Prophecy, Karma and a Buddhist Icon in Glendale 

Monday, June 26, 2000
Home Edition
Section: Part A
Page: A-1


In the Earth Ox Year of 749, an enlightened Buddhist master of extraordinary power journeyed to the Himalayan kingdom of Tibet.

Guru Rinpoche was born in the Milk Ocean land of what is now Pakistan. Ancient legends say he could defy death and brought the teachings to Tibet when he was 1,000 years old. One of them was the secret blueprint of a sacred map to enlightenment called the Shi-Tro mandala.

The mandala was said to be so potent that merely looking at it could liberate any being from all negative karma--the unavoidable consequences of harmful actions. It could transform anger and fear into altruism and compassion.

In the Wood Monkey Year of 804, the chronicles say, the guru left Tibet with a wondrous display of miracles, riding a horse through the air before an astonished crowd. Before he left, he prophesied that the teachings would someday reach the world.

"When the iron bird flies," it is written that he said, "the teachings will go to the West."

Now, in the Iron Dragon Year of 2000, a master Tibetan artist and his staff are using the ancient blueprint in Glendale to build the first three-dimensional mandala in the United States.

Working in the shadow of Forest Lawn Memorial Park's landmark white cross in Glendale, Pema Namdol Thaye is busily adding jewels and paint to what resembles the celestial palace of 100 peaceful and wrathful deities. By the time it is completed in October, this icon of intricate art and intense spirituality will be 10 feet tall and will have taken nine months and $250,000 to construct.

The project will be personally blessed this week by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, who arrived in Los Angeles on Friday to give a week of Buddhist teachings.

For Lama Chodak Gyatso Nubpa, the mandala project represents an urgent race to preserve a vanishing cultural and religious art. Once a standard fixture in almost every large monastery, the three-dimensional mandala has become perilously rare amid the destruction of more than 6,000 monasteries during nearly five decades of the Communist Chinese occupation of Tibet.

But project members also envision the mandala as more than important museum art or esoteric Buddhist practice. Their driving motivation is to bring the mandala's benefits to the street: to gangbangers and truck drivers, teachers, dot-commers and children, to open hearts and minds--the only way they believe genuine peace is possible.

Members of Chagdud Gonpa T'hondup Ling, the lama's Los Feliz center, are hammering out a nonsectarian curriculum for peace education to offer to schools and communities as the mandala begins a national tour.

Two members, Linda Maxwell and Jose Quintanar, are holding public workshops to teach people how to use the mandala to nurture compassion. They're bringing mandala training to places like Camp Scudder, a youth detention camp in Saugus, to help wayward kids learn they have a sacred center.

Other project members are marketing the mandala in a hip and humorous way: "Shi-Tro Happens." The image campaign, aimed at creating buzz among a younger, not necessarily Buddhist crowd, features a planned CD of Tibetan music, an e-card of snazzy flash graphics linked to the project's Web site (, and products ranging from T-shirts to incense.

Some may see the mandala as hocus-pocus, but it has fascinated non-Tibetans for generations. Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, for instance, viewed the circular shape as a universal symbol of the divine and once called it an "antidote for the chaotic states of mind."

For members of the Shi-Tro team, the project has been a test and a triumph of faith. They began with an audacious belief that a small Buddhist center could sponsor a project so staggeringly complex that no one had ever attempted it in the United States.

But the project has begun capturing the imagination of supporters ranging from musician Stephen Stills and actress Sharon Stone to restaurateur Lucy Casado; from Forest Lawn to Whole Foods Market and Silk Road Gallery.

The lama knew it would.

"Whenever you do anything devoid of selfish motivation," he says, "there is not the slightest doubt that you will succeed." A Joke-Cracking Lama for L.A.

Lama Chodak Gyatso Nubpa is 49, solidly built, with a shaved head and a wide smile of straight white teeth. A fitting lama for Los Angeles, he can crack Jay Leno jokes one moment, then plunge into a dense Buddhist lecture the next.

