Gungbar Rinpoche, a Tibetan monk with a closely shorn scalp, was 17 when Communist soldiers detoured him from the road to enlightenment.
It was 1959 and the young Rinpoche was a student of Buddha at the world's largest monastery, Drepung, which housed nearly 8,000 monks in the thin, 2-mile-high air of Lhasa in the Himalayas.
The 500-year-old spiritual center was shut down by the invading Chinese, who arrested or murdered many of the Buddhists, and sent Rinpoche and other survivors fleeing to refugee camps in India.
Rinpoche, now 46, was in Ojai this week for a performance of traditional monastic rituals, one of his first stops on a yearlong fund-raising tour across North America and Europe.
Money from the performance of "Sacred Music, Sacred Dance" will go toward construction of a new temple at the Drepung Loseling Monastery, which, now rebuilt in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, has grown from a small refugee settlement to a swelling religious institution of 1,200 monks.
"There's nothing particularly special about us," Rinpoche said through an interpreter. "But what we perform is very, very special. People who experience it, consciously or subconsciously, will be touched by something profoundly spiritual."
Messages of Harmony, Peace
A receptive audience of 100 people paid $10 each for that experience Tuesday as Rinpoche and seven other monks filled the Ojai Art Center with their deep bass chanting, brightly colored silk costumes, and messages of harmony and world peace.
Wearing maroon and orange robes, with street shoes poking out from below, the monks began the two-hour show by blessing the stage with their homemade Drepung incense--which, after the performance, sold briskly at $20 a box.
Then, donning tall, yellow pompadour-like hats, they raised their instruments--8-foot-long straight horns, high-pitched trumpets, cymbals, bells and drum--and unleashed a cacophony befitting a free-form jazz orchestra.
"The monks release the ecstatic sounds of music to welcome the audience to a feast of the spiritual arts," the program explained.
Their sacred songs, performed sitting cross-legged on Oriental rugs with a makeshift Buddhist altar behind them, featured low, diaphragm-wrenching vocals that, like a slowed-down record, engulfed listeners in plodding tones.
The chants, borne from the mystical experiences of great Buddhist sages, are believed to induce great spiritual and creative awareness among both performers and audience. Translated from Tibetan, the monks sang: "The world and its inhabitants dissolve into the sphere of great bliss and clear light."
Mockery of Death
Later, the monastic troupe performed the "Dance of Longevity" and the "Dance of the Cemetery Lords," the latter a mocking of death by two dancers clad in bright, red-and-white skeleton outfits.
Behind large, grimacing masks, the dancers twirled and stomped to the beat of a cymbal, depicting one of Buddhism's principal tenets by severing their attachment to wordly things and accepting existence as a continuing cycle of death and rebirth.
"The biggest problem with Western man is that we have dehumanized ourselves and lost contact with our deeper nature," said Glenn H. Mullin, an expert on Tibetan Buddhism, who is serving as the monks' interpreter and tour promoter.
"These rituals can do something on a higher level," he said. "Within the subconscious of people, they can generate a positive energy that can strengthen the possibility of peace."
Positive energy was in full force at the performance, which was sponsored by the Ojai Foundation, a New Age think-tank whose scenic 40-acre retreat served as home to the monks while they were in town.
Receives Hearty Applause
As the crowd delivered a hearty round of applause at the end of the show, one man in the center row showed his appreciation with a bowed head and hands pressed together in prayer.
Others in the audience, where woven ponchos, Birkenstock sandals and Guatemalan stitchery were de rigueur , made similar prayer gestures as they filed into the lobby past the monks.
One denim-clad woman approached group leader Rinpoche, whose name means "precious jewel," designating him as an incarnate lama who personifies divine compassion.
"It was an incredible blessing to have you here," she said. "It was beautiful."
Rinpoche clasped her hand in his, cocked his head to the side and smiled.