By JUDY A. TOTTS
MEDINA â€” Clad in robes of deep red, with mustard-gold sashes draped over their left shoulders, six Tibetan Buddhist monks took their places on a low bench, sitting lotus-style as they faced the small gathering Sunday at RxYoga. The deep voice of the chant master, the Venerable Geshe Kalsang Gyatso, rose and fell in the measured cadences of the Tara Puja, 21 prayers.
At its heart, this Tara Puja ceremony is both an offering and a purification, an invitation to growth and an opportunity to remove obstacles to growth. Some ceremonies last 18 hours, some last three days. Led by Gyatso, this Tara Puja â€” a blend of specific mudras (hand positions), vocal chanting and music performed on an ornate reed horn, hand cymbals, drum and bells that submerged the gathering in an ocean of sound â€” took less than two hours.
Beneath a colorful banner depicting Green Tara, the chant ebbed and flowed, resonating down to the bones, taking everyone on a deep walk into their souls.
Each monk took his cue from Gyatso when they picked up their instruments to accompany him with, as one audience member put it, â€œa sort of Tibetan jazz,â€ that at first seemed unstructured. But there was a pattern to the clash of cymbals and the clangor of bells woven into the chant.
Prior to the Puja, the Venerable Jangchub Chophel of Gaden Shartse Monastery, who acted as translator for the group, talked about unity of religions. He said compassion and love are the basic universal moral ethics at the heart of most religions. â€œThe Dalai Lama tells people to work at being good at whatever religion they practice. The best way to view the world is through your own culture.â€
The monks must practice their religion in exile.
When China invaded Tibet in 1959, many Buddhist monks fled under threat of imprisonment, Chophel said. India offered them refugee status, and with the permission of the Indian government, the exiled monks established three monasteries in India: Drepung, Sera and Gaden, which is located in Mundgod.
In order to better care for the surrounding community, they wanted to build a hospital. The monks began to visit the West about 19 years ago, accepting invitations to perform ritual prayers and ceremonies, create sand mandalas and present programs about unity in religions and other topics to raise funds.
â€œOur last tour raised enough for the hospital, which will provide free medical and dental care for all,â€ Chophel said as the monks prepared for the Tara Puja. This tour will raise money to equip and staff the facility.
The monks have been on the road since December 2007 and will continue through April 2009. They depend on the kindness of hosts, like Bill and Susie Kirchner of Medina Township, for housing, or live out of their van.
â€œThey are incredible,â€ Susie Kirchner said, nodding at the group. â€œThey split six cords of firewood for us during their stay. Theyâ€™re used to hard work.â€
For some of the monks, it was hard work just to survive their flight from Tibet, traveling by moonlight through bitter cold nights in the Himalayas, hiding from the Chinese by day.
â€œThey were on a quest of being able to practice their religion,â€ Chophel said as he recounted a typical day in the monastery, which begins with prayer at 6 a.m. and ends at midnight after five or six hours of Socratic debate.
They lead simple lifestyles, with flatbread and tea for breakfast and flatbread, vegetables and tea for lunch.
The demand for programs abroad has increased, Chophel said, and the response has been â€œbeautiful. All the labels fall off,â€ he said. â€œPeople begin to realize weâ€™re all just human beings, all just people.â€
He spoke of the need for tolerance and the power of words.
â€œThe moral ethics of all religions is to teach others about caring for each other, to care about each other, to be gentle and to take of the planet,â€ Chophel reiterated. â€œWe forget today is sacred. We need kindness, we need to ask â€˜How are we using this moment?â€™ When our lives are done, it will not matter how much we have, but how we lived our lives.â€
More about the monks of Gaden Shartse
The monks of the Gaden Shartse Monastery in India keep a blog of their journey through the United States.
To access their Web site to learn more about the monaster and tour members, read the blog or to contribute to the hospital fund, visit www.gaden
Totts may be reached at 330-721-4063 or firstname.lastname@example.org.