Towards An Architecture of Peace
by Augusta Thomson
“Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.” – Robert F. Kennedy
The line outside the Oxford Union extends the length of the street. We wait to hear the current President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai’s, address. The line is too long; while students at the front make it inside to catch his speech, most have to imagine what is being said from the exterior of a brick wall periphery.
Inside the debating room President Karzai reviews the current situation in Afghanistan — the state of economic and civil progress, other less-discussed hallmarks of his country’s progress. His speech works to dispel misconceptions about the familiar backdrop of military instability, and he emphasizes his faith in Afghanistan’s independent future. When an audience member asks Karzai for details on the Afghan government’s expected reconciliation with the Taliban, he replies, “We are all one country. We all want peace.”
“Peace.” The word is catching. Karzai circumnavigates the question of strategy, of action. Instead he defines “peace” in opposition to warfare — the deaths of thousands of innocent Afghani civilians, most recently by drone attacks.
I sit in the audience wishing Karzai would outline his country’s path to peace. I think about the women and girls who will likely become caught in the crossfire of a conciliatory peace made to appease. I sit and picture a scene of deep peace, true peace, peace defined through stillness.
Over two thousand five hundred years ago, the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, sat under the famed Bodhi Tree, in Bodh Gaya, India, and vowed not to rise until he had attained Enlightenment. Today, Bodh Gaya is globally recognized as a site of peace and transformation. In December 2012, an article in “The Buddhist Channel” publicized the British Army’s plans to send 4,000 Buddhist troops to Bodh Gaya to receive “peace and help with distress.” From January 2011 to January 2013, filmmakers inspired by Bodh Gaya’s story, pilgrimaged to the site of the Bodhi Tree to capture its essence on film. In late September 2013, “Prayers of the Ancient Ones,” the Guna Foundation’s most recent documentary project and a tribute to the site of the Buddha’s awakening finally began its journey at the David Brower Center in Berkeley, California.
“Prayers of the Ancient Ones” is a story in and of peace. It documents the history of Bodh Gaya’s Monlam Chenmo and Tipitaka Chanting Ceremonies — two peace ceremonies formally established by Nyingma Lama, Tarthang Rinpoche, to celebrate the sanctity of Bodh Gaya’s Buddhist history and generate blessings for the benefit of all sentient beings. The Monlam Chenmo, the primary focus of Prayers of the Ancient Ones, evolved out of Tarthang Rinpoche’s aspirations to revitalize the Tibetan Buddhist community in exile and facilitate the distribution of sacred Buddhist texts to monastic and lay communities from the surrounding Indo-Tibetan region.
During the Chinese Occupation of Tibet and the corresponding crack down on Buddhism, more than 6,000 monasteries were systematically destroyed. Thousands of libraries and repositories of Buddhist knowledge and sacred art were decimated. Over 100,000 Tibetan refugees fled Tibet for Nepal and India, fearing the threat of ensuing oppression; those refugees left almost everything behind, except for their most prized possessions — select sacred Buddhist texts.
Tarthang Rinpoche found inspiration in displacement; after visiting Bodh Gaya he made a vow to resurrect the site and begin his life’s mission to preserve and freely distribute the vast corpus of Tibet’s sacred literature to the Tibetan people. In 1965, Tarthang Rinpoche founded a small press in Sarnath, India — the Dharma Mudranalaya Press — which distributed twenty titles of Tibetan traditional texts to Tibetan refugee communities. In 1969, after Tarthang Rinpoche immigrated to the United States, he established a Buddhist center in Berkeley, California, to support his text preservation project, Yeshe De.
In late January 1989 Tarthang Rinpoche returned to Bodh Gaya, India. He invited all of the greatest Lamas of the Nyingma tradition to join him in celebrating the Monlam Chenmo, a week-long ceremony to chant for world peace. The Monlam Chenmo marked the first time in the entire history of the Nyingma Lineage, dating back to the eight century, AD, that all Nyingma Lineage holders had convened to pray. The gathering, which draws more than 7000 monks and nuns and over 10,000 lay practitioners annually, is unique for its scale, but even more unique for its vision.
Every year, Yeshe De ships thousands of books out to Bodh Gaya, to be freely distributed to pilgrims. To date, more than 3.7 million traditional Tibetan texts have been distributed; these books have included 3,877 unique titles and over 850 authors. They have reached over 3,300 monasteries and centers in India, Sikkim, Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet. Not only are these books reaching traditional monastic communities, they are reaching lay practitioners who would never formerly have had access to written Buddhist scripture. At Bodh Gaya, knowledge, the key to wisdom, is spreading like wildfire.
“Prayers of the Ancient Ones” opens with a shot of orange-draped monks seated on the ground below the Mahabodhi Temple’s primary stupa (sacred reliquary shrine). Light cuts through the leaves of the temple’s trees; the setting ignites. While the film follows the journey of the sacred texts annually distributed at the Monlam, it also charts the journey of Tarthang Rinpoche, and paints a picture of an even greater collective journey toward peace. The cinematography is sweeping and rich; the film combines historical footage with recent footage to emphasize how confluence propels the World Peace Ceremony. The documentary’s score is lyrical and profound, and the film is enriched by several on-site interviews with pilgrims. If slow at times, “Prayers of the Ancient Ones” is moving and beautiful — the story of many communities empowered to give. It effectively charts a path to peace through cinematography, through an abundance of visual perspectives alive with dynamism, but deeply quiet. The message is of inner transformation through knowledge.
Inside the Union Hamid Karzai rises and prepares to leave. There is a moment of silence before the shuffle. As students begin to stand I look around me; I wonder how much of the evening will live on through memory. Karzai spoke passionately about Afghanistan’s strength, Afghanistan’s future, Afghanistan’s peace. But his address lacked substance and clarity of aim. What does and will peace mean for Afghanistan? How will peace find its way to the core of a cultural fabric where education for all, the foundation of peace, is still a seedling?