Last Friday at Primitive Art Works, a gallery in River North, well-dressed people chatted and nursed their drinks in the outdoor sculpture garden, standing among stone animals and totems, statues of Buddha and Ganesa, and reflecting pools stocked with lazy koi. Despite the price tags dangling from the artifacts, the people weren’t there to buy Eastern art; they’d come to be blessed by nine Tibetan monks with shaved heads and red-and-gold robes, who sat at a small round table under an oriental gazebo.
The invite-only puja, or religious ceremony, was one of the final events during the monks’ two-week visit to Chicago, part of a U.S. tour to raise money for the overcrowded Drepung Gomang monastery in southern India. The Drepung Gomang monks–not to be confused with the Drepung Loseling monks, who count Richard Gere among their supporters and whose CDs are big with the New Age crowd–belong to the Gelukpa, the largest of four sects in Tibetan Buddhism. Founded in 1416, the Drepung Monastic University was home to some 5,500 monks in 1959, when China invaded Tibet and began to destroy its religious institutions. About 100 of the monks escaped with the Dalai Lama to India, where they eventually built a new monastery. Over the past decade their enrollment has skyrocketed to over 1,500 as more monks have escaped from Tibet, but next year there will be less financial support from the Tibetan government in exile, so the monks have been touring Japan, Europe, and the U.S. in search of funds.
“At some point it becomes just another CD to buy,” said one man at Primitive Art Works shortly before the chanting began. Having attended several such events over the past couple years, he felt the monks were being overexposed and “taken out of context.” But most people at the event seemed to enjoy receiving the monks’ “blessing of compassion.”
During their most recent trip to Chicago the monks averaged two events a day, including performances, private pujas, talks on dharma (divine law), and chanting workshops at HotHouse and Healing Earth Resources. They spent nearly a week creating an elaborate sand mandala at the Chicago Cultural Center, a project that won them a front-page story in the Tribune. Glen Joffe, owner of Primitive Art Works, donated several pieces of sacred art to be displayed at that event, which is one of the reasons the monks appeared at his gallery on Friday.
“I think every year it’s just been building exponentially,” says Jennifer Harris, an energetic 33-year-old with a quick laugh who’s been the monks’ local cruise director since their initial visit in October 1999. “The overall interest in Buddhism just keeps growing.” Recently named director of special events for the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, Harris first brought the monks here as part of the Dalai Lama’s World Festival of Sacred Music at Loyola University and Old Saint Patrick’s Church. “I was sending E-mails all around to Tibetan organizations, because we needed some monks for this thing,” she says. “Someone wrote to me about these monks, who were in the U.S. for the first time. I got ahold of them and they agreed to come.”
During their first visit Harris lodged the monks at her tiny Lincoln Park apartment and was captivated by them. “One day the marathon was going by and they were, like, ‘Why is everyone running?’ They were completely mystified. They had no idea what a running race was. They thought some emergency was happening.” Since then she’s moved into a larger apartment in south Evanston, and she continues to host the monks during their visits. Most nights one of the monks will stay behind to cook, and around 11 PM they gather for dinner–usually noodles or rice with vegetables. They stay up until the wee hours debating religious questions, and during their downtime they occasionally play basketball on the courts across the street. “They’re not good,” says Harris, laughing. “They miss every shot.”
She recalls the day the monks first spied neighborhood kids shooting hoops. “The monks were looking at them and laughing, and the kids started playing with us. Usually on the courts the kids are swearing and bumping into each other–typical horseplay. But when the monks are playing with them, the kids are, like, ‘I hope he makes this shot.’ One kid said to me, ‘It’s good to see these guys in our neighborhood.’ I almost started crying. I thought, ‘This is why I do this.'”
Last winter Harris switched her studies from Zen Buddhism to Tibetan Buddhism, whose meditation, she says, focuses more on “contemplation than concentration.” Her monastic friends were surprised at first. “They were really urging me to stick with my teacher, because it’s really important to stay with one teacher when you’re learning and not shop around,” she says. “But they know me, and in the end they’re happy that I’m practicing on my own.”
The Drepung Gomang have sent three different groups to the U.S., rotating the monks so they can maintain their rigorous studies, and while some have gone more than once, only one has been on all six trips–Tenzin Shakya, a short, bespectacled man who speaks fluent English and has a driver’s license. His story is typical: in 1983 he left his small town in northeast Tibet with two friends, traveling at night to dodge the Chinese military and local police, and eventually reached Nepal, where he joined a monastery. He stayed two years before seeking out the Gomang monastery.
“I wanted to learn more about Tibetan culture and religion,” he says. “In my town there was nowhere to study–there was no proper school. Kids worked all the time in the field. There was no kind of future. People who live in my town cannot see the world. They don’t know about the Free Tibet movement. I thought, ‘If I stay there I will always be working in the field, just for the stomach.'” He’s written his family but never heard back. Though he sometimes spends as many as 13 hours a day driving the monks from city to city in their van, he says he enjoys staying with the same people every time. “I think many people here have never seen monks. They are very friendly. Wherever we go here, we make a new friend.”
The “teaching monk,” Lobsang Tsetan, speaks at each event, using a translator. At the gallery he explained the meaning of each chant and asked the guests to focus their minds or meditate while they received the monks’ blessing. Over the next 40 minutes the monks chanted while some people closed their eyes; one older couple appeared to fall asleep. Two French fashion-model types found seats in an alcove and put their heads in their hands. Around halftime a cell phone rang. On an adjacent rooftop a man in a green Esprit T-shirt took pictures and tapped his hand to the beat of the chant. Empty wineglasses stood before a pockmarked stone Buddha, and a man who’d accidentally kicked a bottle of mineral water into one of the ponds stooped to fish it out.
When the monks had finished and traditional white scarves had been presented to Joffe and two others, the gallery owner announced, “You weren’t invited to make a donation, but if you’re compelled to do so…” Not knowing what else to do, people clapped. The audience broke into small groups. One of the monks squatted down, watching a wineglass float across the koi pond. Inside, people browsed the gallery’s jewelry and dropped $20 bills into the bowl by the door.
The next morning the monks left for Pennsylvania. “I’m really sad when they leave,” says Harris. “It feels like my family drove off without me.” But they send letters and E-mail, and she’s already helping them plan next year’s tour. “Their schedule is so booked, especially as more people find out about them and are more willing to help,” she says. “It’s good that there’s more interest. But if they’re around too often, people probably won’t appreciate it.”