For seven months, a large silver van plastered with “Free Tibet” stickers has carried 10 Tibetan Buddhist monks on a tour around the United States. That van arrived in Columbia on Friday night from St. Louis, and after unloading, the monks gathered with Students for a Free Tibet for dinner at the Interfaith Center.
The monks come from the Drepung Gomang monastic college in Mundgod, India, where 1,700 refugee Tibetan monks live in a settlement of 16,000.
Twelve years ago, Ngawang Lobsang, 30, left his home in Kham, in Chinese-occupied Tibet. He wanted to pursue a Buddhist education and study Tibetan philosophy and human rights, but the neighboring village with a large number of Chinese military made such study impossible, he said. So, as many Tibetans do, he walked to India. The journey took four months.
“He walked through the mountains and forest,” Tenzin Gynlpo, 25, said, translating for Ngawang Lobsang. “When he got to Nepal and Tibet border, that’s when he got problems from the Chinese military border police.” Ngawang Lobsang had to wait until it was dark to travel through the mountains to avoid a confrontation.
As a refugee from Chinese-occupied Tibet, he can’t return even to visit. He can call and speak with his parents, but one time when he tried to tell them about the Tibetan spiritual leader, Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso, and the Tibetan government in exile, the phone went dead.
He said he sometimes gets homesick, but he has no hope that he can ever return home.
Tenzin Gynlpo was able to study Buddhism when he was young in Nepal, where he was born and raised by his Tibetan parents. When he decided to become a monk, he moved to the Drepung Gomang monastery.
Students for a Free Tibet made arrangements for the group to visit Columbia for the third time since they started touring in 1999. MU provided the organization with the $3,500 needed to bring the tour to Columbia, said Trischa Splitter, a member of Students for a Free Tibet. Previously, group members had to raise money to make the visit possible.
Coordinator Mary Pattison said the tour seeks to heighten awareness of Tibet and Buddhism as well as raise money for the monks’ monastery in India. “The Dalai Lama has condoned these tours,” Pattison said, “because he really wants Tibetans to interface with the rest of the world. That’s the first goal.”
While in Columbia, the monks will teach lessons about elements of Buddhism, perform traditional dances and create a sand mandala. Traditionally, mandalas were constructed in secrecy, Tenzin Gynlpo said. But to fulfill the tour’s second goal of educating people about Tibet, the Dalai Lama allows mandala construction to be viewed by the public.
“He is a wise man,” Tenzin Gynlpo said of the Dalai Lama, “so we believe him, and what he decides, we follow him.”
There are thousands of different mandalas to represent different deities, Tenzin Gynlpo said, but on the tour they usually create mandalas dedicated to the deities of compassion, long life and medicine. The monks chant prayers while sculpting the colored sand. When it is completed, they will sweep the sand into a box and deposit it in the Peace Park stream, sending their prayers out into the world.
Pattison said the third part of the mission is to seek donations for the monastery. Drepung Gomang monastery and the surrounding community are quite poor, she said. Pattison, who has visited the monastery on several occasions, said meals are small and simple — breakfast used to consist of nothing but tea, but now with the money from donations, they are able to afford a piece of bread for each monk as well.
“They’re probably better off staying in their home village, to tell you the truth,” she said of the economic conditions in India.
Such tours are allowing the monks at the monastery to survive, Pattison said. “The monastery has been awfully poor.”
Because of their refugee status, the Tibetans cannot gain citizenship in India, and therefore cannot tap into the local economy. “The monastery has been awfully poor, too,” Pattison said, “but because of these tours, they are starting to survive.”
“Their aim is to get enough money so that they will have a reserve in case for some reason they can’t go on any more tours,” Pattison said. “They want to have enough in reserve so that they can feed the monks for a year.”
The original Drepung Gomang Monastery was established in 1416 near the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. In its prime, it was the largest monastery in the world, with more than 10,000 monks in residence. But the People’s Liberation Army destroyed it during China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1950s.
With the Chinese takeover of Tibet, the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959. About 100 monks from Drepung Gomang left as well. They settled in northern India until 1969, when the Indian government leased them 42 acres of land in the south of the country.
Sixty monks re-established the monastery there, and a Tibetan community and three other monasteries developed around it. There is also a Buddhist convent with 300 nuns, Tenzin Gynlpo said.
The monks maintain hope that eventually the Chinese government will relinquish control of Tibet. The Dalai Lama has said that although freedom for all of Tibet is preferred, he would be willing to at least accept more religious and cultural freedom for Tibetans under Chinese rule.
Now, Tibetans are discouraged from studying their own culture, and their way of life is diluted by busloads of Chinese who are carted out to the countryside to work.
The monks’ tour returns to St. Louis on Wednesday, and they head back to India in July.
Tenzin Gynlpo said he enjoys experiencing the United States and talking with many different people, but the road is tiresome, and they often find themselves waiting for the weekend. “In India,” he said, “every day is weekend.”
In the meantime, he said, gesturing toward the van, “That’s our home.”