He boasts an exceptional background: training from age 4 in Tibetan Buddhism's oldest order, known as Nyingma. Advanced degrees in Buddhist studies--metaphysics, psychology, logic, sutras and tantras--from the prestigious Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies in India. Chairman of the Tibetan parliament-in-exile.

But ask about his background, and he replies: "I feel ashamed, because the level of my practice is so poor. I am still in a sleeping state."

Today, Lama Gyatso straddles the two worlds of Tibetan ancient wisdom and American pop culture through his marriage to Linnea Nan, director of artist development and creative marketing at Warner Brothers Records Inc. in Burbank. The two met shortly after the lama moved to Los Angeles in 1997 at the request of his teacher, His Eminence Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche. He agreed to meet Nan because he misheard her last name and thought she was a Buddhist nun.

Nan is thirtysomething, with translucent skin and a long mane of reddish hair twisted atop her head. In between marketing campaigns for k.d. lang, Joni Mitchell and others, Nan is spearheading the mandala image campaign. She came up with the "Shi-Tro Happens" slogan. He didn't get it. What does the mandala have to do with yak dung?

For them, an aspect of the project is intensely personal: It is a labor of love to preserve the Tibetan heritage for their 16-month-old son, Rigzin Thinley Norbu.

But it's more than that, of course. It's the need to heal the horrific legacy left by the butchers of Tibet, the henchmen of the Holocaust, the gang warriors in Glendale, the abusers of children--so much violence everywhere, leaving so much lingering pain, and not just among the victims. The perpetrators, the bad guys, need help even more, the lama says.

For Lama Gyatso, forgiveness is not an intellectual exercise.

When the Communist Chinese invaded his homeland in the 1950s, they arrested and tortured his father, an influential community leader hailing from a long line of lamas and medical doctors. During a parole from his interrogations, his father packed up the family and fled across the ice-capped Himalayas.

All 15 children in his family set out. Only five survived. Some of the lama's younger brothers and sisters, just babies, died in his arms.

The young boy, 8 years old, but already four years in Buddhist training, held the small, still bodies of his siblings and thought not of revenge but of compassion--how his prayers might benefit his family in the afterlife. More than four decades later--after about 1.2 million Tibetans have perished under Chinese rule--the lama still speaks only of empathy.

Shouldn't you blame the Chinese soldiers for the horrors? No, he says, they were just following orders. Who, then? Perhaps Communist Party Chairman Mao Tse-tung, the lama says, but once you consider the "eons of suffering" his acts will bring him under the karmic law of cause and effect, "instead of feeling anger and hatred, you naturally develop compassion."

Such disciplined training of the mind--to transform thoughts of anger with thoughts of goodness and generosity--is a demanding path. "This path is not for everyone," the lama says. "It's a warrior's path." No Room for Negative Vibes

On a fine spring day, the lama is sitting cross-legged on a purple cushion, burning powdered incense, juniper and other substances on a small charcoal grill. The work of building the mandala begins here, on the open-air esplanade behind the Forest Lawn museum.

The smoke offering ceremony, the lama explains, purifies the environment and what he calls the "mindstream," or consciousness, of all beings in the area. Negative vibes would greatly dilute the mandala's blessings, he says.

For Tibetan ritual artists, cultivating a pure motivation is the single most important goal. Not artistic technique. Not self-expression. Not originality. To benefit others is the driving intent. The Shi-Tro mandala artists--Thaye, his wife, Gaye, and brother, Kunzang--begin each morning with meditation to purify their minds.

Thaye, 33, is one of the few artists left in the world with the breadth of artistic talents and Buddhist knowledge needed to build a 3-D mandala. From age 14, he apprenticed with his uncle, Lama Gonpo Tenzing, who is regarded as one of Tibet's living national treasures.

