Sidhpur, Distt Kangra, HP, India - A chill wind blew off the snow covered hills and cold rain fell from a heavy sky over the Kangra Valley this morning. Inside the Main Temple of Norbulingka Institute however, all was ablaze with light and colour, while smiles played on the faces of guests and staff in anticipation of the arrival of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. To mark the twenty-first anniversary of the inauguration of the Institute a completed set of 25 thangkas depicting the lives of the fourteen Dalai Lamas and their predecessors was being presented to His Holiness.
This project, almost 15 years in the making, was begun by Norbulingka’s first Thangka Painting Master, Tenba Chöphel. The set consists of thangkas illustrating the lives of the Dalai Lamas, one for each of the first thirteen; three dedicated to His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama and nine more depicting previous members of the lineage, such as the Drom-ton Gyalwai Jungney and the religious Kings of Tibet.
The set of paintings is original and unique. It followed no existing pattern. Tenba Chöphel began to plan and design the paintings in consultation with former Abbot of Namgyal Monastery and incumbent Abbot of Gyutö Tantric College, Jhado Rinpoche. They discussed what scenes from the lives of the Dalai Lamas to include and how to depict them. After Tenba Chöphel untimely passed away, responsibility for artistic supervision was taken up by one of the principal students, Tenzin Norbu.
Each painting consists of a central figure, a Dalai Lama or one of their predecessors, with their meditational deities and protectors in the corners. The space in between is brimming with depictions of events from the particular life portrayed in marvellous detail.
When His Holiness arrived he was escorted clockwise around the temple to view the paintings, each one brightly lit from above. They were hung beginning in the present with the three paintings illustrating his life and progressed back through the previous Dalai Lamas and other figures who preceded them. His Holiness seemed pleased, several times picking out scenes that amused him and laughing.
Reaching the dais he greeted several old friends among the guests, paid his respects before the colossal gilded statue of Buddha Shakyamuni and took his seat. Prayers were chanted as tea and sweet rice were served. Guests and staff alike were welcomed to this celebration of Norbulingka’s 21st anniversary. Founders of the Institute, Kasur Kalsang Yeshi and Kim Yeshi, as well as senior members of staff paid their respects to His Holiness while an extensive prayer for his long life was recited.
Sikyong Dr Lobsang Sangay released the 11 volume set of an Encyclopaedia of Tibetan Culture, the fruit of many years work by the Institute’s Literary Research Department. Sets were delivered to several among the guests. Managing Director of Norbulingka, Dechen Namgyal Maja read the annual report outlining the Institute’s recent achievements and future aspirations. He noted that since the original proposal for the Institute was broached and approved by His Holiness in 1983 much had been done to preserve Tibetan culture in terms of the arts and higher education. However, the Institute has also made efforts to support the health of the staff and the education of their children.
Next, a series of tokens of gratitude were awarded variously to Ven Samdhong Rinpoche, who has served for more than 20 years on the Board of Directors; to Founders and former Directors Kalsang and Kim Yeshi; to members of staff who have served the Institute for 20 years and to those who have served for 10 years. Finally, certificates were given to the sixth group to graduate from the Academy of Tibetan Culture, Norbulingka’s college of higher education.
At the beginning of his speech, Director Kalsang Yeshi paid tribute to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, declaring him to be the source of inspiration for the Tibetan people. Through his deeds, he said, Tibetan culture has come to be known the world over. He thanked him for coming once again to Norbulingka. Professing Tibetan language, religion and culture to be the heart of Tibet, he said that what they had been doing at Norbulingka was a small contribution towards preventing its decline. He also mentioned that the Institute considers it has a duty of care to people who belong to its community.
Regarding the set of paintings of the Dalai Lamas he stated that in terms of quality of craftsmanship and materials used they were as excellent as could be. He expressed thanks to everyone who had contributed to bringing the project to fruition. He dedicated the 25 paintings with the wish that His Holiness live long and continue to help and guide living beings. Finally, he appealed to the CTA to keep up its commitment to the cause of Tibet.
