The monks from Gaden Shartse Monastery have departed northwest Ohio after educating many area residents about Buddhist traditions.
The spokesman and translator for the Tibetan monks, Jangchub Chophel, described a typical day at Gaden Shartse Monastery recently.
Monasteries are home to men older than 90 and children as young as age 6. Chophel said the children live at the monastery and have lessons in grammar, math and art, as well as philosophy and religion. Although most children come by choice, others are orphans or their families send them to the monastery to get a better education.
Six days a week, monastery residents rise at 5 a.m. for a breakfast of flatbread and tea and report for prayer at 6 a.m. Chophel said the monastery is a noisy place in the morning as the monks chant their prayers. Each monastery has its own cadences for worship. Singers use low tones and produce two or three tones simultaneously.
On their U.S. tour, the monks demonstrated the sound and technique of their poly
phonic throat singing. For public audiences, the chants are sacred with the words disguised to conceal the secret teachings they contain.
Chophel said the person praying visualizes paradise while chanting. The monks pray in various postures and use hand movements that imitate those Buddha once used. Vibrations fill the room and affect more than the individual chanter.
During prayers, monks also ring bells, which represent wisdom, and hold a dorje. The latter is a metal implement in the shape of a thunderbolt and represents method. Buddhists believe bringing wisdom and method together promotes enlightenment. More ceremonial rituals incorporate horns, cymbals and gongs and require special garb.
On most days in the monastery, educational activities based on the level of knowledge a person has reached occupy many hours.
Chophel said Buddhist monasteries are the equivalent of universities. Students of all ages are expected to memorize pages of texts and give recitations for "tests."
As they get older, they meet in smaller groups with teachers. They usually sit on cushions or directly on the floor.
"When you visit the monastery, you don't see a chair, so we don't have a word for chair," Chophel said.
They had to invent a word, which translates to "butt lift." After lunch, the monks allow time for a nap.
In the evening, a gong summons the men to the debate yard. For three to six hours, they engage in animated debate.
A lunge, stomp of the foot and slap of the hands is used to "send" a question.
Chophel said clapping symbolizes the hand of wisdom meeting the hand of method to summon sentient beings.
After a response, gestures from questioners indicate their opinion of its quality.
"The key to our whole educational system is the debate system," Chophel said. "It's not like you can skip your homework. When they debate, they start off one-on-one with another person in your class for about an hour. Then they bring the classes together and your classmates sit around you and you debate."
Some scholarly monks study a specific topic and debate it for two to five years before reaching the next level. Those who want to be teachers may go to study at other monasteries. A geshe, or doctor of Buddhist theology, must have 20 years of training.
Chophel said knowledge and enlightenment require hard work.
"There are prayers to remove obstacles but they can't give you knowledge," he said.
Oral exams take place yearly to determine whether a student can advance to the next level.
At the end of exams, the monks take a week off for picnics and field games.
The Tibetan new year also is a holiday.
Chophel said Monday is their usual day off. Most of the men use that day to do laundry by hand.
During the summer, the temperature can reach 100 degrees during the day and drop to freezing at night. The monasteries have no air conditioning.
Chophel said the monks' diet varies by region. The Tibetan monasteries, situated on mountainsides, tend to be isolated, so food choices are limited. In Tibet, barley flour and yak products are nutritional staples. Some groups depend on alms or donations for their food. In India, most are
vegetarian, but others do eat meat.
Typically, they do not eat anything after the mid-day meal.
Buddhist women can enter monastic life in a nunnery. Chophel said the women get the same haircut and garments as the men and are educated in the same manner to follow the same "spiritual path."
Monks and nuns are allowed to have contact with their families, unless the monastery or nunnery is too far away.
Many monasteries accept visitors, but obtaining a permit may take a month.