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Preserving the Tibetan Buddhist culture
by Jan Spence

Sally Sorenson, Project Coordinator of Dharma Publishing in Berkeley, California, describes its mission of salvaging, preserving and displaying writings and art of Tibetan Buddhism. 


It is called the Land of Snows -- the winters are long and severe. And it is called the Roof of the World -- Tibet is the highest inhabited land on earth. Some nomads live at elevations of more than 17,000 feet. At one time there was a higher percentage of Buddhist monks per family in Tibet than in any other nation in the world. Tibet embraced Buddhism in the eighth century so totally that it transformed every aspect of life. It became a nation perpetually in prayer and ceremony. It became a land of harmony and peace.

In 1959 the Chinese military invaded Tibet, and during the next 10 years almost 7,000 monasteries were razed, as were many temples and libraries. Thousands of monks and nuns were killed and a vast number of religious scriptures and paintings were destroyed. The practice of religion in Tibet was outlawed. This invasion has been called the cultural genocide of Tibet.

Tarthang Tulku, a Tibetan lama, was one of the first who fled to India. He left with his teacher in 1958, before the big exodus of 1959, and brought with him rare teachings and texts. He recognized the urgency of saving the cultural treasures of Tibet and 10 years later decided to go to the West. In 1971, the pre-eminent scholar, teacher and author founded Dharma Publishing in Berkeley, California.

A nonprofit organization dependent entirely on donations, Dharma Publishing is celebrating its 25th anniversary and the completion of the first phase of a massive project -- preserving the finest examples of Tibetan art and literature. Over one million pages of Tibetan texts have been collected, catalogued and published in 755 hand-bound, atlas-sized volumes. They have printed 108 complete sets. All are printed on acid-free paper designed to endure for at least three centuries. Some of the subjects include science of mind and consciousness, philosophy, metaphysics, medicine, art, science, poetry, grammar, history and biography. More than 500 of the finest Tibetan paintings have survived and high-quality prints have been made from the originals.

Dharma Publishing consists of 20 core people -- no one is salaried -- and hundreds of volunteers from around the world. Some of the countries represented are Brazil, Germany, Japan, and The Netherlands. Tarthang Tulku has been a great inspiration to many Westerners. He also opened the Nyingma Institute in Berkeley, a school offering them the opportunity to study and practise Buddhist teachings.

Sally Sorenson, 23 years with Dharma Publishing and Project Co-ordinator, has stated that treasures of Tibetan Buddhist art and literature are scattered all over Asia, but can be found in an almost complete collection in Berkeley. "I truly believe that Tibetan Buddhism has answers for the West," Sally says. "The Tibetan Buddhists preserve a tradition that began at the time of the Buddha, 2,600 years ago. This ancient tradition is a treasury of knowledge concerning the mind and consciousness. We have already seen Western psychologists, educators and artists, among others, who have incorporated Tibetan Buddhist ideas and insights into their work.

"Today, we are also seeing a widespread appreciation of Buddhist meditation by the general populace. As an example, we have had very favorable responses from people at the Nyingma Institute who come specifically for stress reduction programs -- to improve their health and to balance their emotions. This is only the beginning of what Tibetan Buddhism has to offer."

The rescue mission of the priceless books was no easy task. There are tragic stories behind the exodus. The Dalai Lama and his followers left Tibet in March of 1959 and were among the first to seek asylum from Chinese Communist rule. The Tibetans, facing oppression, torture or death left their homeland on the perilous journey, carrying their sacred art and manuscripts. Their devotion and commitment was so strong that many refugees chose to carry books instead of food for the journey and they died of starvation.

The Tibetans trekked over the Himalayas in small and large groups -- the survival rate was disastrous. A group of 125 arrived safely at Assam, but reported that there had been 4,000 who began the journey. By the late 1960s, more than 100,000 Tibetan refugees, displaced and impoverished, were living in settlement camps. The Tibetan Aid Project (TAP) came to their rescue in 1969. TAP, again founded by Tarthang Tulku, began operations out of a small office in Berkeley with the purpose of providing emergency relief to the refugees. The Pen Friend Program was set up and became very successful. Westerners sent monthly international money orders of $15 to $20 directly to Tibetans in exile, to pay for their basic needs. In recent years, TAP has focused on a general assistance program, and the preservation of Tibetan cultural and religious traditions. Monasteries have been restored and community projects, medical and educational, have been created.

Tarthang Tulku, also called Venerable Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche (Rinpoche is a reverent title meaning precious one), established the World Peace Ceremony in 1989 at Bodh Gaya, India, the place where the Buddha attained enlightenment. There were 500 Tibetans at this first Buddhist pilgrimage. This year, more than 7,000 Tibetans traveled long distances to attend the important occasion. Lamas and lay people journeyed from all over the world to participate -- 10,000 traditional prayer wheels were distributed as gifts. The ceremony is held annually in January and dedicated to the longevity of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha -- the all-precious Triple Gem -- and to peace for all the peoples of the world.

One of the events of Dharma Publishing's 25th anniversary was a Sacred Art and Books Exhibition, opened to the public. It was a colorful celebration -- prayer wheels were in motion and prayer flags were on display at the entrance. Inside, there were thousands of books covered with the finest maroon library buckram, embossed with gold lettering and emblems. It was a popular event -- the closing date had to be extended three times.

The goal of preserving the sacred texts and art has largely been met. It is hoped that the project will be completed in two years. And the purpose of the project -- to restore the Tibetan cultural and religious heritage -- is being fulfilled. More than 75,000 volumes and hundreds of thousands of art prints have already been sent to Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and retreat centers.

Sally Sorenson says: "The next goal is to translate the texts into English. Few of the Tibetan texts had even been seen by a Westerner before we worked with them. The West is still struggling to come to a basic understanding of this extremely vast and subtle tradition. We hope to turn our resources toward making these outstanding works available in Western languages."


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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005