CARRBORO — A group of visiting Buddhist monks belong to a people whose country was invaded by communists, whose leader was forced into exile, and who live today as refugees.
And yet they seem so happy.
“Truly, they lift our spirits,” said Art Menius, the director of the ArtsCenter, where seven monks from the Drepung Gomang Monastic College in south India opened an extended visit Wednesday night.
“To think, 55 years years of oppression, but instead of going around low as us, they’re happy to share their culture,” Menius said. “It’s just so enlivening.”
The monks, in shaved heads and red and gold robes, speak little English.
But in an interview Friday, they repeated the messages in their Wednesday cultural pageant, which featured throat singing, a reenactment of a young monk being schooled in Buddhist philosophy, and a fanciful Snow Lion Dance, symbolizing “the fearless and elegant quality of the enlightened mind.”
Peace. No fighting. Compassion.
“We need freedom to bring the Dalai Lama back someday,” said Geshi Lobsang Jampa. The 43-year-old fled Tibet in 1990, traveling by foot through the mountains to Nepal. He walks his fingers across his open left palm, as fellow monk Kunsang Gyatso interprets his words.
Jampa eventually met Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, whom Tibetan Buddhists believe to be the reincarnated bodhisattva, or enlightened being, of compassion.
He stops his story, closes his eyes and shakes his head.
“He thought, ‘Is this real?’” Gyatso says.
The Drepung Monastery was founded in 1416 near Llasa, the Tibetan capital, and had more than 10,000 monks before the People’s Republic of China invaded in 1959, according to the monks.
All told, 1.2 million Tibetans have been killed by the Chinese in a campaign the monks compare to the massacres of Native American peoples by European settlers in the United States. More than 6,000 monasteries have been destroyed.
In 1962, India gave surviving Goman monks land in south India where they are rebuilding their monastery within a larger Tibetan refugee community.
Tours like this one stopping in Carrboro help raise money for the community.
This is the monk’s fourth visit to Carrboro, though the monastery sends different groups of men each year. Tour organizer Eve Barkley has signed an agreement with the ArtsCenter that will bring them back for another five years.
An anonymous donor helps pay expenses, Menius said. “It’s a lovely thing, the details of which I can’t divulge,” he said.
Having the same space to come back to is important for Barkley.
“I want to see (the tour) become a part of the community,” she said, “where people can come together and not just make contact with the monks, but with each other – because that really is community.”
It may not be home, but for a group of traveling monks happy to share their story, it may someday help them get one step closer.