Greetings from Galen Murton, Program Director
Galen and Ngakpa friend in Amdo, Tibet
Nihao, Tashi Delek, and Demo-
Just a few of the local greetings which I'd like to offer you as I write today from the town of Repkong, the very place where we'll spend several weeks together this summer. I'm here meeting many of the local craftsman with whom we'll be studying the legendary artistic traditions from this cultural center of the Tibetan world. Over endless cups of tea I've also been getting to know the local Amdo-wa families who are all very eager to meet and host us in just over two months from now.
I have spent my time over the past week putting pieces in place for this exciting program, and in addition to meeting the local Tibetan artists and welcoming and gracious grandmothers, I've been collaborating with the experienced guides, educators, and translators with whom we'll be working. We have put quite a team together, and I must let you know how very eager everyone is here in Repkong and Gomar to meet and work with all of you, and they can't wait for our arrival in early July.
As we venture into what for many of you might initially feel like a real unknown, you will have the opportunity to visit monasteries and talk with monks aged eight to eighty, as well as engage local families and learn the simplicity of rural life. We will be the subject of intense interest and relentless attention, and I can assure you that the people we meet will be equally (if not somehow more) curious of us than we are of them. While laughing with toothless Grandmothers on long train-rides and drinking salty butter tea in cramped quarters with little children stealing stares at us, we’ll discover how quickly we are received not as strangers but as friends.
Our pilgrimage will begin as soon as we leave home, and by traveling through the Tibetan regions of modern-day China we’ll come to understand how dynamic and complex this region is today, and has truly always been. Visiting the foundations of imperial Beijing and riding the new and controversial rail-line to Lhasa will plunge us into the complex relationship that China and Tibet struggle within. Exploring Lhasa's Jokhang Temple and walking the Barkhor circuit will unite us with other pilgrims and make us participants in their liturgy. Studying with accomplished artists here in Repkong and living with friendly families in the neighboring village of Gomar will quickly make us close members of a community which maintains traditions many centuries old.
In this way, we will also experience the wonder and joy of simple living. By streamlining our material needs, we’ll carry virtually all of our possessions in a backpack (personally, my favorite way to live). We will come to know this beauty of simplicity, realizing it ourselves and seeing it everywhere around us, as we live amongst people whose spiritual richness is often in inverse relation to their worldly goods. It sometimes requires being removed from home to actually gain a perspective on how much we have, and how much of it we really don’t need, and how less truly can be more.
As international students, you will have the unique opportunity not only to learn yourself, but to educate the many people with whom we interact, many who have very little honest understanding of our country. The experiential education of this journey will open our eyes to new lifestyles and traditions, and will reciprocally provide the wonderful people we meet a perspective into who we are as Americans, and what that means (which I personally believe is quite different from the popular media images that people see around the world).
Finally, please let me tell you a little about myself and how this very program came to be. I first traveled in the Amdo region one year ago, making pilgrimage to the most sacred mountain of the region, Amnye Machen, with a dear friend. After making the week-long circumambulatory walk around the Machen massif (a traditional and meritorious act in the Tibetan tradition), I traveled here to Repkong, having heard of the legendary painting schools in the valley. Along the way I also visited some of the significant and remote monasteries which we will spend time at this summer. The opportunity to study with the masterful artists and incredibly friendly people here led me to consider the prospect of a collaborative Global-LAB program which would immerse western students in the rich traditions of this local culture, learning ancient skills while living with the artisans themselves. And so now here we are preparing to embark on this very program, one which I am confident will be not only a true success, but a learning experience and exchange for all parties involved that will cultivate both relationships and skills across all lines of language, nationality, and religion. In fact, we'll soon see that these lines really do not exist at all, as they immediately become blurred and then erased with each day that we spend together.
As far as what I was doing here last summer, in a rather remote area on the northern slope of the Himalaya in Central Asia, goes back a number of years. A little biography: I first learned of (and immediately wanted to visit) the Himalaya while in high school, having seen a family friend’s slide-show of a climb he had guided in Nepal. As I read some books on the philosophical and religious traditions of India, Tibet, and China, my interest grew exponentially. At Middlebury College in Vermont I furtherexplored the traditions of eastern thought and read a little more about the esoteric dimensions of Tibetan Buddhism. Finally, it was during my junior year of college in 1998-99 that I was able to go and study in Kathmandu, Nepal with the University of Wisconsin, focusing my attention on the places and practice of pilgrimage in the Tibetan tradition as well as the iconographical pantheon of Tibetan Buddhism and Bon (the ancient religion of Tibet). I first visited Central Tibet at that time, doing research on a uniquely Bon-po pilgrimage mountain in a remote (and restricted) area north-east of Lhasa called Kyungpo. That project ended under unfortunate circumstances due to complications with the regional Chinese authorities and my lack of proper travel documents, but the pilgrimage had merely begun.
And I have continued my pilgrimage in Tibet and the greater Himalalya just about every year since then, to walk, to sit, to learn, to teach, to work, to play, and to explore. More recently over the past couple of years I have developed and led summer study-abroad programs in Kham, Tibet as well as Global LAB’s ‘From Brahma to Buddha’ fall semester programs in India. I have been privileged and excited to develop this Artistic Traditions of Amdo for Pratt and Global LAB, and greatly look forward to our time together which begins in just two months.
Each time I return to this part of the world I learn about a new valley, a distant mountain, an ancient monastery that calls for a visit, and so the cycle goes. You will soon walk into this world, and I believe that it will be but an initial step along a lifelong journey of inquiry and discovery.
I’m sure you have many questions about our trip; I know I do. And it can be intimidating trying to prepare for such an undertaking. Please read what you can about the traditions, both political and artistic, about Tibet and China, and take the time to view a film or two as well. We have a suggested reading and viewing list posted on the blog, and there is much more out there that I'd be happy to recommend as well. Finally, be it a question about gear (pack super-light) or a ‘hello, how’s it going,’ you can reach me anytime at email@example.com
I look forward to hearing from you and, moreover, meeting in New York in two months.
All the best and Demo-ah