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  • The Value of Increasing Darkness

    Samhain                                         Waxing Thanksgiving Moon

    The daylight is gone, twilight has fallen and night is on its way.  Now that we have entered the season of Samhain, the leaves have vanished from the trees and the clouds, like tonight, often hang gray in the sky.  Samhain means the end of summer and in the old Celtic calendar was the half of the year when the fields went fallow while the temperature turned cool, then cold, hope returning around the first of February, Imbolc, when the ewes would freshen and milk would once again be part of the diet as new life promised spring.

    In between Imbolc and Samhain lies the Winter Solstice.  The early darkness presages the long twilight; it lasts from now until late December as we move into the increasing night until daylight becomes only a third of the day.  This has been, for many years, my favorite time of year.  I like the brave festivals when lights show up on homes and music whirs up, making us all hope we can dance away our fear.

    The Yamatanka mandala at the Minnesota Institute of Art gives a meditator in the Tantric disciplines of Tibetan Buddhism a cosmic map, brightly displaying the way to Yamatanka’s palace grounds.  In the middle of the palace grounds, represented here by a blue field with a vajra (sacred thunderbolt) Yamantaka awaits our presence.

    In the Great Wheel as I have come to know it, we visit Yamantaka on the night of the Winter Solstice, that extended darkness that gives us a foretaste of death.  Our death.  On that night we can sit with ourselves, calm and quiet, imagining our body laid out on a bed, eyes closed, mouth quiet, a peaceful expression on our lifeless face.

    We can do that, not in suicidal fantasy, but in recognition of our mortality, our finite time upon the wheel of life, awaiting our turn as the wheel turns under the heavens carrying us away from this veil of samsara.  If we can do that, we can then open ourselves to the thin sliver of light that becomes more and more, as the solstice marks the turning back of the darkness and brings us once again to life.

    When we can visit Yamantaka’s palace, sup with him in this throne room and see death as he, the conqueror of death sees it, we are finally free.

  • Gyatsho Tshering: My Friend

    Summer                                     Waxing Strawberry Moon

    Gyatsho Tshering* died a year ago  today.  He left his wife and daughter who live in a neat  home in a first ring suburb of Minneapolis, Columbia Heights.

    Regret is not a big part of my vocabulary.  What’s past is  past and cannot be changed.  A healthy life, I tibetflagbelieve, leaves yearnings for past deeds, past achievements and lost loves behind us, where, I believe, they belong.

    I do have regrets about Gyatsho.  Read the material below and  you will learn what an amazing man he was.  I sat in a class with him on South and Southeast Asian Art that he, no doubt, could have taught himself.  He was a shy man, a bit introverted, although that could have been partly his immersion, late in life, in U.S. culture.

    He loved to share his knowledge, to speak from within his own experience and learning.  He was a sweet man, and, as I told Scott Simpson today, I don’t meet many sweet people, a result, no  doubt, of the company I keep.

    We had plans, Gyatsho and I, but we both tarried in fulfilling them.  I was going to eat at his house, learn more about Tibetan Buddhism, just spend time with him.  He didn’t call.  I didn’t call.  Then, he died.  Tarrying has a cost.

    As a result, I went to his house today with a lump in my throat, a combination of grief and yearning, grief for Gyatsho’s absence and yearning for the time we did not get to spend together.

    Tibetan Buddhists, as in the Jewish tradition, commemorate a loved one on the anniversary of the death.  Monks come to chant, friends and family prepare food, people sit on folding chairs and eat from styrofoam plates using plastic spoons and forks.  Sound familiar?

    Gyatsho’s gracious wife,  Namgyal Dolma, received guests and guided us in the ritual.  Scott, Yin and I went in, one at a time into the tiny corner bedroom transformed into a small temple with thangkas and prayer flags, an altar with offerings and the monks on low cushions and the smell of incense.  The chanting was remarkable, mesmerizing.  I wanted to be there, bowing first to the monks, hands folded in a namaste like position, then to the altar.

    The chanting fell over me like a shroud, no, like a prayer shawl, a tefillin.  It moved me into a sacred space at once, the repetition soothing.  One of the monks, thick of shoulder with a magenta robe crossed over one shoulder, the other shoulder bare chanted in two tones, the throat singing that has gained some fame here.  The other three, with magenta robes and gold, chanted in a single tone.  They began at 10:00 am and will end around 5 pm, with, as Namgyal said, a break for lunch.

