â€œWhen they tour around here and see frowning faces, they really see how grasping at (and clinging to) material existence is a great cause of suffering.â€
-Julie Adler, producer for â€œThe Tibet Connectionâ€
[Download the MP3 for this week]
Welcome to the NPR Station Showcase with PRX. Iâ€™m Aaron Henkin. Every day, producers at the hundreds of different public radio stations across the country are working to create high-quality, original broadcasts for their local listening audiences, and each week on this podcast we give a little extra attention to the best and brightest of these local productions. This week, our travels take us to the West Coast where KPFK â€“ Pacifica Radio â€“ broadcasts to the greater Los Angeles area. Once a month, KPFK treats its listeners to a production called â€œThe Tibet Connection.â€ The showâ€™s been on the air for about a year now, thanks in part to the work of producer Julie Adler. This week on the podcast, weâ€™re taking a listen to a story Julie put together after attending a slumber partyâ€¦ with fourteen Gyuto monks. Hereâ€™s a conversation with Julie about her work on â€œThe Tibet Connection,â€ and her unusual sleep-overâ€¦
Tell us a bit about “The Tibet Connection”… What was the genesis for this program, and what kind of stories and issues do you guys try to focus on?
The genesis for this program lies with my good friend, the very talented and endlessly inspired Rebecca Novick, who remains the Executive Producer even though she is far away in India at the moment. She has been a Tibet activist and former president of our local Tibet support group here in LA for years (LOS ANGELES FRIENDS OF TIBET) as well as devoted Buddhist practitioner and documentary filmmaker; she had in the back of her mind the idea of a radio program geared towards ‘Ingis’ (the Tibetan name for Westerners) on all things to do with Tibet – the politics, its history and current news on the country, its religion and philosophy, the people and their culture both there and in exile. Despite a few feature films (notably Martin Scorcese’s “Kundun”) and documentaries, along with celebrity friends of Tibet and the popularity of teachers like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, that have helped to bring the story of Tibet and its way of life to public attention, there is surprisingly little in the way of objective journalism – and almost no radio sources for stories.
Rebecca pitched The Tibet Connection about a year ago to the program director of our local station here and it just so happens that he had had an incredibly moving experience in Nepal with some Tibetans right after 9/11, so he was quite drawn to the subject. To keep the program going while Rebecca is based in Dharamsala (the seat of the Tibetan Government in Exile in India), I came on board along with other team members like Christal Smith who has experience working for NPR (Weekend America and KPCC) and now serves as our Senior Producer, and Pema Dhondup, a local Tibetan who has years of broadcast work under his belt. I’ve worked with Rebecca on other endeavors like ‘Portraits of Tibetan Buddhist Masters’ (c. 2005 UC Press), featuring these living treasures of our time, and have sat beside her during meditation retreats so there was never a moment when I considered saying ‘no’ to this current project.
Each month we feature news desk stories that highlight the latest from the Tibetan Diaspora as well as Tibetans-in-Tibet stories like: the impact of the new Beijing to Lhasa rail-link that is bringing an unprecedented number of Chinese into Tibet; the fatal shooting of a teenage nun as she tried to escape to freedom across a Himalayan pass; and overseas accounts of the March 10th anniversary of the uprising in 1959 that led to H.H. the Dalai Lama’s escape. We also feature documentaries on subjects as varied as: Tibetan children keeping their culture alive in Los Angeles; the ancient Buddhist practice of fish release; and the powerful story of an American homeless addict who became a monk.
Guests are as varied as the subjects covered, ranging from authors with insights about the CIA’s secret war in Tibet (Mikel Dunham), to musicians who discuss the evolution and meaning of Tibetan music, to some of the leading minds in Tibetan Buddhism (Robert Thurman, B. Alan Wallace). We want to provide the listener with insight into the complexities of what the word ‘Tibet’ means. Most people aren’t really aware of how China took over this independent nation almost 50 years ago, or what the current state of affairs is on the highest plateau on Earth, or this rich culture and its tradition of preserving one of the world’s religions. There are ways in which Tibet has infiltrated Western culture and thinking, and so all of it can come together to give the growing listening audience of The Tibet Connection a sense of this unique endangered culture, its features and challenges, and its potential contribution to our present global condition.
How often does “The Tibet Connection” air, and on what station?
It airs the last Friday of every month, on KPFK 90.7 FM in Los Angeles, from 2-3 pm as part of the Pacifica network. But all past programs including individual segments are available 24 hours a day on our website, www.thetibetconnection.org, for streaming or podcasting.
Is there a large Tibetan immigrant population in your area?
It’s actually quite small here in Southern California, numbering around 200 people. There are many more Tibetans living up in Northern California and on the East Coast.
What about your own interest in Tibetan culture? What was it that got you into this niche?
