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Buddhist temple hopes to draw more Tibetans

On a recent February morning, a celebration of the Tibetan New Year began in a bright yellow house on Magoun Avenue. Red-robed Tibetan Buddhist monks tended to last-minute tasks, as other people arrived and sat on cushions near the sight of three golden Buddhas and a large photograph of the Dalai Lama decorated with white silk scarves.

It was past 6 a.m., Feb. 21, and this little temple -- filled with sweets, flowers, and bowls containing water, rice, and incense -- could have easily been a scene from Nepal or, in years past, Tibet. But one thing was starkly different -- almost no one was Tibetan.

The Australian-born director of the Medford site, called the Kurukulla Center for Tibetan Buddhist Studies, closed her eyes and chanted prayers in Tibetan as clearly as the monks beside her did. Sitting in the back, a Buddhist originally from Maine, with a baby boy next to him, followed the same verses in a voice as resonant as the Nepalese lead chanter's.

In this setting was a monk, Venerable Geshe Tsulga, known as Geshe-la, who leads a group of 80 to 100 longtime Buddhists and newcomers at the Kurkukulla Center. The native of Tibet is also the religious leader for a good number of the 368 Tibetans in Greater Boston, who call on him regularly to perform ceremonies, but seldom frequent the temple for weekly events.

His role illustrates an irony in the area's Tibetan community. Many Tibetans say they are devoutly religious, but because they are relatively new to this country, they focus more on establishing their lives here, and so they often practice their religious ceremonies at home rather than at the temple. Even so, Geshe-la would like to see more Tibetans participate in the center's activities.

In Eastern religions, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, or Jains do not have a strong legacy of converting believers as, say, the Christians do. And unlike American culture, whose technology and symbols can be found almost anywhere, centuries-old Eastern cultures tend to remain self-contained.

Tibetan Buddhism came to the forefront of Western consciousness after the Dalai Lama -- who is believed to be the 14th incarnation of the Buddha of Compassion and is a Nobel laureate -- fled into exile with 80,000 others from Tibet in 1959 as the Chinese occupation took hold. With him, the religion gained wide recognition and a Western following. But it has not meant that Tibetans and Westerners have integrated. And that was no more evident than in various settings in this area on the Tibetan New Year.

That morning, in homes scattered throughout Greater Boston, Tibetans tossed small amounts of tsampa, toasted ground barley flour, into the air three times -- and cheered ''Tashi Delek" -- greeting the wood monkey year 2131, just as Geshe-la and the 23 people around him did at the Medford temple.

"This is regarded as a very special day," Geshe-la said through a translator for the Medford gathering that consisted mostly of Westerners. "We are growing bigger and bigger."

Nearly three hours later, after servings of white rice with almonds, raisins, and dried cranberries, and paper bags with sweets and fried crisp dough, he invited everyone to a wider celebration.

The event was organized by a group that Tibetans formed over the last decade to lead their own cultural gatherings. The New Year is one of the rare occasions when the entire Tibetan community gathers, and this year's event was held in a Cambridge Veterans of Foreign Wars post that could accommodate the crowd of more than 100. There, several Tibetans dressed in traditional clothes set a large photo of the Dalai Lama on top of the chair he would have used if he were there.

Geshe-la sat at a round table with monks and elders around him. But the American nun, Venerable Tsumna-la, who lives at the Magoun Avenue house was not present, nor was hardly anyone else who attended the Medford ceremony. "He is very important for us," Thinlay Choden, 33, said of Geshe-la.

Choden, from Medford, sat with her 19-month-old boy and her 85-year-old father at the same table as Geshe-la. Her father, Kelsang Chodak, 85, had been a guard to the Dalai Lama during his exile to India in 1959. At the Cambridge gathering, when Geshe-la recited prayers and went before the altar of the Dalai Lama in a silk scarf offering ritual, Chodak and almost every other Tibetan followed him with silk scaves in hand.

Tibetans fear their culture is being diluted in Tibet under Chinese rule and in America, said Ngawan N. Sherpa, former president of the Tibetan Association of Boston, which has raised about $100,000 to buy a property for a cultural center that will teach such subjects as language and dancing.

"We have a rich culture, and it's in danger of disappearing," Sherpa said. ''We are the people in charge to keep it up and pass it to the next generation."

Western Buddhists and other Asian followers have supported the preservation of the religion.

It was a handful of them who received Geshe-la in their apartments in Somerville, Cambridge, and Brighton in 1993. Sponsored by the Foundation of the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, directed by a Nepalese monk who has helped open 130 centers and study groups in 31 countries, including China, Geshe-la urged local followers to establish themselves as a group and open a center.

More than a decade later, they had raised $120,000 to buy and renovate the house and temple where Geshe-la now lives and people worship.

"It used to be we had 30 to 35 people," said Wendy Cook, the center's director. "We thought we had a big crowd."

Those numbers grew after the Dalai Lama's visit last September. "More people coming now," said Geshe-la. He had asked the Dalai Lama to bless the year-old temple during his four-day visit during which the Dalai Lama discussed Tibetan-Chinese relations with Chinese scholars at Harvard University.

There are two other centers in Greater Boston promoting Tibetan Buddhism, but neither has a monk who could penetrate the Tibetan community as easily as Geshe-la, and that factor helped draw the Dalai Lama to Medford, said Geshe-la's translator, Thubten Damchoe.

"It was wonderful, unbelievable," Geshe-la said in English. Damchoe added: "There were 40 people inside and 1,000 people in the streets. I think so . . . we see many new faces and it did inspire more [Tibetan] people to come to the temple."

Angelica Medaglia can be reached at

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