Monks lucky to be on the road

by Andrew McGinn, Springfield News Sun, March 23, 2006

Springfield, Ohio (USA) -- Tom Petty says, “You don’t have to live like a refugee.” So tell that to Thupten Tendhar. He’s the first to admit, “We are living as refugees.”

But at 7:30 p.m. today in Kuss Auditorium, he and nine other Tibetan Buddhist monks from the Drepung Loseling Monastery will demonstrate why, frankly, they’re lucky to be anywhere but home.

What they’re about to do — sing, dance and chant — would land them in jail, or worse, if they were back in Tibet. Occupied by communist China since 1959, the monks, along with their religious and political leader, the 14th Dalai Lama, have been living the exiled life in India.

A handful of the monks, of which there are about 2,500 at the relocated Drepung monastery southeast of Bombay, have been at Wittenberg University since Monday.

There, in the student center, they’ve been constructing an insanely intricate mandala sand painting — which will be destroyed and then ceremoniously dumped into Buck Creek at 3 p.m. today.

The lesson? Nothing lasts forever. They’re hoping that extends to communist rule.

“Since Chinese occupation, many of the seniors have been killed,” explained Tendhar, 30, who was born in India to Tibetan farmers. “Over 5,000 monasteries were destroyed.”

The numbers indeed are pretty startling.

In the late 1950s, there were something like 10,000 monks at the original Drepung monastery, built near the Tibetan capital of Lhasa in 1416.

Only 250 escaped the invasion. “Most of them were tortured and killed and died in prison,” said Tendhar, who’s making his first visit to the U.S. on this tour of mostly college campuses, which aims to keep ancient Tibetan culture alive, all while mustering financial support for the monastery.

His uncle, also a monk, was jailed for more than 20 years in Tibet. Their plight has been a high-profile one.

Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso, who was given control of the government in 1950 at age 15 — he was discovered to be the reincarnated 13th Dalai Lama at age 2 — won the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize.

In the late 1990s, a series of benefit concerts saw the likes of the Beastie Boys, Radiohead, Pearl Jam, Rage Against the Machine and the Fugees come out to rally for Tibetan freedom.

As for Tendhar, his parents asked if he wanted to join the monastery. “There was an interest within myself,” he said. “That’s what we call karma.”

And it remains a popular cause. So far this year, 500 refugees have made it to India to join their monastery, he said. If you’re wondering, a monk is allowed to disrobe in favor of family life.

But in their case, it’s not like they can just go back home. “They would have just come from free nations,” Tendhar said. “China considers these people dangerous.

“They have seen a lot.”