So what are those monks up to in the Himalayas that makes them so precious anyway? It can't be their music, which sounds like a Dixieland tuba after happy hour. It's probably not their singing either, which can sound like idling semis.
Tibetan scholar Robert Thurman (father of actress Uma) spoke about Tibetan culture to a full house at Our Lady of the Snows Catholic Church in April to introduce the Sun Valley Center for the Arts' "Arts of Tibet" exhibition, which ran for three months this spring and just ended. He began by giving a nod to Jesus Christ on the cross behind him, "and to all of his altered states," he added, gesturing to the stations-of-the-cross carvings hanging around the sanctuary. You could have heard a pin dropping, even with a thousand angels dancing on its head.
The crowd loosened up a bit when Thurman began to use Star Trek symbolism and Star Wars plot lines to explain the way "enlightenment" works. "Buddhism is not really a religion," he explained. "It is a system of understanding." He pointed out that the great British historian Arnold Toynbee thought the West's encounter with Buddhism would be the most significant historical development of the 20th century. Quoting the Buddha, Thurman said, "Belief will not save you, only understanding." But understanding of what?
If the number of dharma-talks and meditation groups sprouting up in the Wood River Valley in the wake of last year's visit by the Dalai Lama is any indication, Thurman was speaking to an increasingly Buddhist-curious crowd.
As part of the SVCA exhibition, a traveling clan of monks from the Drepung Loseling Monastery--once the largest in Tibet, housing thousands of monks and now situated in southern India--demonstrated the "Mystic Arts of Tibet." At the Limelight Room, they performed a series of traditional dances in exquisitely embroidered costumes and held debates in vaudevillian style, interspersed with humorous explanations by an extraordinarily affable monk. Behind them hung a detailed mural of the Potala Palace in Lhasa Tibet, where such song and dance evolved for millennia before the Chinese began cracking down in 1959, eventually destroying thousands of monasteries and killing more than a million Tibetans. So why are these guys still smiling?
If art is in fact "the clothing of a revelation," as the mythologist Joseph Campbell once said, the arts of Tibet may represent far more than the average song and dance. According to Thurman, there was a school in ancient India, Nalanda University, which lasted for a thousand years. At Nalanda U, people worked through trial and error on the science of spiritual development, practicing and refining meditation and yoga techniques which continue today, including chanting which acts as a kind of vibrational transformer within the brain. During the Nalanda period, and in fact today, millions of individuals in India and the Himalayas are supported like no place else on earth in the radical pursuit of higher states of consciousness. (If you don't believe this, go hang out on the banks of the Ganges River for a week.)
"Education was not pursued in order to have a better life," said Thurman. "The purpose of life was to become educated, or enlightened." The importance of compassion based on mutual interdependence was central to the Nalanda findings; strife and discord, it would seem, are not only socially unacceptable, they are based on faulty thinking. Thurman's post-modern definition of enlightenment is "the ultimate tolerance for cognitive dissonance," an excellent spiritual compass for the age of Google and a whole new way of looking at A.D.D.
If the notion of spiritual evolution seems hard to grasp, don't worry; the Tibetans didn't get it right away, either. For centuries, they were feared warriors, until the 16th century when the fifth reincarnated Dalai Lama transformed the military fortress of Potala Palace in Lhasa Tibet into a monastery, signaling a major commitment to the practice of non-violence.
Nowadays, the Tibetan Diaspora, including the monks of Drepung, carry ancient purification and harmonization rituals to many towns and cities around the world, gathering resources where they can to preserve Tibetan culture on the run. The Sun Valley area, with its deep pockets and high desert terrain, seems an ideal location and indeed has become the home of a genuine prayer wheel, a kinetic prayer device filled with thousands of written prayers by monks in Dharmsala, India, home of the Dalai Llama. On the last days of the "Arts of Tibet" exhibition, a group of local meditators gathered around the monks as they commemorated the prayer wheel which is housed at the Sawtooth Community Garden. We were instructed to breathe in the bad energies of the world and breathe out the goodness. I breathed in coal-fired power plants and breathed out bicycles; in with starvation disease and out with massages and hugs. It puts you on the spot with each breath to become a spiritual vacuum cleaner, defining what is good and what is not so good with every breath.
The most impressive expression of the monks' Tibetan sensibility was the construction of a sand mandala of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Universal Compassion. Over a span of three days, an intricate symmetrical design of ancient spiritual symbols was created using millions of grains of brightly colored sand. On the outer level, the mandala represents the world in its divine form; on the inner levels, it represents a map by which the ordinary human mind is transformed into enlightened mind. There also are said to be secret meanings within the mandala which depict the primordially balanced subtle energies of the body and mind. The entire creation was swept up and poured into the flowing Big Wood River with yet another round of blowing horns and chanting, to symbolize the impermanence of all creation. In ancient times, mandalas such as these were made of precious stones, sacrificed to the idea of compassion and enlightenment.
Even with a little practice, this Tibetan stuff seems to transform my relations to others in a powerful way. It has certainly improved conversation. I've even come to appreciate the devastating sounds of the great brass telescoping Tibetan horns which have resounded around the valley at various times over the last two weeks. They are not intended to please the ear so much as wake us up and purify the mind of its darker prospects. I think of them as cosmic leaf-blowers, cranking out a vital message from long ago, telling us to wake up quick and get with the program.