I had just launched a cheery fund raising campaign to buy 108 apple trees for the consecration of a new monastery in Vancouver when a major earthquake bobbled eastern Tibet, bringing down the original from which it and others sprang, like seeds blown out of a pod. Only two of the complex's dozen buildings were standing, cracked and listing. Between 23 and 60 monks were reported dead, for sure most of them young ones studying at that moment with the great khenpo (master teacher) who perished with them. More than twice as many were injured, with few left to help. A friend in Brazil sent a front-page photo showing six Chinese soldiers in orange epaulets and camouflage straining to get through rubble carrying an enormous gilded statue of the Buddha. The sight was more sickening than all the devastation in its background because there was no caption, no way to think they were not looting.
After all, this tragedy took place in occupied Tibet, and involved an ancient religious sanctuary. In the fifty years since Rinpoche fled from it--with the Red Army shooting at his horse, the Chinese have made immaculately clear the last thing they want, right down there with AIDS and opium war, is the spread or survival of Tibetan Buddhism. Chinese spies have been all over this monastery, thick as flies, so that in the past fifty years of Rinpoche’s exile, the monks who kept it alive were continually caught in a cat and mouse game. Absolutely nothing could be achieved, not even building a primary school for Tibetan kids, without shrewd stealth, which the Buddha would probably have labeled “skillful means.”
The earthquake seemed more skillful though. By so instantly demolishing the study halls, retreat houses and dormitories the monks had managed to erect, it scored big for China.
I know these last two months have been crowded with other major disrupting eruptions in Haiti, Chile, Baja and Taiwan, plus a minor one under the sea of Sumatra, where the killer tsunami was launched several years ago. When the Earth decides it’s a little too stiff or weary being too long in the same position, it shifts, inadvertently throwing us off its back like bugs or bags. Perhaps it merely sighs in exasperation, heaving its shoulders a second, which is all it takes to dislodge us. Whatever. Right now it seems to be reacting to the whip of our faster and faster pace. Everything is blowing up at once.
The ancients would’ve said Earth is angry at the burden of bearing us. It is trying to molt or shed us for drilling deeply to remove her guts and core, for scarring her face, drying up the pools of her eyes and cutting off all the greenery that was her hair. The ancients would’ve wanted to appease and make amends. They would've tried every sacrifice they could think of, but we oh so smart moderns don't sacrifice a whit. We just move on to drilling for more homegrown oil or stemming its disrupting eruption, and complaining about the high cost of not being entitled to fly through spumes of volcanic ash. Our news cycle moves on, blowing off other people's disasters with a what me worry shrug?
I had a stake in what was at stake in this upheaval so I worried. I shifted gears from lightheartedly selling apple trees to heavy-heartedly trying to raise attention and ammunition for relief and rescue. Tibetan sources reported the death toll officially provided by Chinese officials was far lower than what eyewitnesses were counting. Newspaper reports seemed to imply official body counts did not include dead monks, which is to say they didn't count. Certainly no public news source mentioned the significant number of dead at Thrangu monastery, although it probably had the largest collection of corpses in any single collapse.
Another photo came from the Brazilian newspaper showing Chinese flags planted in the rubble, blowing in the wind. All newspapers breathlessly reported the current Han emperor Hu Jintao was cutting short a business trip to Brazil to hurry home and help, not once mentioning this is the man who rose to pre-eminence by satisfactorily overseeing the genocide in this very place, the man with the blood of at least two million Tibetans on his manicured hands.
All newspapers printed the trumped up photo op arranged during Hu's nanosecond in the area. No newspaper asked when or how this coldblooded killer so suddenly got religion. Instead they filled their column inches with the obvious: China had refused to allow the monk-in-chief, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, to be a comfort to his devastated people. Although it never picked up the story, the Dalai Lama reported to the Tibetan community in exile that China was so not kidding about how non grata his persona is, it had even forced the International Red Cross to refuse his financial contributions not only to the victims of this earthquake but to those of the one in Szechuan two years ago.
His Holiness urged free Tibetans to take up the slack and flood their kinsmen with enough help to rise again. Eighty five percent of the area had been demolished, and pictures came two days later showing the homeless covered with new fallen snow. They could’ve been the family of the monk who calls me “mother.” He phoned from Kathmandu to say they had lost everything but their lives, could I please help?
Many others connected to that monastery mobilized into a world wide web with astonishing speed. Eyewitness accounts by cell phone were transcribed into emails, photos and You Tube videos--the main one from Al-Jazeera-- were circulated, thank you letters from Rinpoche translated. Fundraisers were hastily arranged; dedicated bank accounts announced. These continual computer messages were crisscrossed with perfunctory newspaper reports, hinting that Chinese rescuers bused in droves were merely milling around smoking and chatting, motivated only by photo ops to use their equipment and show how heroically they were helping the pitiful Tibetans. The New York Times reported Buddhist monks, a river of maroon flowing into the region from monasteries in the surround, actually did the grueling digging and gory body hunts—tirelessly, and with no concern for themselves as they shoveled. But it wouldn’t show a monastery collapsed. It only went on to report the Chinese government abruptly ordered all monks to leave the area instantly and dropped the story as though it too had been kicked out. There has been no coverage since.
