Unlikely rock stars
The history and traditions of the Gyuto monks can be traced back to at least 1475 when Jetsun Kunga Dhondup established the Gyuto Tantric University in Lhasa, Tibet. Then in 1959 the Chinese desecrated their famous Ramoche temple and 900 monks were killed. About 60 monks managed to escape into India with the Dali Lama and continue their Buddhist practices. Since then they have built their monastic community back up to around 500 and for the past 16 years the Gyuto monks have been coming to Australia. A year ago they established a permanent home in Rosebank.
“People in the hinterland hills here seem to be very happy that we’re here,” Gyuto House Australia director Maureen Fallon said.
Maureen is the person who has been responsible for bringing a group of monks out to Australia every year and building their profile here. It’s a bizarre role for someone who was a senior public servant, interested in social justice and government and not especially interested in Tibetan Buddhism.
“It’s a role I fell into quite by accident… The monks had already been booked to come to Australia (in 1994) and I was asked by some friends to organise a performance in Adelaide. I was really thrown in the deep end… I didn’t know what I was doing, but I organised a one nighter. It was Good Friday, April Fool’s Day with Tibetan Monks. I figured it would either work or it wouldn’t,” she said with a laugh. “It was hugely successful and through doing that I met them, and after initially regarding them as aliens from outer space, something happened and I became very, very interested and spent a further week with them in Perth. By the end of that week I was hooked.”
Six months later she organised for another group of monks to come and they did the first ever sand mandalas seen in Australia.
“It was enormous, massive. 1600 people were crowded around the mandala. It was the biggest public program the (Adelaide) Museum had ever run.”
Since then the monks have performed all over Australia at festivals, concert halls, schools and in remote Aboriginal communities.
“Not being a part of a Buddhist community, it occurred to me that what they had to offer, it wasn’t just the chanting or the sand mandalas or the butter sculptures or whatever – it was their presence,” Maureen said. “What we have done is we have created a series of workshops and classes and opportunities for people to be in the presence of the monks. Not asking them to do anything they don’t do in the monastery, but adapting it to the Western situation. So we have marni stone painting for example (a rock with prayers painted on it), so people can sit with the monks and do a little art class. We came up with ‘culture for kids’ classes where the monks sit down with kids and colour in mandalas or create things. Fifteen years down the track we have probably worked with a million and a half school children.
“Unlike a lot of performers who come to this country from other cultures, you do a concert and the next year if you try to do it again people say, “Oh I saw them last year”. What we’ve done with the monks is created this opportunity to be in their presence, which is a feeling of great relaxation and calm. It makes you feel good about yourself and start feeling good about everyone else. I say it allows you to be your better self, so people want more and more. So we’ve been able to do this annually for 15 years right around Australia.”
Maureen’s partner in organising all this has been a former Tibetan refugee living in Australia, Sonam Rigzin, who has also been the monk’s translator.
Generally a group of six to eight monks will come out and stay in Australia for about a year and Maureen and Sonam are the entire logistics team. They organise everything from visas to transport and accommodation for the monks, as well as their entire program for the time they are here.
It’s a role Maureen likened to being a rock ‘n roll tour manager.
“We go all over Australia... Next week we are at a school in the Adelaide hills for three days and then after that at a school in the northern suburbs where we are planning to build a peace sculpture next February, so we will be consecrating the ground. From there we go to Sydney to do a workshop with a meditation group and then we do a puja (prayer ceremony) with a private family. Then we go to a preschool in Bondi to work with the kids... It’s a chaotic life really.
“We went to Darwin last year where we occupied the Supreme Court. People would come in while the monks did their morning meditation, then we’d do a kids class at 11, a meditation workshop at 12, an art class at 2, a public talk at 3, a teaching in the evening, a concert somewhere during the week, then we might do a cooking class somewhere… and we do it all without a budget.”
Maureen said the early days of touring with the monks was particularly difficult, but they bought an old school bus that allowed them to keep their costs down and travel where they wanted, when they wanted.
“We stay with people we know. We keep it very simple for the simple reason that it’s not a viable commercial operation. We try to make our public programs free... But we do have a donation bucket and an extensive stall of Tibetan artefacts because we are actually trying to raise funds for the monastery in India,” she said.
Sonam believes the public programs they have devised and run over the years have helped the cause of the Tibetan people.