    Namgyal said, “He was my husband,” she paused, “and my teacher, too.  He still lives here.”  Her hands swept over her body.  Me, too.  In a much less intense way of course, but his presence lives on for me, as well.

    In a setting back home in Dharamsala or Tibet the monks would have been at one end of a long room, the food and the guests distributed further back.  Every one would pray.  In the more cramped conditions of a 1960’s working class suburban home, the whole became fragments:  the monks in the corner temple room, the guests outside under an amazing orange tent, food being cooked in the garage with propane burners and woks.

    So, yes, I admit it.  I regret not pursuing with more vigor and intention my relationship with Gyatsho.  Not many, but this is one.

    *Obituary: Gyatsho Tshering, Eminent Scholar of Tibetan Studies
    Phayul[Monday, June 29, 2009 12:17]

    by Bhuchung K. Tsering

    His Holiness the Dalai Lama inspecting the Library’s construction plans with former director of LTWA Mr Gyatso Tsering (Left) (Photo: Tibet.net/file)

    His Holiness the Dalai Lama inspecting the Library’s construction plans with former director of LTWA Mr Gyatso Tsering (Left) (Photo: Tibet.net/file)

    Gyatsho Tshering, former director of the Library of Tibetan Works & Archives and a respected scholar, passed away on June 25, 2009 at a hospital in Minneapolis, MN, after a brief illness. He was 73.

    Born in 1936 in Sikkim to Lobsang Lama and Nyima Dolma, he finished his college education from the University of Calcutta. Following his studies, Ku-ngo Gyatsho la worked in the Ministry of External Affairs and the Ministry of Home Affairs of the Government of India, and had served at the Indian Mission in Lhasa. He also served in the Government of Sikkim.

    He joined the service of the Central Tibetan Administration in 1963 and worked in various departments until his retirement in the late 1990s. He served in the publications and translation department in 1965. In 1966 he was transferred to the Foreign Department and in 1967 to the Department of Religion and Culture. During his stint there he was a member of the entourage of H.H. the Dalai Lama during his first trip to Japan and Thailand. Subsequently he was promoted as a Secretary in the Department and later as Assistant Kalon. In 1972, he became the acting Director of the newly established the Library of Tibetan Works & Archives (LTWA) until the appointment of Prof. Thubten Jigme Norbu as the Director in June of that year. He was appointed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama as the new Director of the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in 1974 and served in that capacity from March 1, 1974 until his retirement. Following his retirement he joined his wife, Namgyal Dolma, in the United States and they settled in Minneapolis, MN.

    He was an unassuming individual who shunned publicity, but was totally dedicated to his work. He came to serve the Tibetan community during those years when there was a dearth of educated Tibetans with adequate knowledge of the English language or exposure to the world. His most significant contribution would be the development of LTWA as the pre-eminent center for Tibetan studies internationally. He nurtured several Tibetans in the field of Tibetan studies at the LTWA. Also, it may not be incorrect to say that almost all of the Tibetologists serving in various research institutes and universities throughout the world currently have had some educational stint at the LTWA during his tenure there.

    His simplicity and his readiness to be of assistance endeared him to all those he came in contact with. Personally, he has been a source of encouragement to me from the time I started working in Dharamsala in the early 1980s. I benefitted greatly from his advices.

    As a subject of Sikkim and a citizen of India, Ku-ngo Gyatsho la had quite many work opportunities, often with more attractive compensation than the one he was getting at the LTWA. However, his reverence and loyalty to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and his love of the Tibetan people made him reject all such job offers and to continue with his work in the Tibetan community.

    He liked gardening and used to have a neat but small garden at his official residence at the LTWA.

    He is survived by his wife Namgyal Dolma and daughter Yiga Lhamo.

    A Home for the Tibetan Mind: The Legacy of Gyatsho Tshering

    Phayul[Wednesday, July 01, 2009 18:59]

    by Rebecca Novick

    When the young Gyatsho Tshering approached the Tibetan government with the idea to build a library he was told that he was crazy. “They said, ‘This is impossible. You’re just dreaming.’” Tshering could see their point. “But I am a dreamer. I just go on trying and trying.”

