Cinematographer Cynthia Chao, besides shooting the footage for the Torma film, is also one of the film’s main sponsors. She has been active in Tibetan Buddhism for many years, having taking refuge with Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche of the Karma Kagyu lineage in 1981. For the past several years, she has been supporting the Jonang tradition’s monastic education program. Last year, while preparing for the Torma location filming in Bodhgaya, Cynthia learned that the Jonangpa monks would be there at the same time, preparing butter sculptures for their own annual prayer festival. She visited the monks in Bodhgaya, and filmed them working on their tormas. What follows is a brief description of the Jonang Lineage and an interview with Cynthia about her work with the Jonang monks, as well as a gallery of photos taken during her trips to the Tibet-Qinghai plateau. For more info about the Jonang monastic education program see www.littlelama.org and www.facebook.com/littlelama.org.
The Jonang Tradition: Zhentong & the Kalachakra
Established in Central Tibet during the late 13th century, the Jonang tradition of Tibetan Buddhism continues on in an unbroken lineage of successive transmissions from the time of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni. Though the Jonang were considered by Western scholars to have been extinct since their 17th century demise in Central Tibet, and were thought to have assimilated into alternative Tibetan Buddhist traditions such as the Nyingma, Sakya, and Kagyu, the Jonang are now known to have survived as their own distinct tradition.
Isolated for almost four centuries within the remote regions of far eastern Tibet, the Jonang continue transmitting their vital views and practices from the Kalachakra Tantra or “Wheel of Time Continuum” while sustaining their unique understanding of mind and reality known as “zhentong” (“shentong”).
1) Cynthia, please give a little background on how you were introduced to the Jonang Lineage and how you became involved with supporting their monastic education program, both inside and outside of Tibet?
In 2003, a friend from Taiwan asked me to bring him to a Tibetan Buddhist temple called Dorje Ling Buddhist Center in Brooklyn to meet his teacher Khenpo Trusum Dorje from Qinghai. I had never heard of this temple before, although I had been in the Buddhist community for many years in the New York area. I remember very clearly that I was so surprised to hear a Tibetan monk who spoke such good Chinese. Then in the spring of 2004, the founder of the center, Tashi Gyaltsan Rinpoche, came to New York. I met him and spoke with him in Chinese without an interpreter.
So I realized that this is a Tibetan Buddhist school called Jonang, which was new to me. With curiosity, I checked the information online and understood more about its history. Rinpoche told me about his plan to build a monastery for Buddhist education; his aim was to invite people internationally and without gender bias (men and women were all welcome). So, I asked him what kind of information he had that would convince people to support his educational project. He told me he had some photographs and I saw some photos of the monastery in Golok, Qinghai that attracted me so much because of the beautiful landscape of the plateau. Since I was so amazed by just looking at those photos, I felt that I wanted to go there myself to find out what I needed to know to encourage people to help.
In the summer of 2004, I went to Golok for the first time. I went with a friend who is a videographer/photographer and had been traveling around the Tibet-Qinghai plateau for many years. At that time, we documented the activities of a group of new students in Long Gyal monastery while they were involved in their first year of study. They were not allowed to go out of the monastery for the entire year except for public duty.
Then in 2007, there was a big event at Long Gyal Monastery; it was a ritual ceremony that involved releasing yaks and sheep. There was also a big construction project going on. They were building a Tibetan Buddhist museum in Golmud, Qinghai, where a group of Tibetan nomads had immigrated from their homeland on the plateau to the desert. These two interesting events attracted me so much, that I decided to make another difficult trip to both Golmud and Golok. Through documenting these two events, I learned more about the multiple functions a Buddhist monastery serves to the Tibetan nomad community. I therefore combined two documentaries into one DVD and called it Love For Qinghai.
I gave this film to the Dorje Ling Buddhist Center to use for fund-raising purposes both in Taiwan and New York, in order to help build the Long Gyal Five Knowledges Buddhist Institute, and the Tibetan Buddhist museum in Golmud.
Besides fund-raising, the main purpose of my work is to share with others the beauty of the Tibet-Qinghai plateau and its inhabitants. I do not consider myself to have helped them with anything, rather I am the one who was inspired and benefited the most. I started to think about how I should live my life in order that it become more meaningful and valuable.
In the spring of 2008, I took a trip with an artist friend and my son, together with another friend named Professor Sha and her daughter who were involved with projects of grassroots education without borders. We went to Kathmandu, Nepal to visit the very first Jonangpa monastery in Nepal–Palgyalwa Jonangpa Takten Shadrup Choeling. The property was bought and donated by Tashi Gyaltsan Rinpoche’s student in Taiwan. After renovation, it becomes Jonang Monastery and a home to some lucky boys from the Mugu district of Nepal, the very high, remote, and isolated Himalayan valleys that spread across the northern part of Nepal.
There are many Tibetan Buddhist monasteries representing all the major lineages in Kathmandu. Most of the monasteries have been there over 30 years and have a solid foundation. By contrast, the Jonang school is just like a young seed starting to sprout and take root in this land. Because of the importance of the Jonang lineage, a lot of help from other lineages came to them when they first arrived in Kathmandu in 2005.
2) How many monks do you sponsor and what is the age range?
When I went to the monastery in March 2008, there were a total of 45 students. And now, the numbers have increased to 76 students, ages 9 to 18 years old. We went there to try to find out how to help the children and the monastery to grow. Therefore, we interviewed all of the teachers and some of the students, and documented the students’ daily activities from morning until dusk.
From that, I produced a documentary called An Echo From The Himalayas. We figured out that the best way to support the children on a long-term basis is to find them sponsors, just like a lot of charity organizations have been doing to help poor children in the most impoverished areas of the world. A dollar a day can support a child’s food and clothing. $360.00 a year can help a child grow under better conditions, within the educational system of a Buddhist monastery. At the monastery, besides learning to read and write, they receive an education of loving kindness and compassion. We are asking people to support an educational system that places value on the kind nature of human beings and cultivates the minds of future spiritual teachers in the Buddhist community. This will ultimately improve the quality of spiritual life for all sentient beings.
3) What are the future plans and long-range goals of your work with the Jonang Lineage?
Throughout these years, we have worked very hard to find sponsors for each child, and it has been going well so far. Due to the rapidly increasing numbers of children in the monastery, as well as teachers and staff, we need to work twice as hard to introduce this one-on-one sponsorship program to more people. This has become a daily occupation for our volunteer team, because we need to keep things running smoothly and steadily. We also need to find more English and Chinese language teachers: the teachers work on a volunteer basis because our funds have not been sufficient to hire full-time teachers yet. But the students are making tremendous progress–they are studying hard and learning new things everyday. It is such a joy to watch them grow, knowing that they are under the good care of the teachers and staff in the monastery.
Tashi Gyaltsan Rinpoche has a plan to help the monastery grow and become financially independent some day. He is looking to buy a piece of land in a suburban area and move the school there. Students will have more space to grow and the current location in Boudhanath, near the stupa, could be changed into a guest house for pilgrims and tourists, thus bringing in some income to help pay the school’s expenses. I personally think this is a very good plan. His goal is that the monastery and school will eventually become self-sufficient.
I plan to continue in this educational work for as long as I am able to. I also hope that people who would like to share their love, and wish to care for poor children in other parts of the world, would please consider helping these student monks, who are the precious seeds of world peace. (To learn how, please check out www.littlelama.org).
Photos © Cynthia Chao