Friday, May 9, 2008

Being Tibetan

Tomorrow is the long-awaited Compassion Festival sponsored by my sangha! The monks have been working on the sand mandala for a week. I saw it today, almost finished, and it is stunning, beautiful, glorious, gorgeous, touching.

Late this afternoon, I went to the high school hosting the mandala and festival to help with food prep. I was surprised to find pretty fliers on the school's doors advertising dharma talks our monk gave for students throughout the week. The high school was massive, the main office closed, and no map to be found. Some students pointed me in the right direction. I wondered how I would know when I was approaching the right place.

I need not have worried. At the foot of the stairs, I heard recorded Tibetan chants and saw the bright yellows and greens of Tibetan Buddhist banners. There were four or five cinnamon-robe-clad monks. One was working on the mandala, measuring the edges with a compass. His sneakers peeked out from beneath the red robes. People clustered around the mandala for a glimpse. Were they parents of high school students, or just people who lived in town? I paused for a moment, bowled over by this work of art, deeply afraid of sneezing. Further down the hallway, I saw Lobsang, "our monk," answering questions, and his best friend, Amdo (another monk), at his elbow. At last I spied a woman wearing an apron dusted liberally with flour, and asked where the kitchen was.

I expected to slog through boring hours of chopping, but I was essentially treated to a cooking class on stuffing and shaping Tibetan dumplings. Chef Viktor, our leader, seemed impressed with my work, and the high school cafeteria manager half-jokingly offered me a job. It was great fun to socialize with the sangha members who were there, but meeting Chef Viktor was the real treat. He made sure that his volunteer cooks tried the carrot fudge (ohmygod, like the best carrot cake you never had) and enjoyed the samples of reject dumplings. When the other cooks cleared out and I stayed with just a few others to clean, I had the chance to chat with Chef. He grew up in Mozambique, has lived in 7 countries in 3 continents, and has studied the cuisine of all of them. He uses only Succanat for sweetener and has fascinating insights about the mineral and nutritional value of sweeteners. We both admire Jacques Pepin.

I also enjoyed the cleaning, the pulling long streams of cling wrap across trays. It reminded me of my college work study days in the Kosher Kitchen. I missed the Beatles compilation we used to play during cleanup.

As we cleaned and tidied, Lobsang and Amdo entered the kitchen. Lobsang does not know my name, but often greets me with a warm bow-handshake-hug, a fusion hello which always delights me. Chef explained that he may not return tomorrow, as he lives far away, and a Tibetan who speaks no English was slated to be running the kitchen. (I had already volunteered to lead the crew to fold the remaining 150 dumplings and fry all 300 if Chef couldn't return. Chef was glad to have me when I mentioned my high school summers frying up clamcakes.) It turns out they found another Tibetan chef who does know English, and Lobsang charmingly requested Chef's return tomorrow. You can't say no to a monk, especially one as charismatic as ours, so Chef and I will be manufacturing the dumplings together in the morning.

The food we made today is just the snacks to sell in the afternoon. The evening's dinner for 300 will be prepared by the Tibetan crew tomorrow. I wonder what time service will really happen. It's scheduled for 6. Based on my limited exposure to the Tibetan sense of time, I would guess we will eat somewhere between 6:45 and 9.

As we walked out, Chef told me the mandala is so beautiful it made him weep. We looked at it from the second-floor balcony, mesmerized by the colors and intricate patterns. Two high school girls were departing from extracurriculars at that time. They leaned over to look at the mandala again. "It's sooo beautiful," one whispered in awe.

My parents are coming up for the festival, too! Yay!


Larry Jones said...

I hope you have a wonderful weekend. Sounds like you have an excellent beginning.

kStyle said...

Thanks, Larry! I hope you have a wonderful weekend, too.

Narya said...

If it's not inappropriate to take one, I'd love to see a picture of the mandala. I've never seen one, but have always wanted to.

It sounds like an incredible weekend; I can't wait for more reports!

kStyle said...

I plan to take a picture and post it here. If you follow the link in the post, there are some good photos there, too. Cheers!