Tibetan monk Geshe Lobsang Yonten was raised in Zanskar Valley in the Himalayan Mountains of North India. Zanskar is one of the most isolated and desolate valleys on Earth, and Yonten has vowed to build a school there to help keep the endangered Tibetan culture alive. Yonten will be in Waterbury on Wednesday, October 5th, at the Mattatuck Museum, showing a documentary film about his project. The event begins at 6 pm with light refreshments and a short talk. Then the film, “Journey From Zanskar”, will be aired. The suggested donation is $10. Photograph by John Murray

    Column by John Murray

   Faced with huge budget deficits, school districts all across the country are forcing students to walk to centralized bus stops to save on gas money. But what if there were no bus stops, no buses, and no schools? What if you had to hike several days and cross a snow covered mountain pass at 20,000 feet to attend your first day of school?

   Welcome to Zanskar Valley in north India, one of the most isolated and hauntingly beautiful spots on Earth. Surrounded by the Himalayan Mountains, the largely Tibetan population of 15,000 has managed to exist for most of the past century without electricity, televisions, radios, cars, and most of the creature comforts Westerners take for granted.

   Zanskar was so isolated that up until the 1970s there was little concept of money. It you needed yak butter, you asked your neighbor for it and they gave it to you. If you needed a horse, it was given to you, no questions asked. Everything was shared. When foreign tourists first began to explore the valley they encountered the same generous spirit; if they needed a horse it was given to them. There is one major road into Zanskar now, but from November to May the mountain passes are so choked with snow and ice that the valley is cut off from the world.

 Zanskar Valley in northern India is home to one of the last enclaves of Tibetan culture.  

   Lobsang Yonten was born in Zanskar more than 40 years ago. When he was a teenager he decided to become a Buddhist monk. He walked out of Zanskar, over mountain passes, and traveled 2000 miles south to study at the Drepung Gomang Monastery in Mungod, India. For the next two decades Yonten immersed himself in Tibetan Buddhism. Yonten’s studies culminated with a two-day oral exam in front of 2000 monks. After passing the test, Yonten earned the title of Geshe, which he equates to a PhD degree at a western university.

   After passing the rigorous exam, Yonten was tapped to lead a group of ten monks on a year-long tour of the United States to try and raise money to build a prayer hall at the monastery. An inaugural tour group had traveled to the U.S. the year before and had struggled with logistics, lodging and culture shock. In December 1999 Woodbury resident Curt Jones made e-mail contact with the first monk tour and asked if they were passing through Connecticut. Jones received a call the next day from the group. They were living in a van in Virginia and eating McDonald’s for most meals. The group told Jones they could be at his house the next day.

   And thus began a decade long friendship between Curt Jones and the Drepung Gomang Monastery.

   The monks stayed with Jones for several weeks in Woodbury, and he introduced the monks to Janiki Pierson, the owner of the Woodbury Yoga Center. Pierson helped the group coordinate some events, and became the official tour coordinator for the second tour led by Geshe Yonten.

   In the autumn of 2000 the monks made a splash in and around greater Waterbury. They visited at Taft School, Westover School, the Woodbury Yoga Center, and spent a week building a sand mandala in the lobby of Waterbury Hospital.

   Not everything went according to plan at Waterbury Hospital.

   After two days of intensive labor the monks had finished half the mandala. But on the morning of the third day the hospital staff were shocked and angered to find the mandala had been destroyed by vandals during the night.

   “I felt a tremendous sense of loss and disappointment that someone would destroy their work,” Steve Schneider, the vice-president of medical affairs told the Observer in 2000. “These guys worked for hours and hours to build the mandala.”

   But when the monks learned of the incident their concern focused on the hospital staff, and the individuals who ruined the mandala.

   “Two of the monks held my hand and wanted to make sure I was okay,” Schneider said. “They hoped we wouldn’t be angry at the people who destroyed their work. They were so compassionate.”

   Yonten said the monks had no negative emotions about the mandala, they would simply start over. Later when a video tape revealed the vandals were two small children left unattended by their parents, Yonten said, “if a small child felt happy playing in the sand, then we feel happy. In Buddhism we believe that happiness is religion. All we want is to be happy.”

   The thumping sound that followed was Steve Schneider’s jaw hitting the floor. “What a way to respond,” Schneider said. “They had an opportunity to be bitter, but chose compassion. If I could learn to handle things like that in my own life, even 1 out of 10 times, it would make my corner of the world a little better.”

   The monks reaction to the destruction of the mandala so surprised the American psyche that it created a statewide media sensation. Their story was written up in the Hartford Courant, the Republican-American, and television crews from channel 3, 8, 30 and 61 all descended on Waterbury Hospital for interviews.