His Holiness began his address by acknowledging the good work that Norbulingka Institute has done to preserve Tibetan culture over the last 21 years. He noted the valuable contribution made by Kalsang and Kim Yeshi to this effort.
“Since we came into exile,” he said, “Tibetans have evolved into a unique refugee community. Not only have we preserved our culture, but we have found ways for it to contribute to the welfare of the world at large. Norbulingka Institute has had a role in that. Many who were part of it in the beginning, the Thangka Painting, Sculpture and Wood-carving masters for example, are no more. They are but memories to us now. This reminds us that everything is impermanent and yet Tibetan culture has survived for hundreds of years.
“Buddhism was brought to Tibet from India in the 8th century by Shantarakshita, the erudite master of philosophy and logic from Nalanda. He advised the Tibetan Emperor to rely on his student Kamalashila should difficulties occur in maintaining the tradition. When we read the writings of these scholars today we can appreciate their eminent calibre.
“There have been ups and downs in our history, times what people were more concerned about their own tradition or region than Tibet as a whole. But the Buddhist traditions Shantarakshita introduced we have preserved and are one of the main things that have kept us together. Shantarakshita belonged to the Nalanda tradition and was a follower of Nagarjuna. I composed a Praise to the Seventeen Masters of Nalanda—that includes verses praising both Nagarjuna and Shantarakshita—in appreciation of their excellent understanding and scholarship. They explored the causes of suffering and how they can be overcome by training and disciplining the mind—employing logic and reason to deal with our emotions.
“People here at Norbulingka have been contributing to preserving our culture. As I already said, people serve the cause, they pass away, but the younger generation takes up the work. I’d like to thank you for what you’ve done and request you to keep it up.”
His Holiness spoke of the upheaval Tibetans faced 58 years ago in March 1959. As the situation deteriorated it was decided that there was a need to escape. When they did so, he said, they had no long term plan other than worrying whether they would be alive the next day. In due course they reached India with thousands of Tibetans following. In a starkly different climate the main challenge was helping people stay alive.
Next they took steps to provide educational facilities for children. Indian Prime Minister Nehru was very kind and the Government of India helped set up schools. They also requested somewhere for monastics to gather and continue their studies.
His Holiness observed that being in exile had allowed Tibetans to interact with other people in the world. In travelling abroad he noticed that while in some places material development was advanced, it was not always matched by inner development. There was a lack of peace of mind. This is where Tibetans have something to share. Buddhism can be understood as a science of mind, an understanding of the workings of the mind, including an understanding of how to deal with our emotions.
An important aspect of the Nalanda tradition preserved in Tibet is its use of reason and logic. It is this that has provided the basis for a dialogue with scientists. His Holiness explained that preserving culture also involves seeing how it can develop so there are now laboratories and science studies in the monasteries. Many of the monastic institutions that used to be concerned only with ritual now provided study programmes. In nunneries too, encouragement to study has recently resulted in the award of Geshe-ma degrees to qualified nuns.
He affirmed that despite difficulties Tibetans have not lost hope. He asserted that far from trying to convert others to Buddhism his concern is to see how Buddhist knowledge can be of help to others in the world. He explained how the 300 volumes of the Kangyur and Tengyur, the Buddhist literature translated largely from Sanskrit, can be categorized into science, philosophy and religion. While the religious material only concerns Buddhists, what the science and philosophy have to say can be of use and interest to anyone prepared to examine it. His Holiness reiterated that the Tibetan language is the most accurate medium for expressing this understanding.
“Although we are in exile, we have been able to keep our culture alive, taking part in that is something to be proud of. I urge you to keep it up. Compare this to all those countries that devote their resources to the development of weapons. We pray for the welfare of all beings, but what we also need to do is to take practical steps to help them. We need to serve our fellow human beings. That’s all, thank you, Tashi Delek.”
The occasion concluded with a recitation of the Prayer for the Flourishing of the Dharma. His Holiness left the temple to return to his residence, while the remaining guests were treated to a sumptuous lunch.