“The vision that Maureen has to make them (the monks) accessible to the mainstream has helped the Tibetan cause and it has done a lot good for (the promotion of) Tibetan Buddhism in Australia. The struggle to return to a free Tibet depends upon the good will of the world and the monks do a great deal of awareness raising in that department... We are not going to do it with guns and bullets and so on, we’ve got to do it through peaceful ways and that is to largely shift the public consciousness to our cause, so I feel we are doing a good job with that,” he said.
For Maureen, her reward is seeing human beings at their best.
“All my life I’ve been bothered by the question about whether humans are good or evil, and I believe that all sorts of people are pretty decent, wherever you find them. We meet really good people everywhere we go. The monks get to help them with various issues they have, whether it’s depression or illness or a death or whatever, but in return you get to see people at their best, and that for me is a real buzz. It sort of affirms your faith in human nature.
“We’ve just had three days at the Lismore Show... Not many people were there when the monks started chanting and I was standing at the back thinking ‘this is a bit grim’ and then a bloke came in. A farmer – a big burly bloke in his white trousers, and he was standing there looking very quizzically like ‘what is this?’ Then he leant towards me and said, very quietly, ‘Ever since I was a little boy I went travelling in my mind, and this is where I wanted to be. I’ve always wanted to be where these guys are.’ The hairs just rose on my arm. It was really emotional. Then the next person who came in had had a child pass away and was an emotional mess really and had the benefit over those three days of spending time with the monks and getting a bit of help. So we do really amazing work in the most unlikely places.”
Maureen is hoping the next place they are able to do some amazing work is back in the monks’ home community of Dharamsala, in India.
They are about to begin a pilot medical project that Maureen believes could have a major impact on the health of the whole Tibetan community.
“In the first six to eight years that the monks were coming they had a lot of the complaints about their stomach and I’d take them to doctors and they’d say, ‘Oh it’s gastritis or it’s reflux... try some Mylanta’. It never did any good. Some monks we took through a series of doctors and never got anywhere. Then in 2002 when we were in Sydney with the Dali Lama there was a Swiss doctor who said, ‘I know what’s wrong with that monk, Australian doctors don’t have a clue. I’m going to take him to a doctor and demand to have a test and then I’m going to have him treated.’ Well it was a helicobacter pylori test, which we’d never heard of. And sure enough that’s what it was and he got a three-pack antibiotic medication for about a week and was basically cured.”
Helicobacter pylori is a common bacterium that lives in the stomach, but it eluded medical science for years. Two Perth doctors, Barry Marshall and Robin Warren, discovered it was a common cause of stomach ulcers and gastritis and won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2005.
“In the Tibetan community, which fits the category of being poor and not having a lot in terms of sanitation, it is estimated that 77% of the population have it. In its worst form it can cause stomach cancer... That’s the biggest form of cancer that causes death in the Tibetan community, so it’s a serious issue. Earlier this year we thought, ‘This is nuts, we’re (treating) six monks a year, why don’t we do the whole monastery?’ and Sonam said, ‘Why don’t we do the whole Tibetan population?’ because they all have phowa (a Tibet word meaning sore gut). The vast majority of Tibetans live with phowa and no-one had put the two things together; phowa and helicobacter, and that’s what we’ve done.”
In the past few months Maureen has met with the Tibetan Health Minister and Minister for International Affairs, as well as the CMO (chief medical officer) at the hospital in India near the monastery. She has also got the Australasian Research Institute on board and the Australian Breath Analysis labs to come and do some testing.
They will be in India at the end of November where they will run a pilot program to test and treat 50 monks.
“Once they start to get credible medical statistics then we can expand it to the whole monastery and maybe one of the schools and then roll it out through the community,” she said. “This has the capacity to help a whole population of people. A lot of them have suffered for so long... When we were there last time word started to get out about what we were hoping to do. A young girl came up to me and said, ‘Please help us. My mother died of this, my sister died of this. Look at my bag, it is full of Tibetan medicine.’
“This is not just something we are doing for the Gyuto monks, it’s something for the whole Tibetan community and therefore what I’d like to see is that we’ll do the seeding, get it happening, but then it can become an independent project and anyone who’s ever had any connection with the Tibetan cause, whether it’s spiritual or political or humanitarian, it would be great to help this get off the ground. Hopefully it will take on a life of its own.”