    Gyatsho Tshering (1936 - 25th June 2009)

    Gyatsho Tshering (1936 – 25th June 2009)

    It was 1967, during the early and challenging days of exile. The re-established Tibetan government, overwhelmed and under-funded, was struggling to provide for 100,000 traumatized and penniless refugees, flooding over the Himalayas fleeing the Chinese occupation. But Tshering had his sights set further than the immediate needs of food and shelter.

    Tibetan Buddhist texts had been arriving in the sub-continent across Tibet’s borders since 1959—carried on the backs of these same refugees. Tshering was profoundly impressed by how many people, only able to bring with them what they could carry from their homes, chose to rescue dharma objects from their altars; pechas (Buddhist texts) statues and thangkas (sacred scroll paintings) rather than items of monetary value.

    Tshering was deeply concerned that the millennium-old heritage of Tibetan wisdom was being destroyed by Communist forces in Tibet. Inspired by the stories of the great library of Alexandria in ancient Egypt built to house the knowledge of the world, he wanted to create a safe repository to preserve “the skill of the Tibetan mind.” He finally took his “impossible” dream to His Holiness the Dalai Lama who gave the project his blessing. “He was very pleased,” Tshering recalls. “He said, ‘Why not? Go ahead.’”

    But there were a few considerations. Firstly, there was no money. “We didn’t have any funds,” said Tshering. “Not one cent. Not one penny.” During visits to the West, he would always try to bring up his vision with potential supporters. He was repeatedly, if politely, turned down, with the explanation that the library would be a religious rather than educational establishment. But Tshering refused to become disheartened and he eventually found an ally in the Catholic Church that understood the importance of religious archives. “They were very generous,” he said. After this, other funders gradually began to come on board.

    The texts that managed to survive the punishing conditions of high altitude passes and a rugged month-long trek in the packs of Tibetans dodging Chinese bullets, formed the library’s very first collections which can still be seen today. Manuscripts were landing on Tshering’s desk battered and torn, with missing pages and passages smudged beyond recognition from snow and rain. It was clear that the challenges went far beyond those of cataloguing and archiving. This was first and foremost a restoration project.

    A team of the most learned Tibetan scholars was assembled—monks who had spent decades studying in the great monastic institutions of Tibet. “It had been part of their study to commit many of the texts to memory,” said Tshering. They worked from dawn often into the late hours of the night, filling in the missing parts of the texts by hand with nothing but their own memory as a reference.

    Gyatsho Tshering expressed his regret that with the computer-age Tibetan calligraphy is fast becoming a lost art. “Tibetan calligraphy has power. It has energy. That is something that I miss. But what can we do? The times have changed.”

    The manuscript restoration team lived without electricity in shacks that before them had housed cows. “We were living hand to mouth, but we didn’t care. We spent whatever we had that day even though we didn’t know what we would eat tomorrow.” Lamp oil was considered more precious than food. “Every day was a day of excitement for us because every day we discovered a new and rare manuscript.”

    Gyatsho Tshering’s most vivid memory of that time was the support that he and his team received from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. “He would personally take the time to come down and encourage each one of us.”

    The construction of the library building began in 1969 and took four years to complete and became known as the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. But just as it was mostly the contributions of ordinary Tibetans who filled its shelves, it was the contribution of the poorest and most disenfranchised Tibetans that stood out in its construction.

    In those days, many Tibetans were literally carving out a living on road crews in the harsh North Indian mountain states, sleeping and eating in dust-filled tents, and earning a meager 3 rupees a day. Many of these workers put aside one rupee and donated it to the construction of the library. Others even took unpaid leave to come to Dharamsala to volunteer as laborers on the building project. Said Tshering “They built it as if it was for themselves. That was very moving.”

    As the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives began to gain international recognition acquisitions started to arrive not just from Tibet but also from Mongolia, Germany, and America. Private individuals began donating their personal collections, including a number of gifts that had been given to them or their family members by the Thirteenth Dalai Lama. Tibetan scholars and academics from around the world began making regular visits to Dharamsala to the library that was becoming renowned for its rich and comprehensive collection of authentic Tibetan texts. Tshering recalled people like Jeffrey Hopkins, Robert Thurman, Stephen Batchelor, Alan Wallace and Alexander Berzin who went on to become seminal figures in the Tibetan Buddhist movement in the West. “I remember every one of them,” he said fondly.

