White Lotus: the Cultural Arts Expedition Project By Carole Elchert
|The following article is from the Spring, 1989 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.|
It was late in the evening before Losar, the Tibetan New Year. By the time passing digitally on my watch, it was February 17, 1988. Since Tibetans follow a shorter, lunar year, their calendar designated the current one, 2115, the Earth Dragon Year. Their lunar calendar with its bold colors and retiring print in the bottom corner forecast of 1988: Extensive disturbances to nature. . . a degenerative era, various diseases like cancer and AIDS will be prevalent. . .the recitation of Vajrapani will be a powerful healing meditation.
It was the same year five artists from three continents met in Delhi, India, to embark on a six-month Cultural Arts Expedition to Tibet and the Himalayas.
Sipping from the silo tumbler that Tibetans offer as a glass of chang, their traditional barley drink, I was spending the last night of 2114 with my journal inside the Information Office of the Tibetan government in exile. Fireworks cracked outside, and streamers of light made the refugee capitalDharamsala, a former hill stationvisible on the hills of Himachal Pradesh. Inside, I doubted my conviction to finish the chang before morning, when four more days of celebrations hosted by the drink would take its toll on reluctant tea-toters. What made temperance improbable was the chang itself, brewed nearly five months by Pasanng's mother, and then selected from five or six batches for its sweet though hardly innocent potency. Beyond a precise stage of sweetness, I was told, was a bitter or sour chang that acts as a deathwish whiskey.
That evening, it was easy for me to settle into a waiting-room mood. After nearly a year of planning and hundreds of letters to organize the project in the US and abroad, I was wondering about the chances for our expedition's success. The political situation inside Tibet was volatile at best, and every news day told a different story about our chances of securing a visa from the Chinese government sitting on the Tibet Autonomous Region which had become an inflamed anthill after the October demonstrations. Anyway, we'd heard that the most difficult place to obtain a visa was in Kathmandu because the Chinese blamed some of their recent troubles on the younger, independent travelers who congregated in Nepal to gain entry into the still forbidden kingdom with its aura of Shangrila.
But all the members of the expedition were keyed into this tension of waiting. Would we be permitted one of the privileged audiences with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama? Would we be able to amass enough photographic images and field recordings to produce a thirty minute video for PBS TV? Would we produce our own workdrawings, writing, musicduring a pinballing schedule that took us from the Kanataka State and the southern refugee communities, to Dharamsala, to the blistering cold of Ladakh in winter, and back to Delhi's heat, on to Nepal and the monasteries and nunneries of the Solu Khumbu, into Tibet itself, back to the Delhi furnace, and then on a final excursion into Ladakh for the Hemis festival? And would we all be able to endure the campquarters of each other's company for six months, or would a loss of tolerance literally dismember the expedition? Waiting was in the cards, and worrying about things ahead just wasn't going to make the shuffle turn up anything different.
The next morning was an auspicious sign for the 1988 Cultural Arts Expedition. We were guests of the Tibetan government at a New Year's puja service conducted by His Holiness on the rooftop of Theckchen Choeling, the main temple in Dharamsala. Only a few questsmostly the journalist varietyand the administrative arm of the exiled government were permitted to sit with rows of monks chanting prayers to Pal Lhamo, the patron deity of the Tibetan Nation.
Not only were we guests at all the New Year's festivitiesthe dances at a sunrise SANGSOL or incense puja, the blessing given by the Dalai Lama in his residence to the nearly 10,000 people who stood long hours in queues, the fire pujas, the early morning Ginsek ceremony, the ritualized bonfiresbut we were also the house guests of four families who were the first generation of Tibetans to graduate from the school at Mussoorie.
We were also invited to photograph the Dalai Lama's private art collection in the Archives, invited to photograph and record both a full dress rehearsal at the Institute of Performing Arts as well as services at such monasteries as Nechung without a second's prior notice, and invited into already overcrowded homes. In Migmar and Wangmo's two rooms, three generations lived and practiced one of the central themes of Mahayana Buddhismcompassion under duress.
Then five days later, Aulde (the flutist from Paris) and John (an Australian painter) stood in traditional gown and chuba alongside Phil and I for a group photo with the Dalai Lama himself. Our fifteen minute interview turned into an hour. The video's name, Padma Karpo, or White Lotus, was accepted humbly by the god king of a people who were, as the title symbolizes, rising above historical circumstance and adversity by the flowering of Mahayana Buddhist beliefs in their lives. The graciousness of the Tibetans' leader, of a god king who insisted on wearing the expedition's patch on his gown, was the gesture that was repe ited over and over again by every Tibetanofficial or not, titled and untitledwho helped us accomplish our artistic mission over the next five months.
It was as though we carried a badge with the face of His Holiness on our requests, on our itinerary, on our needs, and the Tibetans in India, Ladakh, and Nepal bowed low and performed whatever miracle of diplomacy or maneuvering against a petulant bureaucracy was required.
My recording urge soon became an addiction, and carpet weavers everywhere sang traditional songs to oblige it. Six-year old Tenzin Gakyi, whose name means happiness, sang a popular tune calling for Tibet's independence, one we heard only hummed in the back *ets of Lhasa three months nd the three abbots of Sera, rgest extant Mahayana monastery and a sister to iide Lhasa, summoned chapel some of the 1,000 resident Gelugpa (Yellow Hat) monks from their nightly bouts of ritual debate. In less than five minutes, 600 seated monks were waiting for my diffident finger to orchestrate an on-the-spot recording of a special occasion chant, the Short Steps to Liberation.
