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Tibetan monks' path brings them to New Canaan

Published 8:48 am, Saturday, August 24, 2013

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  • A monk works on the sand mandala at Silver Hill hospital in New Canaan. The monks did workshops and presentations with patients and the public during their six-day visit. Photo: Tyler Woods
    A monk works on the sand mandala at Silver Hill hospital in New Canaan. The monks did workshops and presentations with patients and the public during their six-day visit. Photo: Tyler Woods

 

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More than 7,200 miles separate New Canaan, Conn., and Dehradun, India, but that didn't stop seven Tibetan monks from the Labrang Tashi Kyil Monastery from making their way to Silver Hill Hospital for a six-day visit.

The monks arrived at the hospital on Aug. 16 and hosted workshops, lectures and a cultural performance open to the public over the course of their visit.

In addition, they spent days working on a sand mandala, an intricate and precise design made from millions of grains of dyed sand they painstakingly pour onto a platform on the floor.

"Our main aim to come here to spread peace and show culture," said Tenpa Phuntsok, one of the monks. "We also create sand mandala. ... When creating, we focus on visualizing peace in the world. Also we come raising funds for the monastery."

The sand mandala is a brightly colored picture of the globe with an elephant, monkey, hare and grouse stacked on top of each other in the middle.

In 16 alternating tabs around the globe are inlaid cultural and religious symbols, and the whole of it is ringed by alternating green, yellow, purple and red parallelograms.

Over the course of several days, the red-robed monks would take turns sitting over the mandala and tapping sand through a cone-shaped device called a chakpur to meticulously color in the design.

The monks' trip was sponsored by the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center of Bloomington, Ind.

They've visited a number of other cities, including New York and Louisville, Ky.

"We thought it would be of interest to many of our patients and our staff because what they were offering seemed to have some relevance to particular people who were trying to recover from illness, (both) psychiatric and substance abuse," Dr. Sigurd Ackerman, Silver Hill's president and medical director, said. "We also thought it was just plain interesting and would be enjoyable to the patients and public."

Some of their workshops at the hospital included discussions of the concept of dharma and the four noble truths -- suffering, origin, cessation and the path leading to cessation.

"They call addiction a disease, and part of the eightfold path in life is suffering," said a 22-year-old patient at Silver Hill, whose name is being withheld to protect his privacy. "You see a lot of parallels between their teachings and (Alcoholics Anonymous), where suffering is part of a disease that makes you stray from your true nature."

Though it's a place of Tibetan Buddhist prayer and learning, the Labrang Tashi Kyil Monastery is in India. The monks fled there in 1959 after Tibetan Rebellion was crushed by Mao Zedong's People's Republic of China.

"Our monastery was established as a branch of major monastery in Tibet. The Communist party destroyed monastery and many top monks came to north India in 1959," Phuntsok said. "We are Tibetans, followers of Dalai Lama."

The Tibetan Rebellion was part of Mao's Cultural Revolution, which abolished private ownership of land and led to the Great Chinese Famine, when between 20 million and 43 million people died of starvation over a three-year period.

Heather Porter, director of marketing and business development for Silver Hill, said she was surprised by some of the monks' requests.

"One of the first things they asked for when they got here was WiFi access," she said.

One monk, who doesn't eat dinner and likes to have a protein-rich breakfast, requested Chobani yogurt. Porter also said the monks love basketball and played every day in the gym in their robes.

As for the monks, Phuntsok said they were having a great time in the United States.

"Everywhere we go people are very supportive of us and very helpful to us," he said, going on to cite a few differences he's noticed. "People are very different, especially driving, people there's no bumping, no horns. Here is very clean everything is very good."

The monks performed a cultural presentation Sunday night to an audience of 85 people, according to Porter, and had a closing ceremony Tuesday evening, at which they were scheduled to throw the sand mandala into the Silvermine River. The monks were slated to depart for their next stop Wednesday morning.

"The idea is this whole process is that it's an exercise in creating but also a lesson on the impermanence of the material aspects of life," Ackerman said.

twoods@bcnnew.com; 203-330-6582; @Woods_NCNews