This article is by Tom Slayton. In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places.
On his black silk Tibetan smock, Tenzin Chophel of Middlebury wears a contemporary button and a patch. “Free Tibet,” urges the patch. The button, more firmly declares: “Tibet Will be Free.” The smock, made in a traditional Tibetan style, declares nothing, yet expresses Chophel’s love for the culture of his homeland.
Those two themes – protesting the Chinese takeover of their homeland yet somehow preserving Tibet’s traditional culture – are woven through much of the daily life and art of Vermont’s Tibetan community. They are expressed also in a major show of contemporary Tibetan art on display now through June 22 at the Fleming Museum in Burlington. And they were vigorously expressed in song, music and dance at a recent gathering and celebration of Tibetan culture by the Tibetan Association of Vermont at the Fleming.
The event last month attracted about 50 onlookers who sat on folding chairs or on the marble stairs of the echoing Marble Court in the formal central space of the museum.
“We are here to share Tibetan dance and song,” said Mingmar Tsering, president of the Tibetan Association. “Tibetans love being Tibetans, and it is important to us to try to express and protect our culture.”
He then played a haunting tune on a colorfully painted flute, and said, “I just played a tune straight from my heart. I tried to take you all to Tibet, so you could see the mountains and streams and villages.”
There followed a series of songs and dances. Children, with much giggling and sidelong glances, did a simple dance resembling a Virginia reel, and two groups of women performed more intricate dances, all in costume. The hard floors of the Marble Court echoed with the vigorous slapping of the dancers’ feet as they spun and sashayed.
Tsering accompanied the dancers on Tibetan instruments — either on the flute, or on a seven-stringed instrument called a dramyin – and sang in Tibetan about his sorrow at being exiled from his homeland.
Vermont has been a kind host, the Tibetans said. But there have been many challenges to overcome as they adapt to American culture, and to the Vermont environment, which this past winter was colder than is generally the case in much of Tibet, they said.
About 150 Tibetans live in Vermont, mostly in Chittenden County. Some of the elders were born in Tibet, but most of the younger ones were born in Dharamsala, a Tibetan community in India centered upon the Dalai Lama, whom Tibetans regard as a living deity and who is the leader of their Tibetan Buddhist religion.
Vermont was chosen in 1993 as one of 25 resettlement sites for Tibetans relocating in America. That year a handful of Tibetans came to Burlington. The state has gained a reputation for being friendly to immigrants, and over the years, some 35 Tibetan families have come to live here. They initially found work in entry-level jobs, but over the two decades many have moved on to professional jobs or opened businesses. Tenzin Chophel, for example, is a metalsmith and artist.
They are part of a quiet but significant influx of immigrants of various nationalities to the Green Mountain State. Since 1993, more than 6,000 immigrants have come to Vermont under a federal refugee resettlement program. The largest numbers, according to a story in Seven Days, are 1,705 Bosnians, 1,437 Bhutanese, and 1,000 Africans from several violence-torn countries.
“The Tibetans came here with virtually nothing 20 years ago, and they never asked for a thing,” said Steve Conlon, a Grand Isle resident familiar with the community through his work guiding tours to various Himalayan countries. “They are an exceptionally enterprising, hard-working, proud people.”
Their work to maintain their native culture is an ongoing project in which virtually everyone in the Vermont community participates. But the Tibetans face an uphill struggle. Even living in Vermont, they are surrounded by the pervasive influence of American pop culture, and must work continuously to pass on their language, customs, and religion to a younger generation influenced by television, commerce, and their classmates at school. Their hope is to build a Tibetan Community Cultural Center, where religious events, festivals, language and other classes and public events could take place.
As some of the young Tibetans danced in traditional costumes, others, clad in T-shirts and jeans, raced exuberantly around the museum, much like American youngsters anywhere. It is a cultural conflict acknowledged by several members of the Tibetan community here.
That culture clash is also the subject of several paintings in the Fleming’s current show of contemporary Tibetan art. Titled “Anonymous,” the show combines traditional and contemporary artistic media and techniques, including photography, to document the changes and stresses affecting Tibet’s scattered population.
Tsewang Tashi’s series of color photographs, ironically entitled “Shangri La, Numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4” play with the Western idea of Tibet as “Shangri La” – a remote, impossibly exotic land – by mixing figures in traditional costumes with young people in hoodies, blue jeans, and fatigue jackets. That is part of today’s distressing reality for Tibetans.
Another sort of social pressure is expressed in Rabkar Wangchuk’s “Spiritual Mind and Modern Technology,” a finely painted surrealistic mixture of electronics, gears, racing taxis, and other symbols of fast-paced American life, overseen by a calm and contemplative Buddha with penetrating Eastern eyes.
Does the fact that half the Buddha’s face is replaced by gears and wires, and that “Home Depot” and “Best Buy” tags are suspended from his elongated ears imply that the Tibetans’ native Buddhism is being overrun by modern life? Or does it suggest that the calmness of Buddha-mind exists even within modern technology?
As Tenzin Chophel and Anak Tseten, two leaders of the Vermont Tibetans, toured the exhibit, they seemed most strongly moved by the works protesting the Chinese takeover of their homeland.
“Demoness of Tibet,” an intricate painting using mineral pigments on cloth by Penba Wangdu, depicts a reclining female figure symbolizing Tibet, with staring eyes, long claws, and white fangs. Houses, villages, shrines and monasteries perch on various parts of her body, and ominous-looking slashes of red – symbolizing red China’s invasion and influence – slice toward her.
After viewing the painting, Chophel said simply, “She’s protecting.”
The two men contemplated Sherab Gyaltsan’s “Roots and Mandala,” for several minutes, but offered no explanation of its intricate, global shape, its hovering angel figures, or its web of roots reaching outward toward flocks of soaring birds.
Finally, Chophel said quietly: “Many stories there.”
Tom Slayton, editor emeritus of Vermont Life magazine, is a Montpelier freelance writer and editor.