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CULTURE PEARLS : Tibetan Monks Turn Healing Toward O.C.

June 24, 1993|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | Benjamin Epstein is a free-lance writer who frequently contributes to The Times Orange County Edition. This column is one in an occasional series of looks at ethnic arts and culture in and around Orange County.

They performed sacred healing rituals on animals at the Oakland Zoo. They tried to clean up Boston Harbor. And Tuesday, as part of a yearlong tour, the Tibetan monks of Gaden Shartse will attempt to return Orange County to a state of cosmic balance.

Obviously no task is too big for the Buddhist monks, who will perform chants and dances as part of "Sacred Earth and Healing Arts of Tibet" at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana. The effort to revitalize the county will take place early in the program. That done, they will move on to choed, a ritual designed to force individuals to reconsider basic premises about life.

"Choed, or 'cutting off' (in Tibetan), is usually performed by one person in the middle of night, in burial grounds or cemeteries, in places that are haunted," monk Cheme Tsering explained by phone from Duncan, British Columbia. "The practice challenges the individual's idea of self, forces him to consider whether the self exists in the way that we imagine it or in another way.

"Individuals seeing choed will either experience a fundamental change in their way of looking at life or they will feel totally put off."

The program will also include meditative split tonal chants, rare even in Tibetan monasteries, in which each monk creates two tones with his own voice, and sacred and folk dances accompanied by Tibetan bells, drums and several types of horns. The monks will wear their saffron-and-crimson-colored ceremonial robes or elaborate folk attire as appropriate.

According to Cheme, who serves as translator for the other 10 monks, the program is not "a new thing put together" for entertainment. "The healing arts that we perform have constituted the breath of life for all Tibetan spiritual leaders and healers," he said.

Cheme, 34, is coordinator of the Education Project at the Gaden Shartse Monastic College in Kirnatha, India, which benefits from proceeds of the tour.

The original Gaden Monastery, one of the three most culturally and educationally important monasteries of Tibet, was established in 1409 upon a large hill 14,000 feet above sea level and was home to more than 3,000 monks. According to Cheme, 6,000 monasteries were destroyed by Chinese Communists in the 1959 takeover of Tibet; 44 Gaden monks, from the Shartse college within the monastery, survived and fled to India.

Gaden Shartse was reborn 10 years later in a remote jungle 12 hours by bus from the Indian city-state of Mysore. Today, Gaden Shartse provides full-time education, accommodations and food to 600 scholars, students and administrators, yet it has no source of regular funding, inside or outside of India, beyond some farming.

While the monks are here, they are trying to learn as much as they can about U.S. culture.

Said Cheme, "We visit museums, stay in family homes, find out the main product of each city, visit bookstores . . . .

"Many of the monks do not speak English, so I translate. In Vermont, I bought a copy of 'Gone With the Wind.' In Phoenix we borrowed 'The Source' by (James) Michener. In Seattle, we saw 'The Ten Commandments,' and I translated the entire movie as we watched.

"A person who wants to create awareness of his own culture and does not want to learn the other person's culture does not have a healthy approach."

What: "Sacred Earth and Healing Arts of Tibet."

When: Tuesday, June 29, at 7 p.m.

Where: The courtyard of the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art, 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana.

Whereabouts: From the Santa Ana (5) Freeway north, exit at 17th Street and turn left. Turn right on Main Street. From the Santa Ana (5) Freeway south, exit at Broadway, continue south on Broadway to 20th Street and turn left; the museum is at 20th and Main streets.

Wherewithal: Seating is by reservation on first-come, first-served basis. Museum members, $10. Non-members, $15. Includes admission to exhibition "Art of the Himalayas: Treasures of Nepal and Tibet."

Where to call: (714) 567-3670.

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