   And that’s how I met Geshe Yonten and the Drepung Gomang monks. After interviewing them I was so enthralled that I came back to Waterbury Hospital for the next several days and debated spirituality and philosophy with Yonten. After they finished at Waterbury Hospital the group was scheduled to drive out to Chicago to attend a world music festival, but when their driver fell ill, I volunteered to drive. Suddenly, and remarkably, I found myself motoring west in an oversized white van chauffeuring ten Buddhist monks to Chicago.

Observer publisher eats with nine Tibetan monks from the Drepung Gomang Monastery while en route to the World Music Festival in Chicago.

   Along the way they chanted, they slept, they burned incense in the van, and we debated and discussed life while slicing across America’s heartland. After the music festival I flew back home, and they continued west to Colorado and California. Before returning to India the group passed through Connecticut in September 2001, right after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, and spoke at Westover School of compassion.

   The tour group spent a day with John and Chelsea Murray in September 2001 at their house in Morris, CT. The Murray’s dog, Dakota, spent the day electrified as he chased balls and had a massive influx of attention from ten monks.

   Two years later I received an invitation in the mail to attend the opening of the monastery’s new prayer hall. I went, and in December 2003 I witnessed a gathering of 10,000 monks at a refugee camp in the jungles of south India in a glorious ceremony presided over by the Dalai Lama.

   Eighteen months later another group of Drepung monks came to America, this time to raise money for medical and food supplies for the monastery. Curt Jones contacted me and asked if I might help create an event to raise money for the monks, and with the help of community activist Michelle Weik, of Litchfield, the three of us organized TibetFest, in White’s Woods in Litchfield, in the summer of 2005.

   Curt Jone’s e-mail in 1999 got the snowball rolling, and by 2005 Connecticut was host to the largest and most successful Tibetan Cultural Festival in North America. Jone’s e-mail also triggered several events in my life. My daughter, Chelsea, completed her senior thesis at Marist College with a project on Tibetan refugees, and after she graduated in May 2010, we travelled to the Himalayan Mountains in north India to visist with Geshe Yonten, and attend a three-day teaching by the Dalai Lama. It was an extraordinary adventure.

   When Geshe Yonten returned to India in 2001 his monastic training was complete, and he decided to return to Zanskar to build a school. It was so difficult to trasnport kids to schools hundreds of miles away that Yonten vowed to build a school in Zanskar so the children could live with their families. Attempts to raise money for the school were difficult, and Curt Jones stepped in to help. Jones traveled to Zanskar to visit Yonten in 2003 and met Barry Weiss of Boulder, Colorado, and they decided to help Yonten’s school project by financing a documentary.

   In 2004 Jones and Weiss flew to San Francisco to meet with Frederick Marx, an award winning documentary filmmaker, and the project came to life. In August 2004 Marx interviewed families in Zanskar that had agreed to send their children to the nearest school – which was a several day journey over mountain passes. Few people in Zanskar could read or write, and until Yonten built his school, the children would have to travel hundreds of miles away to learn basic skills. The children would be separated from their families for years at a time.

   Marx captured the dramatic journey of Yonten leading the children out of Zanskar to enroll in school. The dramatic adventure involved horses, mountain passes, rock slides and sub-freezing temperatures. At one point in the trip Yonten believed he was going to die.

   The film was finished last year, and Yonten will be touring America for two months this autumn trying to raise awareness, and funds, to build his school. In addition to speaking engagements at Columbia University in NYC, and Stanford University in Pal Alto, California, Geshe Lobsang Yonten is again passing through Connecticut. During his visit here the Waterbury Observer is sponsoring a screening of his movie, “Journey From Zanskar”, October 5th, at the Mattatuck Museum in downtown Waterbury. The movie is narrated by actor Richard Gere, and the event will begin with light refreshments at 6 PM, with the 90 minute movie to follow. A suggested donation of $10 is recommended at the door.

   For those wishing to assist Yonten with his school project, but unable to make the event October 5th, you can go to savezanskar.org and make a tax deductible donation by using PayPal. One hundred percent of the donation will go directly to Yonten’s project.

   Additionally, Curt Jones has been setting up a non-profit called the Zanskar Foundation to assist in helping meet the needs of the children of Zanskar.

   “Zanskar is so remote and poor,” Jones said. “The children have the decked stacked against them. It’s good to help.”

   And for anyone who doesn’t think the world is getting smaller and more connected, consider that the mini-explosion of Tibetan culture in greater Waterbury began with an e-mail, and has transformed into a direct opportunity for our community to help build a school in one of the most isolated valleys on the planet.