The intricate work includes woodworking, painting and shaping figures ranging from sea dragons to deities. But the dense spiritual meaning embedded in every doorway and post, measurement and form, is most striking.

The four doors to the palace, for instance, represent the "four immeasurables" of loving kindness, compassion, equanimity and joy. There are lion beams signifying strength and a fire circle in which all negative forces are burned and transformed into wisdom.

"I don't see this as just a piece of wood," Thaye says. "I am building a mansion for the deities, so I approach it with great respect."

The intense focus on devotion over originality has no precise parallel in Western art, says John Listopad, an assistant curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "Tibetan art is a psychological art and a meditational art," Listopad says. "It's an art which works on people and their personalities. It can calm you down and help you find peace and balance."

When Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Hernandez invited Tibetan monks to construct two sand mandalas in rival gang neighborhoods in Cypress Park and Montecito Heights in 1995, the project seemed to have a tangible impact on easing tensions.

"I saw kids put their rough side away and become civilized," recalls Luis Baretto, who produced a documentary about the Cypress Park project and is now helping the Shi-Tro team. "When these monks tell you, 'My father was killed by Chinese people . . . but I love them,' what are you going to say? That this guy spit on my low-rider so I'm going to kill him?" Principles Used in Education

Under Lama Gyatso, the mandala will be put to work on the streets. Two of his members doing that are Maxwell and Quintanar.

The pair have used the mandala principles in a nonsectarian way to train thousands of youths in peace education, conflict resolution, job training and life skills through their Glendale-based nonprofit organization, We Care for Youth.

On this day, Maxwell and Quintanar are bringing mandala training to 14 teenagers at Camp Scudder. The boys are 16 to 18. They have robbed, carjacked, sold drugs and taken them, dodged bullets and fired them.

Maxwell leads them to define themselves, not by their dark acts, but by their pure hearts.

Do they have them? These guys with these criminal records?

Maxwell wastes no time finding out. She asks who has lost a loved one. Each one raises a hand. An uncle shot dead in an alley. A cousin who got in the way in a gang fight. A best friend; so many friends. Another beloved uncle--kidnapped, killed and thrown in a dumpster. My little baby, and I didn't even get to go to the funeral.

Tears fall.

"The reason we do this is to show you the one common condition we all share," Maxwell says gently. "We will all die."

Other common conditions: We all have hearts; otherwise they wouldn't break like this. And we all want to be happy.

With that, Maxwell offers a basic Buddhist teaching--the impermanence of life, nurturing compassion for others by focusing on what we share--without once mentioning Buddhism.

Then she tells each of them to draw his own personal mandala, a diagram shaped like a lotus flower with a round center and eight petals. Buddhist practitioners use it for healing and meditation by identifying the self with the symbol of divine power in the circle's center.

Maxwell translates this into simpler language. The center is your pure self. The petals are the things that protect it. Draw it.

Some get to work immediately. Others look stumped. No one has ever asked them to think about their goodness.

By session's end, though, everyone has succeeded in the task.

Adam draws a blue center with the words: love, happiness. His biggest protector: MOM. "The hate is outside. It's what people see all day but they don't know me. It's OK to express your goodness sometimes."

In his center, Gary puts a heart, family, Watts and the names of two loved ones. In one petal, he outlines a cross as a protector--but doesn't shade it in, since he's not yet sure about his faith.

Others draw their centers as mind, a smiling face, a prayer.

"When you get back out on the street, use this," Maxwell says, pointing to the mandala's center. "This is what makes you glow. Don't do anything that takes you out of your right mind. Remember: Just like you, others feel deeply."

The teenagers won't change overnight. But the lama would say that the mandala has planted a seed of awareness in them that is certain to ripen sometime. And the Shi-Tro mandala--which they'll view when they attend the Dalai Lama's blessing of it--can liberate them and all those in pain, Lama Gyatso says.

Which is why he's bringing it here.

"We need a major healing," Lama Gyatso says. "We are kind of running out of time."