Everywhere in the south settlements, expedition members were received like dignitaries by the abbots of monasteries and offered the obligatory tea. In fact, one tea cup seemed to spill over into another monastery and another session with a rinpoche or abbot. In the Kagyudpa Monastery, the Venerable K.C. Ayang spoke with us in the hypnotic tones of a voice long conditioned by prayer and puja services. His specialty is the Phowa teaching which prepares a person for right action at death, reminding us that there is an art to living and to leaving, to the performance and the stage exit.
At the Sakya Monastery, a pair of traditional felt boots, the colorful stripes in sharp contrast to a dull grey floorboard, caught our photographic attention. Some of what we considered photo-worthy was suspect to the good-humored Tibetan bystanders who laughed wildly the moment Phil began to take shots of those boots, as ordinary to the Tibetans as drying dung cakes on a southerly wall.
On the way back to Bangalore, our Khampa driver faced traffic and swerved from oncoming traffic with undaunted confidenceplaying a kind of open road chicken that is not only necessary on Indian roadways, but allows people the exhilaration of living just one second before the final impact with death.
After several weeks in Dharamsala, Phil and I flew into the winter world of Ladakh, a landscape barren of tourists and scant of heat beyond a small woodstove's output that is limited by the unavailability of fuel on this high altitude desert. Temperatures at night dropped well below minus ten degrees Fahrenheit and resisted two layers of comforters, a down sleeping bag, and thermal underwear to keep us warm. The days were cloudless and 25 ASA bright, ideal conditions for winter photography of the highest inhabited region on earth.
We lived in the S.O.S. Children's Village, one of approximately ten Tibetan settlements dispersed over the Indus River Valley near Leh. The highlight was the annual oracle and festival at Matho Monastery. To avoid the displeasure of two sword-bearing monks, their bodies energized by powerful tantric deities which enter them during a two-day trance, we photographed from inside a stall that once was a toilet. Monks assured us that although the lhas were sometimes enraged by cameras and other invading technologies, they would not defile themselves by attacking us there. The day before, a Sony recorder was spotted by one of the frenzied oracles. When a 300 year old sword slashes across a recorder's casing and only puts record function out of commission, there's no sense, we decided, in annoying its bearer.
Then back to Delhi and, with photographer Roger Sugden, the expedition moved on to Kathmandu and the Solu Khumbu region of Nepal. One day, after Roger photographed the ancient dance masks of carved wood at Pangboche, we sat with Geshe Ogyen Dorjee. He had studied extensively in three Buddhist schoolsthe Nyingmapa, the Sakyapa, and Katumpu, the older Gelugpa schoolbefore he fled Tibet twenty-nine years earlier and struggled to survive as a field laborer for many years in Nepal. Having a passion for debate, he challenged us about photographing Tibetan portraits when every human face was individual, when there simply wasn't a prototypic Tibetan face. Phil slapped his hands ritual fashion and conceded the point; the Geshe was delighted with his easy victory over the camera crew.
An April 15th opening was held at the American Culture Center in Kathmandu. The exhibition represented each of the expedition member's work in Nepal: Phil Sugden's sepia ink drawings, John Westmore's pastels and water-colors, Roger Sugden's black and white photography, Aulde LeLarge's flute compositions, and my prose pieces. The speaker that evening, the Chancellor of the Art Academy, called for more artistic conquests of his country, more cultural arts expeditions like our own.
It was the fourth month of the expedition, and after three weeks of waiting in Kathmandu, Tibet's borders were once again opened to tourists. The Chinese were reacting to the Monlam demonstrations and wanted some time to apply a veneer over the widespread discontent of Tibetans. Finally, four expedition members stood watching a monstrously long CAC 707 land on a perilously short Kathmandu runway, and only they and one Nepalese businessman boarded the plane for Lhasa. Trickling tourism was a problem caused by a flood tide of greed: A plane that should have been packed twice weekly was nearly empty because the Chinese courting big-dollar tour groups who were reluctant to enter the troubled land, denied access to budget travelersinsincere capitalists by Chinese standardswho were itching to cross the border.
In Tibet, two incidents, among the usual minor ones, attested to the Tibetan's rejection of their questionable autonomous status under Beijing's complete control. On May 17th, members witnessed a small protest by thirteen nuns who, after circling the holy Barkhor three times, were arrested by Chinese police who had fired a volley of warning gun shots into the plaza crowds. Several days before, a note that turned out to be an appeal for human rights from the people of Kham was stuffed inside Phil's pocket as he sketched at one of Tibet's most sacred sites.
After the waiting in airports, the waiting to gain entry into Tibet, the waiting in queued-up India, we'd completed the 1988 Cultural Arts Expedition by July 14th, 1988.
Once home, we renewed our funding efforts, and waiting was again the accompaniment to all our actions. Another year of waiting and studio work in order to complete the video by the spring 1990. Work yet with approximately sixteen Tibetan scholars contributing to the video's companion book to be published by Snow Lion. And arrangements with the three sponsors of a touring program for the 1991 Year of Tibet activities: Findlay College, the Office of Tibet, and Tibet House.
Like the Tibetans themselves, we'd become inured to waiting. What we'd learned from the Tibetans, though, was that waiting is the greater and more instructive part of work. In the time it takes for a project to complete its course, or a people to regain their sovereignty and their homeland, or a baby yak to grow into a harness is either a lifetime of duty performed without pleasure or a single second of delight.
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