Visiting Buddhist monks become 'friends for life'

By Sara Cannon, Pittsburgh Live, March 10, 2005

Pittsburgh, Penn. (USA) -- When Jonnie Viakley met the Tibetan Buddhist monks performing at the Frick Arts and Historical Center in Point Breeze for a concert in 2003, she realized it would be the beginning of a friendship.

Viakley, 54, was among those asked by Sue Martin, concert organizer and director of visitor services at the Frick, to host the visiting monks performing in the "Mystical Arts of Tibet," a sacred music and dance group.

"We all established close relationships with 'our monks,'" Martin said. "They are friends for life."

Monks Tenzin Dundup, who speaks English, and Sonam Tenzin were guests in Viakley's Oakmont home during their stay in Pittsburgh.

Dundup became "like family" and has visited Viakley six times as the group traveled since that August concert. She visited the monks last November at the 144-acre Drepung Loseling Monastery in Karnataka State, South India, to teach English.

Viakley said it was her long conversations about words with Dundup during his stay that caused him to invite her.

"We would sit into the evening and talk about the language," Viakley said.

The monastery originally was established in Lhasa, Tibet, in 1416 but was re-established in India after the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1959, Viakley said.

"Of the 10,000 monks there, only 250 escaped," Viakley said.

It was an honor to be invited to the monastery to teach English because it is not open to the public, Viakley said. The area is protected and a visit requires permission from the Indian government and a visa.

"I feel very lucky," Viakley said. "It's not exactly a Buddha Disneyland."

When she arrived at the monastery, she found that English books were out of date and had to create her own lessons.

"The English in the books was archaic, and the skill levels ranged widely," Viakley said. "It was a challenge for me and a challenge for them."

She said the studies rely heavily on debate and range from basic subjects like geography, sociology and mathematics to intensive monastic studies as the "grades" progress.

"I don't understand it at all because I don't speak the language," Viakley said concerning the debates she observed. "But it was fascinating."

Viakley was given several gifts by the monks before she returned home, including two farewell tea parties, but said the biggest thing she brought home was the memory of their presence.

"It's a fully aware calmness," she said. "They had smiles that seemed to go to the bottom of their feet. They have one of the most deep, broad cultures on the planet."

Viakley, a non-practicing attorney, plans on returning to teach again at the monastery in October for six weeks.