My teacher Thrangu Rinpoche whose name is eponymous with the d monastery that was blown away was distraught at so great a loss so late in his life (78), especially because the rebuilding of his historic home was a major legacy to Dharma. But the truer legacy, his unassailable equanimity, his unimpeachable greatness as a teacher and a Rinpoche (precious vessel who embodies the Dharma), revealed itself brightly in the letter he composed to the survivors. “We have been struck by an earthquake in our homeland and in particular at our Thrangu Monastery. The monastic college, retreat center, temple, and dormitories have all been destroyed. Many monks were killed. Many others have been injured and faced with great hardship. Despite this, when we comfort ourselves, we must remember that no one did anything to harm us, nor did we do anything wrong. Instead this is just the way the world is—it is a natural disaster. …
“This is of course a terrible event for us, but as the Bhagavan Buddha taught in the True Dharma, the characteristic of this samsaric world is that the end of birth is death, the end of meeting is parting, the end of gathering is using up, and the end of building is falling down. There is nothing that will not meet one of these four ends, he said. This is just the way this world of ours naturally is. This is nothing that anyone else has done to cause us problems, nor is there anything that someone has done wrong to cause this. It just happened naturally.
“The monastery has been destroyed, but in general, sometimes things wax, and sometimes they wane. Since this is just the characteristic of samsara, if we do not let ourselves get discouraged, it is not necessarily bad. We and others just need to do the best we can.”
Rinpoche has always said the best we can do in the face of disaster is to pour forth positive energy as fast and forcefully as possible to at least slow the flow of so much man-made or natural negativity. So I stayed at the computer, faithfully relaying what came in from around the globe out again, either urging others to help or assuring others we were helping with urgency. I was substituting massive activity for money I did not have in mass to give so I didn't feel so helpless.
Rinpoche's closest Dharma brother from that home in Tibet, the aged Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, lost an elderly sister in this quake. But he retained the presence of mind to have disciples at his exile monastery in Woodstock, New York, send out a poignant reminder that an earthquake destroyed Thrangu monastery 245 years ago. “The Venerable Thrangu Rinpoche was away at Tsurphu Monastery (seat of the Karmapa) and left two of the principal reborn teachers, Traleg Rinpoche and Tulku Lodro Nyima, to receive grain from the harvest to supply the monastery for the upcoming winter. Although this time it was Traleg Rinpoche's turn to go, he decided instead to send Tulku Lodro Nyima. Then a few days later in a casual conversation, Traleg Rinpoche asked his attendant: ‘Which is better, one person dying, or 100 people?' The attendant said, 'Only one person is better than one hundred people, of course.’
“Tulku Lodro Nyima and his party arrived at a hilltop on the other side of a valley, overlooking the monastery when the earthquake struck. At the request of Traleg Rinpoche, a special puja was being held in the main shrine building, and all of the lamas participating survived. But Traleg Rinpoche was in his quarters, and did not survive.
"Because of the destruction, monks went to Tsurphu to ask His Holiness, the 13th Karmapa, if they should move Thrangu monastery to a safer area. His Holiness said no, that the lineage had been maintained at that spot for a long time, and the main temple was still standing. Because of this, His Holiness named the monastery "Victorious from the Obstacles of the Four Elements." He further stated there would be great Dharma coming from Thrangu Monastery, and not to move it.”
The omniscient Karmapa of course saw the future correctly. Although Chinese Revolutionaries demolished the monastery like that earlier earthquake did, its precious Dharma vessels Thrangu Rinpoche, Traleg Rinpoche and Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche survived to spread the Buddha’s teaching around the planet. Traleg Rinpoche rooted in Australia with shoots in Massachusetts. Khenpo Karthar rooted in upstate New York sending tendrils to Colorado. Thrangu Rinpoche built thriving monasteries and centers in India, Nepal, Bhutan, Germany, England, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia (where the currently Lodro Nyima Rinpoche was teaching when the earthquake struck) and the United States where two brick and mortar centers have arisen out of two dozen organized groups. So thanks to their scramble after the Chinese cracked Tibet open, hundreds of thousands of us have been relieved and rescued from our own suffering by the wisdom stored on this afflicted property.
Almost immediately Rinpoche sent word that the handful of monks living in his Dharma Centers in the West and Southeast Asia, safe with foreign passports, were to pack up what supplies they could and go to Tibet to supervise survival. He asked the rest of us to support them in any way we could as fast as we could, and amazingly in less than a week, our American lama had a pile of water purification equipment and a surprising wad of cash. I don’t know whether or not Rinpoche got the New York Times article I sent so he would know the Chinese were busily throwing monks out, blowing off their exquisite help. I just know he was not going to give up. “Sometimes people might think that temples and monasteries are not all that important,” he wrote to us. “However, there are both transient sentient beings and the lasting external environment. With sentient beings, there might be many for a while, including great scholars and meditators. Great lamas might appear. There may be many members of the Sangha, but just as water flows downstream, fifty, sixty, seventy, or eighty years later they will all pass away and a new generation will come. When this happens, even if there were a strong lineage of Dharma in the previous generation, we do not really know whether that lineage would continue in the next.
“The way that the lineage can continue from generation to generation is to have a good, stable outer environment. When there is the external environment of a monastery with a shrine, retreat center, and monastic college, then due to that place, the Sangha, great lamas, and great meditators might pass away but the continuity of their activity will remain present there.
“This is why restoring monasteries is crucial. If the monasteries fall into ruins, the environment declines as well and the inhabitants gradually disappear. Buddhism would not be able to remain long in this world. But if a monastery continues to exist, the great lamas and masters can perform vast activity for the Dharma during their entire lives. A group of students will gather; the lamas will teach the students; and they will practice. Thus gradually the students will spend the first part of their lives studying and practicing the Dharma and the latter part upholding, protecting, and spreading Buddhism. When that generation comes to its end, a new generation can continue that work, upholding, protecting, and spreading the teachings, which can thus remain. This is why temples and the Sangha are so very important.”
In other words, three strikes but we are not out. Two of the monks who took off were hard at work preparing the opening this summer of new monasteries in the West, one with lots of apples for this teacher.
~Sandy Garson"Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"
Click here to request Sandy Garson for reprint permission.