Tibetan Monks Share Their Wisdom with OES

Tibetan Monks Share Their Wisdom with OES

From the moment they arrived on campus last week, the group of Tibetan monks from the Drepung Gomang Monastery captured the attention of OES students of all ages and left a lasting impression.

Head of School The Rev. Michael Spencer invited the monks to OES via his long connection with the Drepung Gomang Monastery. He first invited a group of monks to the school where he was working in Connecticut in 1997. This is the eighth group he has welcomed into a school community. “As an Episcopal priest and a pluralist, grounded in my own tradition and always learning from the wisdom of many others, I am deeply interested in the universal themes across many religions and how we can underscore the welcome of the chapel as a place of mystery and compassion for all people. I have been drawn to Buddhism throughout my life and the chanting of the monks has been a constant,” said Spencer. “Every time they visit, they transform the community in wonderful ways. Walking into the chapel and hearing that sound settles things down and opens a window into mystery.”

The sound he is referring to is polyphonic chanting, discovered about 60 years ago in the monasteries in Tibet. It is a form of throat singing, where the singer layers the overtones using a single voice. One voice can produce multiple tones. Here is an sample video of the monks chanting.

At the opening ceremony on Monday morning, the monks chanted to bless the space in the OES Chapel where they would build a sand mandala. The mandala is a form of sacred art. “It is a house for divine energy,” explained Spencer. “Our mandala was built to hold the energy of the Buddha of Compassion.”

During their visit, the monks offered art workshops to students of all ages. On Monday, the monks visited the fourth grade art class, where they helped students paint rocks with syllables from the mantra, “Om Mani Padme Hum.” This mantra, recited by Buddhists worldwide, literally means “Praise to the jewel in the lotus.” The recitation of this mantra is believed to help remove impurities and help individuals progress toward enlightenment.
The children could also create a bracelet of mala beads. Monks use their mala bead bracelet to help count prayers (similar to rosary beads). Middle School students also got a chance to make bracelets and to make small sand drawings on paper plates. Employees gathered with the monks as well to create bracelets.

At a Middle School religion class, one of the monks talked with students about the principles of Buddhism. He led them through a meditation practice, encouraging them to focus on the present, inhale positive energy, and exhale negative energy. The monks gifted Middle School Chaplain Melissa Robinson with a pendant created at their monastery.

The monks performed their distinctive polyphonic chanting in all of the divisional chapels, sharing a portion of the morning prayers chanted in their monastery. At the Upper School Chapel, students learned about Buddhism and shared some of their own thoughts about religion.

Upper School English Teacher Anna Fortner said, “I found the Upper School chapel on Tuesday particularly moving. To have Buddhist monks offering polyphonic chanting in our Episcopal chapel was a concrete reflection of what OES is all about—celebrating the diversity and wonder of the world.”

At the start of each day during the week the monks held morning prayers and closed each day with a tea puja, where they prayed before the symbol of the Buddha, surrounded by flowers, lights, food and incense.

At the end of the week, students, teachers, and parents gathered in the chapel to watch the closing ceremony. The head monk explained that the destruction of the sand mandala symbolizes the transitory nature of all that is beautiful: the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence. The monks presented gifts of appreciation to their hosts. After chanting the final series of prayers, one monk took a brush and deftly swept away the pattern of the mandala. Together the monks swept some of the sand into a container and the rest was put into small bags, with the help of OES students, and given to attendees as a blessing for the home or garden.

Rev. Spencer and the monks then led a procession down to the bridge over Fanno Creek where they chanted final blessings and carefully poured the sand into the creek, disbursing the blessing of compassion to the campus and the surrounding community. The sand drifted away as everyone quietly walked back to the school.

Head Chaplain VJ Sathyaraj summarized the monks’ visit: “The monks’ presence at OES was a powerful reminder of what goes on in the outside world, and the difference between trying to keep up with the latest cultural trends versus being connected to a tradition and practice that spans 2500 years. This reminds us that the practice of intellectual inquiry is not a new invention but is very ancient, and that the mind can be made alert and creative through cultivating silence and learning from the wisdom of sages.”