CERS and my own office, the Buddhist Art & Cultural Conservation Centre, have one thing in common – a commitment to ensuring the preservation and continuity of cultures and the arts of the Himalayan region.
Himalayan cultural and spiritual research being part of my line of work, one can imagine my excitement upon visiting the eastern Tibetan regions of China for the first time; I was like a kid heading to the candy store! Immersing myself in a culture and place after a lifetime of reading about it was absolutely thrilling.
Modernization meant excellent roads, electricity and economic development. However, it also meant that my romanticized vision of the Tibetan region was somewhat curbed. As we zipped along the smooth highway from the airport to the CERS Zhongdian Center, the numerous modern homes and structures that were composed mainly of glass windows stood in stark contrast to the otherwise traditional sweeping landscape of Tibet. Workshops and garages came to mind!
As we sped along in the iconic CERS expedition Land Rovers, foremost on my mind was our most recent and largest project that I had left behind in Bhutan – the restoration of the 15th C Dumtseg Monastery in Paro valley. Built by the famous Tibetan saint Thangtong Gyalpo, this is the only stupa monastery found in the Kingdom of Bhutan. Its murals span over three centuries of artwork, including the largest mural in Bhutan of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion, and other unusual murals depicting Thangtong Gyalpo, both young and old.
A man of unusual caliber, Thangtong Gyalpo, or Drupthop Chakzampa (the Iron Bridge Builder Saint) as he is locally known, was the Leonardo Da Vinci of the Himalayas. He was not just a Buddhist saint; he was also an architect, an engineer and blacksmith, as well as a poet and the producer of the very first Tibetan Opera, called Ache Lhamo, which is performed to this day.
Our most exciting discovery happened a few weeks before my journey. Our team had discovered a section of the original wall paintings from the 15th C behind a large dusty altar that hadn’t been cleaned for centuries! Curiously, our team also discovered perhaps the only existing painting of Thangtong Gyalpo’s son, Kewa Zangpo. Kewa Zangpo is usually depicted in the form of statues, and no mural paintings had previously been discovered.
The new discoveries meant our team had the difficult task of further researching the historical facts. Much of Tibetan Buddhist history is intermingled with spirituality that at times borders on fantasy; making it tough for a researcher to separate the spiritual language from factual history. I had left numerous instructions and delegated responsibilities to the team; however, I felt uneasy – this was the first time I had left such a large responsibility to others.
Arriving at the Zhongdian CERS site, we were welcomed by the deep husky barks resonating from the chained Tibetan Mastiffs. Entering the dining hall, my eyes fell upon a huge familiar-looking white mask hanging above a doorway. I stood staring at it for quite some time, pleasantly surprised to find the main deity of the Ache Lhamo opera smiling benevolently back at me. Howman explained that the rest of the masks were inside the room, and that he felt that it blessed the place with its presence. Thangtong Gyalpo had managed to manifest himself even at CERS!
The CERS expedition continued auspiciously to Damozong Cave, or Meditation Cave of Bodhidharma, known to both Tibetan and Chinese as the first patriarch master who introduced Zen Buddhism from India to China and beyond. CERS has a project site here, restoring a meditation facility where our group stayed for the night. From there, we reached Khawakarpo Mountain, one of the four most sacred mountains of the Tibetan region. The peak is usually under veil of clouds, but graciously decided to let us have a glimpse shortly after our arrival. From there we proceeded into Litang. We had the rare opportunity to have Tashi Rinpoche’s merry spontaneity and knowledgeable presence with us throughout our stay – a most unexpected honor! Tashi Rinpoche, or Drogpa Tashi (Nomad Tashi) as he seemed to be affectionately called by those close to him, is a young Rinpoche or Tulku (incarnate lama), the reincarnation of a Mongolian Lama. He is also the descendant of the family of the 7th Dalai Lama, Kalzang Gyatso (1708-1757), a famous poet, reformer and practitioner. Naturally, we were given a personalized and detailed visit of Renkang, the birth house of the 7th Dalai Lama.
Perhaps it was because of his presence or perhaps our group was a harmonious bunch, but the natural circumstances for auspicious coincidences, tengdrel, followed us on our journey.
Entering the breathtakingly scenic Litang valley, we stumbled upon a local horse race festival. As we sat under the snow-white tents pressed up against each other, the very first drops of rain fell as the racers readied themselves. The word Druk means Bhutan, but it is also the word for Thunder, as well as Dragon. Tashi Rinpoche jested that we had brought the dragons from Bhutan. He was referring to the rainfall that continued to pour nightly at our campsite, accompanied by lightning and deafening thunder.
This was followed by a huge rainbow around the sun during our hike up to the sacred sites. The pathway leading through the narrow valley had innumerable sacred sites associated with the Kalachakra Mandala. Tashi Rinpoche’s nephew, Geshe Tenzing, informed us that it would take one to two weeks, at the very least, to visit all the sacred sites!
We passed the Lenggu Gompa that was founded by the 1st Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa, in 1164. It still evoked
majestic beauty, nestled amidst the rocky cliffs with the snowy Gye’nyen mountain range as its backdrop. However, its silence and semi-dilapidated condition made me wonder what it would have been like when it was considered one of the three major monasteries of the Karma Kagyu sect in Tibet, many years ago.
Returning back to the CERS Zhongdian Center was a retreat in itself! Cozy log cabins were hidden away amidst the pine trees, interspersed by an occasional fishpond and cobbled winding pathways that interconnected in the shape of the number eight – an auspicious number in Chinese.
I had the opportunity to spend some quality time with Howman Wong, the founder of CERS, by one of the fish ponds. It is rare to find Howman at leisure. Our short but valuable conversation made me realize something – to not expect anything from others. Howman’s words echoed my own sentiments, that one will and should ask a lot from your own self. It is up to you, and your own choices and decisions will determine your path. But what you receive from others in return remains a gift! To do things solely because you want to help, to do good or to give in the service of others, should be done without expectations, with a heart that listens and a mind that can let go. And as a perfectionist, I responded to Howman that the lesson I needed to learn was to let go.
Letting go meant I could work without fear, without anticipation and without obsessing over the outcomes. Success was not to be measured to my standards, but it was to be measured by those who received our help and where they wanted the project to go. As easy as it sounds, it is difficult to execute.
Inspired by all that I had experienced with Howman and our group at CERS, plans for a very first expedition were underway at our office; this time to the valleys of Merak and Sakteng in eastern Bhutan. I am determined to find out more about Thangtong Gyalpo’s son and the elusive stories of his family. The area of Merak Sakteng is the only place where the famous Ache Lhamo Opera exists outside of Tibet; with modernization, it is fast becoming a dying tradition.
Who knows? I go with no expectations of the outcome, however what we give we will receive in return from the people, their own hopes and expectations, and that makes it well worth the journey.