Prayer flags, sacred paintings called Thangka, and silk banners will accompany six exiled Tibetan monks clad in traditional saffron and burgundy robes to the OM (Omaha Healing Arts) Center August 28 through September 7. Hosted by the Center and nonprofit organization Compassion Omaha, the program Sacred Earth and Healing Arts of Tibet will take place at the OM Center in the Old Market. “Because the monks are refugees living in India, they don’t qualify for governmental support. They raise money to live and keep the culture alive…For the monastery to survive, the monks send a group to the US to tour and share this amazing culture with us,” points out owner and director of the OM Center Sandy Aquila. This year, two of the six visiting monks have personally escaped Tibet, and each has studied for more than 24 years at the Gaden Shartse Monastic College in Mundgod, India. A translator from India and driver Joe Benson from Omaha will accompany Geshe Jampa, Phelgya, Jampa Lobsang, Sr., Nyenda Bhutia, Jampa Lobsang Jr., Lobsang Dhondup and Lobsang Ngawang on their tour across the United States this year.
Proceeds from seven events will support the Gaden Shartse Monastic College’s efforts “to preserve the educational, spiritual, and cultural traditions of Tibet,” according to Aquila. The monastery provides food, housing, clothing and basic needs for more than 3000 monks at approximately $1 per day, per monk. The teachers, generally graduates of the Monastic College, often teach for more than seven hours daily for only $4 per month. Because children often begin their training at a young age and come from far away, these teachers take the role of parents and mentors to the young monks. Unfortunately, the Tibetans’ refugee status disqualifies their monastery from government aid. “Our Omaha Gaden Shartse events have made significant contributions to the monastery over the past 20 years: helping build the main temple, enclose open sewers, build/equip the health clinic, library and office, provide solar water heaters, and provide medical care for the large number of Tibetans and other refugees in the area,” states Aquila. In addition to helping pay the continuous cost of maintaining the monastery, contributions to this year’s tour will help build visitors’ accommodations as well as staff and stock the new Gaden Shartse Hospital, which provides free care to residents of the area as well as the monks.
Sacred Earth and Healing Arts of Tibet begins Wednesday, August 28th at noon as the monks begin to create a Green Tara mandala. Mandalas are intricate, colorful works of art traditionally created only in monasteries for meditation practice and festivals. Many types of mandalas are created in the Tibetan branch of Vajrayana Buddhism. Each sand mandala represents the architectural layout of the palace of a specific deity as well as the entire universe. Mandalas contain complex symbolism where iconography, placement, and color all have significance. “Green Tara is the female representation of the Buddha of Compassion,” explains Roxanne Wach, president and executive director of Compassion Omaha. “She is associated with longevity, protecting travel and guarding her followers on their spiritual journey. She’s always depicted with one leg not in the lotus pose, because she’s ready to help the world,” explains Wach.
The two-dimensional sand mandala created at the OM Center will be about four feet in diameter and require 40 to 70 hours of work. The monks precisely apply the sand by gently tapping it through metal cones. Visitors are welcome to watch the progressive creation of the mandala from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m daily. “We hope that people will stop by OM Center throughout the visit, to see different stages of the mandala,” invites Wach. Usually the monks working on the mandala will not be available to meet, but they will be free in the afternoon to talk to visitors. Some but not all speak English, but translator Jampa Sr. will be available. All are welcome to visit the monks and participate in the week’s events: “We have people from all walks of life come to see the monks from adults, children and seniors,” states Aquila.
The week will begin on Wednesday the 28th at 7:30 p.m. with the ceremony Chay Drol: Clearing Obstacles. A lama will place colored strings and fabric, which represent one’s personal obstacles, on participants’ bodies. After some visualizations and blessings, he will cut the strings and fabric using Weapons of Wisdom, which are ritually transformed objects. This ceremony confers liberation, wisdom, and accomplishment of goals.
The monks will conduct and participate in a variety of events for their remaining time in Omaha. On Friday, August 30, community members may attend a session of guided meditation called Empowerment of Chenrzig at 7:30 p.m. intended to help participants be more peaceful and compassionate despite instability.
The monks will perform several ancient and sacred dances, chants and debates that celebrate the mythology and spiritual history of Tibet on Saturday, August 31 at 7:30 p.m. A highlight of their visit, the program features vibrant costumes, masks, instruments and multi-phonic vocalizations and contains both sacred deep chanting and folk dances. The monks will chant and play instruments like the long horn (Dhung Chen), short horn (Gyaling), cymbals, ritual bells and drums. They will also demonstrate their style of debate, a method of study. Wach adds, “this is a wonderful event for families. Kids always love it.”
On September 2 the monks will appear in the Septemberfest Labor Day Parade downtown from 10 a.m. to noon. On Wednesday, September 4 at 7:30 p.m., the monks will perform the Healing for Healers ritual; “it's really open for everyone who would like healing, yet especially helpful for those in healing arts of any kind, from holistic to western medicine,” according to Aquila. In the tradition of the Buddha of Purification, Vajravidharan, the cleansing is intended to remove negativity and bring clarity of body, mind and spirit through visualizations and guided steps, including pouring radiant nectar and rays of light into body and mind and dispersing negativity. “The wonderful thing about these rituals and ceremonies is that everything has multi-layered meanings, but you don’t have to understand all of the meanings in order to benefit from them,” notes Wach.
Part of Old Market First Friday, on September 6 from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. will be a closing reception for the benefit art show titled “What Does Compassion Look Like,” featuring art available for viewing and purchase since the monks’ arrival on August 28th. The art was generated from over 600 Post-It Note suggestions submitted during Compassion Omaha’s inaugural event Five Days of Compassion. This closing reception will include the artists and monks as they finish the mandala. Art sales will benefit the artists, Compassion Omaha, and the Gaden Shartse Monastery.
Finally, on Saturday, September 7 at 8:00 p.m., the construction of the mandala will culminate with its destruction in a closing ceremony signifying impermanence. Participants will share in the traditional ceremony of compassion and blessings, and will receive a small piece of the mandala. Some of the sand used in the art will also be released into local water to bless the entire Omaha area.
Aquila and Wach have brought the Tibetan monks to Omaha about every other year for more than 20 years. While Aquila, Wach and her husband Dan spearhead the monks’ visits, Aquila also acknowledges the many volunteers who support their visits. This is the first year Compassion Omaha will help sponsor the events. “For the last 10 years we've held events at OM Center. Before that, we held them at the Joslyn Art Museum, UNO, Creighton, Bellevue University and Bemis,” says Aquila. “Whenever we bring the monks to Omaha, I’m reminded how universal and necessary their message of compassion remains,” says Wach. “It’s amazing to spend time with them – to watch them painting the sand mandala is both art and meditation, to see the joy they bring to the folk dances and the intensity they impart in their chants for the healing of the world – it’s beyond educational to see these types of events in Omaha.”
Sacred Earth and Healing Arts of Tibet runs from August 28 through September 7, 2013 at the OM Center, 1216 Howard St. in the Old Market. For entrance fees and further information, visit http://www.omcenterdaily.com