My own initial encounter with Tibet happened actually in Woodstock, NY in the early 90s. I was looking to go to a yoga ashram for a weekend away from Manhattan but decided finally upon a Buddhist temple (Karma Triyana Dharmachakra). Up until that point I was unfamiliar with the culture and the religion. Throughout my short stay there, I was both awestruck but very uncomfortable sitting inside this quite elaborate temple of worship, with bright colors, large statues and a throne. I saw Westerners praying and mumbling words in a foreign language and actually thought it seemed quite ridiculous. Why not pray in English, I thought? Or Latin or Hebrew, at least? We’re here in the US, not Asia, I continued in my head. I saw people in robes, Westerners and Asians alike, bowing to each other, serving each other. It all seemed odd. But I was stunned by a book I purchased for the bus ride back to the city called ‘Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism’ by Chogyam Trungpa, a Tibetan teacher who was one of the pioneers of bringing Tibetan Buddhism to the West. Every single word in that book rang true for me. From that point I started exploring how to meditate, and dabbling in all kinds of spiritual seminars and dialogues while continuing to amass books and read a few of them.
I actually began to practice Buddhism from within the Thai and Burmese traditions for a number of years. So in the beginning, I didn’t make a connection to the outer culture of Tibet but rather the inner culture of Buddhism. It wasn’t until I went to China about seven years later, on a travel grant, alone, that I stopped in a Tibetan village called Xiahe. Here something really extraordinary transpired. I found myself invited into a Tibetan home for butter tea (which I still haven’t acquired a taste for) and bread and feeling really happy to be there. I also spent some time with Tibetan nuns and traveled back to Beijing with an American woman who had become an ordained Tibetan Buddhist nun in the late 60s and she became a good friend, kind of a mentor. I came back to the States with a deeper feeling of being connected to the Tibetan religion but also the culture, so even the prostrating to statues or chanting didn’t feel as awkward but part of something I was more at home with. By the following year, I became a Dalai Lama ‘groupie’, following him around to receive various teachings when he came to California and, by 2002, I headed to India for more teachings and experiences. My interest in the politics and culture of Tibet itself came more recently. Realizing that what I’m studying or practicing came from Tibet, it feels like my responsibility to help preserve what remains of the culture and religion. It breaks my heart to know that so much of it has been destroyed already and that the rest is in jeopardy of disappearing forever.
Hearing recordings of the Gyuto Monks is incredible in itself, but it must have been something else entirely to be sitting in a living room and hearing them doing their polyphonic singing live and in person… what was that like for you?
Well actually I’ve been in a room before, I have to admit, with about 3,000 monks chanting inside and 7,000 more outside; albeit that particular room was the size of a small football field – it is actually the temple hall of one of the bigger monasteries in one of the Tibetan settlements in South India. Some 60,000 Tibetan refugees now live down there. That time, while attending a teaching of the Dalai Lama, I was sandwiched into a sitting position relieved only by a humid breeze and some Nescafe in my cup! And across the sea of bald heads, I’d hear this chant master’s voice gliding up and down and across the hall. I just felt protected even as I was slumped over in a haze. Every time he’d begin and the others would join in, I’d get goose pimples, and when I’d go to bed at night, I’d still hear it in my ears and skull, the roar of the chanting. And about 5:30 am every morning, while I was there, I would again start hearing the rumble of voices and the blast of horns. Even on the airplanes, as the engines get going, I always hear the chanting, strange but true. I feel like I’m home when I hear it somehow. So when I went to Sarah Wilkinson’s house (she’s a member of our Tibet Connection team) to record this segment on the Gyuto monks, I got that same goose pimply feeling when they chanted in her living room but I also felt deeply affected physically. They’re all ‘chant masters’, these Gyuto monks. And being so so close to them all – it was much more in your face, as well as intimate. My ordinary thinking mind just fizzled out for a few minutes and my body felt hollow and energized. It’s surround ‘body’ sound and it’s meant to penetrate and I don’t think you’re meant to analyze it too much. Again this feeling of ‘it’s all going to be okay because I’m home’ came over me and I drove around the rest of the day in LA quite happy and unbothered.
In your story, the monks make some interesting (and diplomatic) cultural observations about our own American way of life… what kinds of insights did you gather from what they had to say?
Yes, they are diplomatic, and genuinely so! I think they really enjoy being in America and sharing their way of life with whomever they meet, but they are also surprised by the high level of anxiety and depression that people experience here. It’s really true that in India (and Tibet), people acknowledge each other as they pass by just for being human beings. Smiling at each other isn’t a special occurrence or elicited because it deserved to be so. So when they tour around here and see frowning faces, they really see how grasping at (and clinging to) material existence is a great cause of suffering – to actually see this principle in action in such a tremendous way in a country that has everything from running water to the most advanced technologies and still it doesn’t lead to happiness… that’s the shock – the shock of the truth. Because of their training, their mind training, to become more generous, more disciplined, more compassionate, seeing the frowns doesn’t affect them the way it would us. For example, if someone frowns at me as I walk by, I might take that to mean that person has a certain disdain for me and doesn’t like the way I look, doesn’t like me. I might get upset myself and start frowning back. What I’ve noticed with the monks is that when someone frowns, it sometimes makes them laugh…because the appearance of such a face with all those wrinkles is quite funny. So it’s not personal at all and they never or rarely take these things into themselves. What is in them is a deep feeling of interconnectedness.
