Local couple host visiting Tibetan monks

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Typically one would have to travel 8,000 miles east to enjoy a home-cooked meal by a group of Tibetan monks. But those lucky enough to get a dinner invitation from Jilly Warner and Marne Stothart last week had to travel only a few minutes.

Williston residents Warner and Stothart opened their home to eight monks from the Drepung Gomang Monastery in southern India. The monks, along with their translator and driver, slept on the finished basement and family room floors or in a spare bedroom of the Warner-Stothart household for five nights. The group stopped in Vermont as part of a ten-month-long North American Sacred Art Tour.

“I enjoyed most the energy they brought into the house,” Stothart said Monday night after the group departed. “It was such a positive, peaceful energy that was contagious.”

This is the second time Warner and Stothart have hosted a group from the monastery that is home to more than 1,850 monks, most of them refugees from Tibet. Two years ago, Marisa Westheimer, a student with whom Warner works at the University of Vermont, mentioned her plans to bring a group of monks to Burlington, but said she wasn’t sure where she would find someone willing to house ten strangers.

“There was something about the way she described their personalities and who they were that made me think, ‘This sounds like a really interesting opportunity,’” Warner said Friday night as several of her guests made dinner. “And it was.”

“Thenthuk,” a typical Tibetan soup, was on the menu Friday night. As Tsultrim Nyingpo cooked meat, Tsultrim Sherab and Kunsang Gyatso chopped the vegetables to be added to a steaming pot of broth and homemade noodles. Two of their colleagues worked on a puzzle with Westheimer and other students, while conversations in Tibetan, English, and a little bit of Mandarin Chinese filled the room.

After dinner, Warner was most excited to have the students and a reporter observe the tea puja, or chanting ritual, that the monks engage in each evening for nearly thirty minutes. The guttural tone of any one monk, when merged with his peers, held an almost lyrical, mesmerizing quality, which perhaps provided an opportunity to reflect upon the day’s activities.

For seven hours each day, Thursday through Monday, the monks shared the monumental task of creating a mandala, or three-dimensional sand painting nearly five feet in diameter, as part of the sacred art tour. In Tibetan Buddhism, a mandala is an imaginary palace contemplated during meditation. After tracing the design, the monks laid millions of grains of colored sand onto the mandala using two metal funnels called “chakpur.” Though there are many different mandala designs, each with its own set of lessons, in Burlington the monks created one focused on healing.

Watching the monks work on the mandala was one of the highlights of the visit for Stothart, as was Monday’s closing ceremony in which the sands were swept up and poured into Lake Champlain to spread the mandala’s healing energies, and to symbolize the impermanence of all things.

It was “so moving, to watch them spend so much time working on this intricate object, and then sweeping it up and letting it all go into the water,” said Stothart. “It’s sort of a metaphor for life, I guess.”

Art was chosen as the subject for this tour, said Gyatso through translator Tenzin Dolme, because “it’s one of the most ancient parts of the culture in Tibet.”

Saving Tibetan culture from extinction is one of the purposes of the monastery. A region of central Asia, Tibet was once recognized as an independent nation. Currently there is intense debate as to the legitimacy of the ruling authority by the People’s Republic of China. The region includes Mount Everest and most of the Himalayan mountain range, the highest in the world.

The sacred art tour leader, who was selected by the Dalai Lama in 1995 to be the seventy-seventh abbot of the monastery, indicated there are several goals of the tour. Khensur Rinpoche Tsultrim Phuntsok, 66, said that in addition to informing the public about the art and culture of Tibet, the tour intends to generate a greater awareness of the exiled Tibetan monks.

Dolme explained in greater detail that monks who flee to southern India’s hot jungle from the high plateau of their native lands suffer health complications not only from a dramatically different climate, but also a different diet. Water wells, run by pumps, only work when there is electricity, “which is not often,” Dolme said. Several times a month the water supply is interrupted for as little as a half-day, and sometimes for several weeks, she said, further contributing to health concerns.

In spite of these hardships, the tour leader, Rinpoche Tsultrim, said that “the opportunity to spend one’s own life dedicated to the study of the Buddhist philosophy is precious.”

Chuchi Dhondup, 31, acknowledged that it is a personal sacrifice to be missing his studies for a ten-month tour, but said it is a “special opportunity” to spread awareness of Tibet, and to help the 1,850 monks back at the monastery. Money raised from sand mandala constructions; lectures; cultural pageants and other events the monks are holding in more than 35 cities in the U.S. and Canada go toward food and health programs at the monastery.

Like many visitors to Vermont, 26-year-old Kunsang Gyatso, who has studied at the monastery for three years, said he is happier in Vermont than in some other places the group has visited in the U.S. because of the landscape, the lake, and the trees.