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Visit by Tibetan Monks Provides Om Schooling to Students in Ojai

Education: The Buddhists, who are on a peace tour, perform dances and answer questions at the private Oak Grove campus.

October 09, 2002|JENIFER RAGLAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The rumor started to spread among students at Oak Grove School on Monday: Monks from Tibet were coming to the Ojai campus.

Then, in math class Tuesday morning, 10th-grader Caitlin Praetorius saw them, with their familiar shaved heads and gold-and-burgundy robes, getting out of the van they use to travel around the country.

"I thought, 'Wow, cool,' " said the 15-year-old.

That was the general reaction among students at the private school, who spent the morning watching eight Tibetan monks perform folkloric dances, engage in spiritual debates and create a colorful sand mandala meant to further compassion, peace and harmony in the world.

"I know a lot about monks, so it was pretty cool to see them," said fifth-grader Ezra Kopf, 10. "They seem like normal people. They just have different interests."

On their fifth annual tour for world peace and universal compassion, the monks from the Gaden Jangtse Tsawa Khangsten monastery in south-central India have visited dozens of schools, universities, churches, prisons and private homes across North America spreading a message of peace. The tour will end in New Hampshire in February.

"We are here to share our experiences and what we learn from Buddhist compassion," said Penpa Gyaltsen, the group's translator. "We also share the method by which we receive inner happiness, which the Tibetan culture is in danger of losing."

China's invasion of Tibet in 1959--which was followed by the destruction of most of Tibet's Buddhist temples and the confiscation of many of the culture's most treasured artifacts-- prompted a mass exodus of Tibetans fleeing persecution and seeking sanctuary in India.

The monks' tour is an effort to garner understanding of their plight and raise funds to help rebuild the Gaden monastery in India. The original Gaden structure, now destroyed, was once the second-largest monastery in Tibet.

"For them, this is one small step on the road to a more compassionate world," said Gary Garcia, a volunteer who helps the monks travel across the country. "With the young people, they believe they are planting a seed for the future."

Garcia said that when he heard the monks were visiting Southern California, he knew they should come to Oak Grove, one of nine campuses established throughout the world by the late spiritual leader Jiddu Krishnamurti.

The 150-acre Lomita Avenue campus, with its rolling hills, oak groves and post-and-beam architecture, provided the perfect venue for the monks' rituals, Garcia said. The monks said that the school's octagonal pavilion seemed as though it were built for creation of the mandala.

"There is energy that we feel here," Gyaltsen said.

The school's approach--emphasizing the importance of human relationships as much as academics--lends itself to visits by people from all walks of life, who come to interact with the children, said program director Peter Thielke.

That is why, after the morning ceremony of chanting and dancing, the monks spent an hour answering questions from the students. They didn't hesitate.

"Do you have electricity?" one asked. "Do you have TV?" another wanted to know. "Do you have skateboards?" (Yes, no and no.)

Anthony Lorenzo, 10, had more serious inquiries: "How does this meditation thing work?" and "Does everyone get reincarnated or just the Dalai Lama?" Meditation clears the mind and frees the body, Anthony was told, and everyone can be reincarnated.

Parent Laura Whitney, who has a daughter and a son at the school, called the monks' visit a gift to the students.

"Here they can experience what it means to be peaceful--that it starts with the individual," she said. "The monks are a living example of that."

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