I also think they don’t get what it means to be ‘busy’ in the Western sense. They use the term ‘running around’ frequently to describe us. They run around, too, with lots to do but they never get stressed out. It’s a completely different perspective on running around. And they aren’t sure why we’re so stressed out busy. What’s the point? When material advantages are fleeting and life is so precious, why run around and frown so much? I think that is what they see, and probably they feel happy not to be affected and so influenced by our way of life. Life is much simpler in India, in the monasteries, for them – at least for now.
I was fascinated by the monks’ explanation of their performances as being ‘tributes to ascendant beings’… It seems like there’s almost a missionary aspect to their tour and the message they’re bringing with them. Do you think people are moved spiritually by these monks and their music?
Actually it’s interesting that you use the word ‘missionary’ because that is discouraged in most schools of Buddhism. Yes it’s a virtue to teach the dharma (the Buddha’s teachings) when requested, but you can only ‘receive the message’ from experiencing the teachings yourself. So in a way, what these monks are taught from such a young age, to develop compassion for all beings and understand the wisdom of the mind, is what they know – it’s not something they’ve suddenly discovered and have to share with the world. It’s like the color robes they wear…it’s just been that way for a long time. They are so deeply steeped in those teachings that it imbues every act they do. So when they come here and share their music or even their insights into connecting to ‘ascendant beings’, you have to understand that Tibet is unique this way. For over 1,000 years, it was a country committed to the principles of enlightenment through Buddhism, imbedded with such devotion and belief in ‘other beings’ that it isn’t that they feel they have to bring a message to others about this. It’s just their mode of being in the world. In Tibet, it was perfectly normal to bow and to descend to their knees in the face of an elder or teacher or to pray to beings you can’t physically see. Here, we feel hard pressed to kneel to pick up the trash.
So there is no separation between their spiritual and musical pursuits. Music is the expression of themselves and their aspirations, and I think it does move people, but there is never a guarantee. Sometimes it’s just a curiosity. I recall being at a concert with the Gyuto monks a few years back at UCLA. Afterwards they spoke about what they had been chanting, describing the deities, etc. But during the Q & A, the audience mostly wanted to know more about how they got that particular sound, the harmonics, and the pitches. They didn’t seem as interested in the roots or origins of this music. At first I thought it was quite disrespectful but now I realize you start where you are. People start by being curious about a lot of things. Maybe how the music is made is the first query. Maybe later it’s ‘Who is Yama, the Lord of Death? Why chant to him?’ But as far as pitches and tones go, Tibetans really haven’t had the chance to analyze such things at this level. Their education up until this past century has been mainly monastic or none at all.
Before you got to meet them in person, what did you think the monks were going to be like? Did anything about them surprise you? (Like the fact that they love French fries?)
Oddly enough, I felt and continue to feel quite at home with them. I’ve been ‘hanging’ out with monks since I went to India in 2002 and spent time in a handful of monasteries and I helped with a tour that came here in 2004. Perhaps I was a monk or nun in a recent previous life! So when I went to Sarah’s house, it was like seeing old friends, plopping down right beside them. But when I first met some of them a few years back, what surprised me was that they also like to do the same things we do. I thought they’d be quite serious and stoic in discipline and removed from the banalities of daily life. But they like to hang out, watch TV, listen to popular music, get on the internet. The main difference is we go to work – they go to study or practice or help in the monastery. That’s their job. We spend 40 hours a week worrying about how to pay the bills. They spend 40 hours plus a week studying ancient texts and worrying about the welfare of other beings. And they definitely have more discipline than we do to just turn inward and regain some quietude. And they can be comfortable just sitting with you and not making conversation. Just being there. As for the cuisine, I’m definitely NOT surprised by the fact that they love French fries. The penchant for fried food comes from things like fried bread and cookies they have in their own country. And potatoes are a more common vegetable to them than say broccoli – green vegetables aren’t high on their list of favorites, by the way. They also love hamburgers and pizza. But despite all that we have to offer cuisine-wise, whenever they have to choose between our offerings and momos (Tibetan dumplings), they’ll always choose the momos.
â€¦Julie Adler is a producer for â€œThe Tibet Connection,â€ which airs on KPFK in Los Angeles. You can find out more about the program online at The Public Radio Exchange. Thatâ€™s where producers form around the world share their work. Log on, write your own reviews, and have a say in what ends up on the radio at www.prx.org. For the NPR Station Showcase with PRX, Iâ€™m Aaron Henkin. Thanks for listening.