News Deseret News, October, 2003
Kathmandu on Wilshire Nepalese Buddhist Priests Unveil Secret Ritual at LACMA
By Kenneth Miller
A fascinated crowd looked on as the barefoot holy men, using pinches of colored dust for paint, began to fill the six-foot circle with minutely detailed images of the Buddha -- a process that can take up to a week. The performance would have been noteworthy enough had it occurred in a Himalayan temple. All the more remarkable, was its actual location: just off Wilshire Blvd., at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Why had these Nepalese flown 10,000 miles to share their sacred secrets with Americans? They had been invited by Dina Bangdel and John Huntington, the Ohio State University art historians who co-curated LACMA's blockbuster exhibition of Buddhist devotional objects, Circle of Bliss. Bangdel, 38, had spent the previous nine years convincing Nepal's equivalent of the Dalai Lama, Pandit Badri Ratna Bajracharya, that his people's brand of Buddhism could survive encroaching modernization only if it were brought to the West. "Kids in Nepal would rather be computer programmers than priests," says Bangdel, who learned the rudiments of her own profession from her father, the head of the country's Royal Art Society. "We wanted to show them that this is a vital tradition, and that people other than us appreciate it." The tradition in question is Newar Buddhism, native to the Kathmandu Valley.
The sect is the last remaining vestige of Sanskrit Buddhism, and its practices owe much to the Tantric siddhas who fled to the valley after the Muslim invasion of India in the 13th century. Newar teachers, in turn, helped shape Tibetan Buddhism. The sect's renowned artisans were recruited to build Tibet’s First monasteries, and commissioned by Hindu royalty (as well as Genghis Khan) to create paintings and sculptures. The Indian connection can be seen in the Newars' caste system, and in their notions of the flow of energy through the human body -- complete with chakras, nadis and other features inherited from kundalini yoga. As Tantrins, both the Newars and the Tibetans belong to the Vajrayana school of Buddhism, in which the element of secrecy is used to create a class of advanced meditators who aim to achieve enlightenment in a single lifetime.
Other Newar customs are strictly local, such as the requirement that priests be married householders. When Badri Ratna and a dozen of his disciples stepped off the plane at LAX, the first thing they did was to call their wives on their cell phones. Then the senior priests headed off to stay with Venerable Bhante Piyananda at the Sri Lankan Buddhist vihara, while the others crashed at the teachers' dorm of Bikram's Yoga College of India.
They spent most of the trip, however, giving Angelenos a taste of NewarBuddhism. As the mandala neared completion -- having been brought indoors on the second day to escape that sand-scattering wind -- Badri Ratna's chief disciple, Dr. Nareshman Bajracharya, led a series of puja ceremonies, in which dancing priests adopted the attributes of the five Buddhas depicted in the artwork. (Each Buddha is associated with a color, a gesture, a compass point and a cardinal virtue: compassion, enlightenment, fearlessness, selfless giving and immutability.)
On the third day, Badri Ratna himself --a compact, balding man of 71 whose skull is indented where his crown chakra opened after decades of meditation -- conducted an initiation for all those present. Using a silver wand dipped in honey, he anointed our hearts and foreheads and wrote a secret mantra on our tongues. He poured water over each of our heads then distributed prayer beads, packets of bodhi leaves and less esoteric mantras. (Mine was Om Sarvatathagata, mahayogesvara hum: "Homage to all Buddhas, the Great Lord of the Yogis.") When it was over, 50 dazzled museum-goers wandered out onto Wilshire Blvd., fresh bindi dots glowing in the twilight.
The spectacle had been breathtaking - yet it had also been, in the Buddhist sense, perfectly empty. I remembered a little sermon Badri Ratna had delivered before the ritual. "Everyone is so concerned about making the mandala beautiful," he had said. But in Newar practice, he went one, "the fundamental aspects are wisdom and compassion. If somebody is hungry, you feed him. If somebody is sick, you take care of him. And the person for whom you've done that will say, 'I must do it for someone else.'"
Kenneth Miller is a former senior editor at People, now working as a freelance writer in Los Angeles.