibet is free.”

The 66-year-old monk, with shaved head and light brown eyes, said he began studying with Shartse monks in 1979. He saw a Buddhist teacher appear to him in a dream, he said, and the teacher later knocked on his door.

The monks are grateful to the Indians for letting them practice their religion freely, Lobsang Wangchuk said, and that is why they built a hospital. While the facility recently opened, the monks are looking for more doctors and nurses to staff it and more funds to equip it.

“We want to return the kindness to India as much as possible, so we hope to provide free medical care. There are numerous poor villages around us where people have no money to ever see a doctor,” Lobsang Wangchuk said.

Interest and awareness in Buddhism in the United States has been growing since he first began heading up the Tibetan monks’ tours nearly 20 years, he said.

Americans note that monks own only the most basic essentials, such as their robes, tea cups, spoons, and books, yet they appear to have inner peace and harmony. Meanwhile, he said, the material wealth of most Americans rarely leads to fulfillment.

“In our travels, we see that in India it is very difficult,” Lobsang Wangchuk said. “But here, we have all the facilities — hospitals, good roads, easy access to food, supermarkets. But there seems to be a lack of happiness in the West, a lack of peace. So we feel that we can help with this.

He said Geshe Jampa Norbu, who is making his first U.S. tour, is a highly respected Tibetan Buddhist teacher and a two-time valedictorian. The other primary teacher on the U.S. tour is Geshe Kalsang Gyatso, a chanting master.

Geshe Jampa Norbu said through an interpreter that the current economic problems in the United States are making many Americans re-evaluate their priorities, which could bring positive results.

“If a recession or a depression comes, then either there will be anarchy, or people will turn inward,” Geshe Jampa Norbu said. “People will seek some sort of teaching, which all religions hold, that there are ways of transforming the mind and showing them that happiness is an internal event. It is not an external thing based on possession and objects.”

The 42-year-old Buddhist teacher was born in Tibet, where he studied for almost 22 years in Lhasa before fleeing to India in the 1980s during a brief period when China relaxed travel restrictions.

Geshe Jampa Norbu studied for a total of 25 years before receiving his Geshe degree, then studied further at the Gyuto Tantric College in northeast India. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama gave him full ordination vows in 1988.

“To be given permission to teach, it takes about 30 years of study” Lobsang Wangchuck said, “and that’s six days a week, from 5 a.m. to midnight. So it’s a real intense program and it produces a very unusual type of human being.”

The monks’ Toledo visit has included personal and group spiritual healings, empowerments, and house and business blessings; a public lecture Thursday night on “World Peace and the Unity of All Religions,” and a Chenrezig Empowerment blessing, intended to help people become more peaceful and compassionate, at a local yoga center last night.

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