Posted on: September 14, 2022 Posted by: Glacier Staff Comments: 0

Photo by Omar Eloiza

By Omar Eloiza, Arts & Entertainment Editor, and Nick Stulga, Editor-in-Chief

For a moment, it was as if the Dorothy Menker Theater transcended time and space, with ancient Tibetan chants reverberating off its walls.

In the culmination of a weeklong stop at Moraine Valley as part of their tour, “The Mystical Arts of Tibet,” the monks of the Drepung Loseling Monastery performed “Sacred Music Sacred Dance.” The performance consisted of two hours of multiphonic chanting in which chord-like song was voiced by each individual monk. 

“These artistic traditions, preserved in Tibet over the millennium, are used as part of sacred rites, in daily, monthly, and annual rituals and ceremonies,” performance leader Dr. Thupten Tendhar announced. “Since the time of its establishment in 1416 A.D, Drepung Loseling has been one of Central Asia’s most important spiritual and cultural institutions.”

The chanting was led by Geshe Kunkan. Geshe is the title given to a monk with the highest academic degree within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Along with these sacred chants were their traditional instruments – a lollipop-styled drum known as a “dakini” and incredibly long horns known as “dung-chens” – being played with ferocity.

But before the auditorium was enchanted with the music of this 2,500 year old tradition, Tendhar led a five-minute silent meditation with the audience. 

Video by Nick Stulga
The Tibetan monks of Drepung Loseling monastery perform their final chant for “Sacred Music Sacred Dance” Saturday at the FPAC. The chant is meant to help bring harmony and world peace.

“Many times when we say meditation, some people might misunderstand as merely sitting quietly or maybe sometimes it is something to do with, ‘Oh, this is only for monks,'” Tendhar explained beforehand. “Meditation in actuality means familiarization, meaning we try to familiarize our own mind with something positive.”

Four separate chants lasting 20 to 30 minutes started afterwards with the multiphonic chanting of Geshe Kunkan. Throughout were slow build-ups of intensity, with more monks joining in, until the end, where the monks strain their vocals to their limits. In some of the chants, instruments were used to signal the climax.

The monks tour parts of the U.S. throughout the year. This year, they started in their home base of Atlanta. They will finish the tour in South Carolina in mid-December. Moraine Valley is the only community college venue on their list. Their next stop is Savannah, Georgia.

“From there, we will be going to San Antonio, then back to Atlanta at Emory University,” tour manager Elizabeth Ura said. Ura could be caught throughout the event sharing snippets of the Tibetan language with the monks.

Photo by Omar Eloiza
Geshe Kunkan (third from left) leads fellow monks in an opening ceremony Wednesday.

The tour was started to share the culture of Tibet, which has been endangered since the invasion of the People’s Liberation Army by Communist China in 1959.

“Under the leadership of His Holiness Mr. Dalai Lama, we are trying to have a peaceful, non-violent resolution with China,” Tendhar said. 

He also explained the need “to raise some funds so we can continue to provide basic necessities for the young Buddhist students at the monastery.”

The funds help support more than 3,000 Buddhist monks housed in the Drepung monastery in Tibet, down from a peak of nearly 10,000 in the early- to mid-1900s.

Earlier in the week, as students rushed between classes Wednesday at noon, the monks prepared for an opening ceremony in the Moraine Valley library, as an introduction to a days-long process of constructing a sacred sand mandala.

What resulted was a great contrast between the two scenes. Outside the library was hustle and bustle, with no time wasted. Inside, interested students, faculty, and community members waited for the draped, golden-fleeced monks to prepare for their sacred chants and instrumental performance. It was almost as if the crowd was no longer in a suburb of Chicago, but for a second, somewhere in the Himalayas instead. 

Adorned by his mohawk-shaped yellow hat, Geshe Kunkan commenced the ceremony with a low, buzzing tone that cut through the thick and busy Midwest air. At once, the library became still.

Then, without notice, a sensuous cacophony ensued, as the Tibetan horns blasted with vivaciousness, and the damaru drum kept a roaring steady beat, giving listeners a taste of what was to come on Saturday.

And just as quickly, the instruments faded away, leaving the audience with the low rumbling of Kunkan’s voice. The instruments came and went, but the voices of the monks persisted. Once the ceremony was over, the library was overcome with deafening silence, and the audience seemed to be in momentary nirvana.

Video by Nick Stulga
Watch as the Drepung Loseling monks of Tibet patiently fill the mandala with grains of colored sand. Just one sneeze would destroy the whole creation.

After the ceremony, there was an obvious question: Why Moraine Valley? Out of all the possible venues available to the monks and their mission to spread peace and culture, why this small community of a few thousand people?

“There was a woman named Jean. She donated land to us in the countryside, near Atlanta,” Kunkan said as the other monks began to construct the sacred sand mandala. “She helped us promote our first tour here in America, in 1989. And she helped us find these venues, including Moraine. I remember that tour clearly. If I could see her now, I would give her a hug.”

Kunkan remembered the tour of ’89 as if it were yesterday: “It was only a performance. There was no mandala. We started doing the mandala in 1991. But to this day, I still dance!”

Full of earnest and pure emotion, Kunkan began to discuss the cancellation of the 2020 tour due to COVID-19, and he began to recall the devastation of Manhattan due to the pandemic, where he resides to this day.

“It was only a performance. There was no mandala. We started doing the mandala in 1991. But to this day, I still dance!”

Geshe Kunkan, referring to 1989 tour, which included Moraine Valley

“It was empty. No one was outside. Only the outdoor tents and people moving those that passed away, in bags,” he said, overcome with emotion about the loss and suffering at the time. “It was so sad… so I prayed every day. I walked all across Manhattan. Union Square. Washington Park. Times Square. I walked everywhere in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. And I prayed. Prayed for health and for all the families that lost loved ones.”

A colorful pattern of sand had been meticulously constructed during the conversation. Hues of blue, red, and yellow in a gorgeous pattern had been laid out by the other monks with infinite patience and a striking gentleness. 

And after three days of painstaking work to create the sand mandala, it was all swept away. In one fleeting moment, all that meticulous work, gone as if it had never existed in the first place.

Just as brief and delicate as life was on those New York streets for Geshe Kunkan, so was the work of the monks. To the spectators at Moraine Valley, it seemed to be complete destruction of a beautiful thing. But to the monks, it was about embracing the inevitability of death after life. And the beauty of a fleeting moment.