| Vestavia, Ala. –At his home on a quiet side street in Vestavia Hills, Tenzin Deshek is busy making a list and checking it twice. But it’s not Christmas gifts that are in his thoughts. Deshek, a stockily-built man of about 40, wears the burgundy-colored robe of a Tibetan Buddhist monk. He’s hard at work gathering supplies for a unique cultural celebration that takes place this week in Birmingham. The event, called “Ten Days of Tibet,” will temporarily transform one floor of a modern Southside office building with the sights, sounds, and smells of Deshek’s home country…a country from which he’s in political exile.
“My motivation is…you know, in Alabama, there’s no other Tibetans excepting me. And it’s my duty to preserve our culture. Our culture is one of the oldest cultures in the world, some 2,400 years of history. It’s very unique, and very old.”
Deshek was born on Tibet’s remote Mount Kalish, elevation 18,000 feet. His family were nomads, who raised huge herds of sheep, goats, and yaks. But that was before the Chinese government’s violent purge of the Buddhist religion: hundreds of thousands of Buddhists were killed, and the ancient monasteries were ransacked and burned by government troops. Deshek and his family escaped across the border to Dharmsala, India, where he studied Buddhist philosophy and was officially ordained as a monk by the Dalai Lama, who is also in exile.
Today in Vestavia, one of the jobs on Deshek’s list is to sort and organize the jars of colored sand that he’ll use to construct the centerpiece of the 10-day festival: an intricate, sacred painting known as a mandala, which Deshek will painstakingly create on a large circular table.
“There are, ah, 14, 16 different colors. This is gold color, very dark, and a medium and light yellow. And red also, dark, medium and light. Green. Blue. This is the tool that I use…”
He unwraps a brass-colored metallic cylinder with a pointed end, like a cake-decorating tool, and he scrapes the top of the pointed cylinder with a roughened metal rod.
“The sand is put in, here…and when I do this (more SCRAPING) the sand comes from this small hole, see? The sand mandala is not very easy to create. Usually in our monastery, there are at least three or four monks. Here there’s just myself, so I need at least 10 days. So then, that’s the “10 Days of Tibet.”
There are countless different mandalas in various Buddhist traditions, but the one Deshek has chosen is called “Chenresig,” or “the Buddha of Compassion”…because he feels that compassion is what’s needed most in today’s troubled world.
“People see the mandala and say, ‘Oh, so beautiful, so gorgeous.’ And I always tell them, beautiful, yes, but also meaningful. Lots of meaning, in each and every detail.
The painting is not solely for artistic purposes; Deshek describes the intricate designs of mandalas as a symbolic “spiritual architecture” that guides students of Buddhism in developing positive qualities in their daily lives.
“Our ultimate goal is great compassion, great love. So therefore it’s very relevant, you know, to create the Chenresig mandala.
As Deshek takes a break from his preparations to make a pot of tea for a visitor, he says that cooking traditional recipes is one way he keeps alive the memories of his native country. He usually starts his morning with a rich, dark brew called “Tibetan Butter Tea,” and then switches to a lighter, Chai blend for afternoon and evening.
“To make this tea I use water and milk, 50-50, black tea, cardamom, ginger, and sugar. Very delicious.”
Deshek is the teacher and spiritual leader of a Birmingham area Buddhist congregation known as “Losel Maitri,” a Tibetan name which translates, somewhat loosely, to English as “loving awareness.” That group, he says, likes his Chai tea best.
“Americans like my tea. They say, ‘Ah! Deshek’s tea!’ Every Tuesday, I make a lot of tea and take it down. People love it.”
Besides the Tibetan refreshments, the celebration will feature a display of sacred artwork, and he hopes that people who visit the exhibit will ask lots of questions about everything there. But Deshek makes it very clear that the event is not intended to promote Buddhism, which he describes as more of a science than a religion, in the Western sense. Buddhists don’t believe in evangelizing, he says, and for good reason…
“I never say, ‘Buddhism is the best.’ Today in this world we’re facing lots of problems, lots of suffering, because of lack of knowledge, lack of understanding. It’s narrow-minded to say always ‘MY culture, MY religion is the best!’ and this is the source of suffering, the source of problems. All major religions have the potential to produce a good person. A warm-hearted person. My daily practice is always the same, but at like, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s time, I enjoy with my American friends.”
The ‘10 Days of Tibet’ festival runs through Saturday from 1 to 7 p.m. each day. The location is the Magnolia Financial Center, at 1025 South 23rd Street in Birmingham, across from Alabama Art Supply. The festival concludes on Sunday, December 19, with a mandala dismantling ceremony at 2 p.m. For more information, visit Tenzin Deshek’s website.
~Dale Short, December 14, 2004
Tenzin’s Tibetan Recipes
Po Cha (Tibetan Butter Tea)
Brew about five to six cups of a strong black tea. Pour the tea, a
quarter teaspoon of salt, two tablespoons of butter, a cup of milk (or
Half-and-Half) into a blender, or a large container with a lid, so that
you can shake or blend for 2 – 3 minutes. Butter Tea is best served
fresh and hot.
Pak (Tibetan Uncooked Bread)
Take raw barley flour and toast in the oven on a cookie sheet until
flour is lightly browned. Mix about five parts flour with one part
butter, add salt or sugar to taste, and moisten the mixture with just
enough Chai Tea to make a thick dough. Roll dough into small balls and
eat, or store for later. (Dough can also be pressed thin and lightly
fried in a skillet with oil or butter. )