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 neighborhood and maybe get a video of some trains crossing Yandell Drive.
I start walking, from Palm Street towards the railroad tracks, and I swear I can 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 colored flags along the front parch. Each one was a different color, and they had had writing on them. Of course, I didn’t recognize the writing, but I did recognize the flags from the movie Seven Years in Tibet. These flags were prayer flags.
I discovered that these were Lungta flags. You will often see them come in a string of five flags, one in each flag color. The colors represent the elements: blue for the sky, white for the wind, red for fire, green for water, and yellow for the earth.
All colors 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 at large. 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 carry 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 in practiced in the Borderland.
I know that this was going to be a Tibetan Buddhist Center. Everything I knew about this school of Buddhist thought literally came from watching Seven Years in Tibet, and a few videos on YouTube.
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 practiced in El Paso. Before I could sit down and meet with some members of their community, Chantilly and I were able to visit the center to take some photographs.
The space is small, cozy, occupying what would have otherwise been a living room. At one end a large, goldish statue of the Buddha. Along the walls are depictions of Tibetan Buddhist Gods, painted on silk.
The smell of incense permeates the air. For as long as I can remember I’ve always equated the smell of incense to prayer.
As an aside, I wrote poetry. I specialize 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.
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 easily lose the cares and concerns of the day, and find yourself.
The center itself is open to the public. You can visit the main space, visit the gift shop, or just take a few minutes to center 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 recognize the similarities,” Deborah says, “in things I have been raised with as a Christian.”
One of the correlations she sees between Christianity and Buddhism 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 though 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,” says 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 in reply to my question of how they practice, “is to understand the mind.”
The Tibetan practice focuses more on visualization, according to Kien. “[You] put yourself as if we are a very compassionate person,” says 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 visualize it, you can start to act like it.
“We do a variety of different practices,” says 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 visualization, Deity practices, chanting, meditation. They also study and discuss the teachings of the Buddha.
So just how did Tibetan Buddhism make its way to El Paso?
“It was probably in the sixties when the first Tibetan Buddhist teachers came to the West,” says Helga. In the seventies, and later, more and more began to arrive in the West, and in the United States. “From there it started growing.”
“The Center 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.”
What happened is that the Centers spiritual director came to El Paso to create a sand mandala. Watching the creation of this mandala was 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 center at UTEP,” said Helga. “But of course they could not start a religious center, so they called it a cultural center.” 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 East Yandell. I’ve seen a lot here in my hometown. I’ve seen a growing Indian/Hindu community, two different Islamic Centers. I’ve even seen Hari Krishna’s at Basset Center Mall. Yet, I
never thought I would see a Tibetan Buddhist Temple in El Paso, much less see me sitting in one learning about their religious beliefs, or history.
It’s neat, learning about others, what makes them different, and what untimely 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 Center, who they are, and what they do, you can visit their webpage.
I would like to invite you to take the time to watch my interview with members of the Buddhist Center, via the video above. Trust me, it will be time well spent. To watch the video, click here
And just a small bit of selfish promotion. I did say that I write poetry. If you own a Kindle and would like to get a copy of my book, The 24 Hour Sigh, by clicking here. Starting some time on Sunday, it will be free until the fourth of October.
See a picture that you would like to have a copy of, or if you would like him to come out and share your story. Contact Steven Cottingham at 915-201- 0918 or e-mail him at StevenCottingham@Columnist.com