    Today, the Tibetan Library houses the entire collections of Tengyur and Kangyur —the complete Indian commentaries on the Buddha’s sutras and the Tibetan Buddhist canon respectively. Every evening you can find Tibetans, generally the older ones, ambling clockwise around the building, rolling prayer beads through their fingers. “Wherever you find the collection of Tengyur and Kangyur, you will find people doing circumambulation around them,” noted Tshering. “Whenever they feel sad, whenever there is someone sick in their home, or when they want to find consolation, they go to the library and pray.”

    “The library was a pioneering institution in many ways. We started a thangka painting school, a woodcarving school, a philosophy school. We had the cream of the scholars. Each one of them was a specialist in some field of Tibetan learning.” The original idea was for the library to house only written works, but Tibetans were arriving with so many statues, and other religious artifacts that Tshering saw the need to also incorporate a museum. “To outsiders it’s a museum, but to Tibetans it’s something living.”

    Tibetans going back and forth from Tibet in the 60s and 70s were often requested to look out for missing parts of key manuscripts that made up the monastic curriculum, and without which monks could not complete their studies. Although they risked arrest and imprisonment for bringing such items out of Tibet, to Tshering’s knowledge no one ever got caught. He believed that there are still many important texts and documents languishing in drawers and file cabinets in Tibet, some that could prove politically “sensitive” for the Chinese authorities who have no interest in seeing them made public.

    Born in 1936 in Gangtok, Sikkim, a country where Tibetan Buddhism dominates, Gyatsho Tshering grew up with a love of Tibetan culture, particularly its literature. “The attitude of the Tibetan people towards Buddhist philosophy was very different to now,” he observed. The generation of which he was a part, was in his view motivated by a purity of purpose and a sense of altruism that’s becoming harder to find in the Tibetan community. “Nobody thought to extend their hand to outside help,” he said. “We all thought, if we don’t do it, who will do it for us?”

    Tshering served as the director of the Tibetan Library from up until 1998, after which he moved to the United States because he said, “I needed some rest”. He also wanted to have more time for his personal spiritual practice—an ironic reversal of the West-East trail that has led legions of Westerners to seek spiritual opportunities in Asia.

    “I feel very satisfied that I was able to do something that was very much of benefit not only to Tibetans but also to people around the world. I’m a very lucky person in that I led a useful life. I have no regrets. When I die, I will die in peace.”

    Gyatsho Tshering passed away at the age of 73 on 25th June 2009.

    This article is based on an interview with Gyatsho Tshering that took place in the summer of 2007 in Dharamsala. Rebecca Novick is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post and the founding producer of The Tibet Connection radio program online at thetibetconnection.org

  • After this life

    Summer                            Waning Summer Moon

    Life keeps coming at us until this one stops.  Gyatsho has been on my mind since his death.  As I indicated the day I discussed his death here, the Tibetan belief is that he is now in a possibly 49 day process of finding a home for his reincarnation.  As I’ve worked outside, I’ve looked up from time to time, imagined Gyatsho’s consciousness, his very subtle mind, making a transit through the invisible world, hunting for a new home, working toward enlightenment.

    As I’ve considered this, it comforts me.  The notion of a next life, especially a next life focused on learning left over lessons from this one, makes sense to me in a way.

    What has not made sense to me since early high school is the binary logic of Christianity:  heaven or hell.  One lifetime, then out to eternal punishment or eternal bliss.  Even when I worked as a minister, my theological system did not include such a cramped afterlife.   God is love.   If so, then love will rule a soul’s disposition in the afterlife and love forgives all things.  No need for hell.  This seems to collapse the present into amorality, but only so for persons devoid of gratitude or unaware of grace.

    My belief now runs more toward composting, but I’m open to the notion of survival.  If we do survive in some way, I like the Buddhist idea.  Even though I like it, I find it hard to believe because the evidence we have from returnees is nil.

    The metaphor that works best for me is the chrysalis.  This body I have now is a chrysalis, death triggers the next transformation, mutation.  Perhaps we pass into one of the multiverses and never even know it happened.  The next great mystery.