Not too long ago, I was with a friend of mine while he was attending a meeting. I’m not a big fan of meetings, so I thought I would take a walk around the neighbourhood and maybe get a video of some trains crossing Yandell Drive.
I started walking from Palm Street towards the railroad tracks, and I swear I could hear bells ringing. It wasn’t a constant, but every few minutes or so. As I continued to walk, it grew louder and louder. That’s when I saw the house.
The first thing I noticed was a string of coloured flags along the front porch. Each one was a different colour, and they had writing on them. Of course, I didn’t recognise the script, but I did recognise the flags from the movie Seven Years in Tibet. These were prayer flags.
I discovered that these were called Lungta flags. You will often see them come in a string of five flags, each a different colour. The colours represent the elements: blue for the sky, white for the wind, red for fire, green for water, and yellow for the earth. All colours are used on a string to bring harmony through a balance of the five elements.
I used to believe that these flags contained prayers. My thought was that each time the wind blew the flags about, the prayers were sent out into the world. It turns out prayer flags do not carry prayers to gods, but rather are used to promote peace, strength, compassion, and wisdom. The wind is said to bring these messages from the flags to all people.
While I was standing there on the porch, listening to the bells and the faint sound of chanted prayers, I was debating with myself. I wanted to go in, see what they were doing, how they were praying. I wanted to see how Buddhism is practised in the Borderland.
I knew that this was going to be a Tibetan Buddhist Center.
I knew that China had taken over Tibet and that the Dali Lama had to flee for his safety. I also knew that there are some Tibetans, both monks and non-monks, who feel that Tibetan Buddhism is only for Tibetans. There is even a scene in the movie where Brad Pitt and David Thewlis are being escorted out of Tibet because of its borders being closed to foreigners — knowing that, I just had to wonder how Tibetan Buddhism could be practised in El Paso.
Before I could sat down to meet with some members of their community, Chantilly and I were able to visit the centre to take some photographs.
The space is small, cosy, occupying what would have otherwise been a living room. At one end a massive, goldish statue of Buddha. Along the walls were depictions of Tibetan Buddhist Gods, painted on silk.
The smell of incense permeated the air. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always equated the smell of incense to prayer.
As an aside, I write poetry. I specialise in Asian forms of poetry: Tanka, haiku, senryu, as well as others. It seems that when I write about incense, I always relate it to prayer or memory. A few examples:
clouds of incense
from the altar
mixed with incense
day of the dead—
in the incense smoke
I’ll forever equate incense to prayers. And the lingering smell of incense suggested images of Buddhist Monks sitting in this room, praying and chanting sutras.
The Chenrezig Tibetan Buddhist Cultural Center, though located on Yandell and within shouting distance of the railroad track, is tranquil and peaceful once you are inside. It’s a place where you can quickly lose the cares and concerns of the day and find yourself.
The centre itself is open to the public. You can visit the main space, visit the gift shop, or take a few minutes to centre yourself before facing the rest of your day. As I found out, it’s open and welcoming to anyone who comes to their door.
On Sunday, we returned to speak with Deborah Crinzi, Helga Carrion, Kien Lim, and Joseph Bernal.
Deborah, before attending the Tibetan Buddhist Center, was a Christian.
“I recognise the similarities,” Deborah said, “in things I have been raised with as a Christian.”
One of the correlations she sees between these two beliefs is compassion. She said that in Buddhism, compassion is broken down for her, the steps to follow are laid out for her.
“In the Christian faith,” she said, “I had to work it through and struggle through it and figure it out.”
Deborah Crinzi is the president of the Chenrezig Tibetan Buddhist Cultural Center, while Kien Lim is the treasurer.
“Tibetan Buddhism, of course, has its basis in Buddhism,” said Deborah. “There is a teacher by the name of Guru Padmasambhava who took Buddhism to Tibet more or less in the seventh century. There was a lot of chaos in Tibet, and he received a vision that he needed to go there.”
Tibetan Buddhism has a lot in common with other forms of Buddhism. The only difference, I’m told, is the approach.
“In comparison to other forms of Buddhism,” Deborah said, “it [Tibetan Buddhism] it’s very ornate. You’ll see there is a lot of symbolism.”
Thinking of the Tibetan approach to Buddhism, I can recall hearing ceremonial prayers and watching videos of them. The deep rhythmic chanting of the monks, the drums, cymbals, and horns. It is very different from Zen Buddhism, where there may be some chanting, but not necessarily.
“The main idea,” Kien said when asked about their practices, “is to understand the mind.”
The Tibetan practise focuses more on visualisation, according to Kien.
“[You] put yourself as if we are a very compassionate person,” said Kien, “and then I behave like one. Rather than I want to be, I start acting like one, visualize like I am.” He goes on to say that you imagine how a compassionate person would be, and when you can visualise it, you can start to act like it.
“We do a variety of different practices,” said Helga. “There’s a lot of teachings, a lot of analytical processes. They do a lot of debating, a lot of intellectual types of practices to get to know and understand things.”
At the Chenrezig Tibetan Buddhist Cultural Center, they use a combination of practices. There is visualisation, Deity practices, chanting, and meditation. They also study and discuss the teachings of Buddha.
But I still didn’t understand how Tibetan Buddhism made its way to El Paso.
“It was probably in the sixties when the first Tibetan Buddhist teachers came to the West,” said Helga. In the seventies and later, more and more began to arrive in the West, and the United States. “From there, it started growing.”
“The Centre was opened in 1989,” said Helga. “It came to El Paso because our spiritual director came, he was invited by one of the museums here in town.”
It turns out the Centre’s spiritual director came to El Paso to create a sand mandala. Those who witnessed its creation were the late Dr Hall from UTEP, Joseph De Florio, and a Shaolin monk called Master Camacho.
“Dr David Hall said, ‘why don’t we start a centre at UTEP,” said Helga. “But of course, they could not start a religious centre, so they called it a cultural centre.” And that was the beginning of Tibetan Buddhism in El Paso.
Eventually, the space they occupied at UTEP was needed, and they ended up at 2117 E. Yandell.
I’ve seen a lot here in my hometown. I’ve seen a growing Indian/Hindu community, two different Islamic Centres. I’ve even seen Hari Krishnas at Basset Center Mall. Yet, I never thought I would see a Tibetan Buddhist Temple in El Paso, much less be able to sit in one learning about their religious beliefs, or history. It’s neat, learning about others, what makes them different, and what ultimately connects us all.
We’re lucky to live in El Paso. For the most part, we all get along. We’re not quick to judge, and we’re very welcoming. I’m glad this is my home.
If you would like to know more about the Chenrezig Tibetan Buddhist Cultural Centre, who they are, and what they do, you can visit their webpage by clicking here.
I want to invite you to take the time to watch my interview with members of the Buddhist Centre. Trust me, it’s worth your time. To view the video, click the thumbnail at the beginning of this article.
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