Tuesday, Oct 29 2013 09:08 AM

Pen in Hand : Ari Bhöd preserves Tibetan culture in the Tehachapi Mountains

Related Photos

Lama Tsewang and Lama Lhundrup work on a traditional Tibetan sand painting mandala.

The newest structure at the Pema Drawa retreat provides housing for residents and visitors.

Ven. Lama Gelong Kalsang Rinpoche carefully places sand onto the mandala.

Smoke rises from a traditional Tibetan outdoor oven on an October day.

Ven. Lama Thogmed is a renowned teacher of Tibetan ritual arts like sand painting.

Rubbing a rod over a narrow copper funnel causes colored sand to trickle out.

In a mountainous retreat, four Tibetan monks in maroon robes stand around a four-foot square, elevated wooden surface, carefully creating an artistic masterpiece. Holding elongated copper funnels that narrow down to the diameter of a small drinking straw, they use a pencil-like metal rod to rub a serrated ridge on top of the funnel, trickling colored sand from the funnel onto the board below. They work steadily but patiently, calmly adding one design element after another onto the intricate pattern. One monk uses a wooden tool, akin to a spatula or putty knife, to gently push the fine colored sand into the neat lines required by the design.

These highly skilled craftsmen, creating a traditional Tibetan Buddhist sand mandala, will spend several weeks completing the ornate artwork. These contented monks are not isolated away in a remote Tibetan monastery, however, they are in the Tehachapi Mountains at a special place called Ari Bhöd, which is the American Foundation for Tibetan Cultural Preservation.

The retreat itself is called Pema Drawa, meaning "Lotus Web" and is located on 475 acres near Tehachapi Mountain Park that formerly housed a camp owned by the Burbank YMCA. Some Tehachapi residents may be vaguely aware that the old Y-Camp is now owned by Buddhists, but know little of it beyond that -- thinking perhaps that it is now a summer camp for Buddhist children instead of inner-city youth from the Los Angeles area.

In fact, it is far more interesting than that: Pema Drawa, established by the late Venerable Lama Chödak Gyatso Nubpa, is actually a place to preserve the cultural and spiritual traditions of Tibet -- a kind of Tibet in America. This is being done because the Tibetan people and their culture are being systematically wiped out by the Chinese government, which forcibly annexed Tibet in 1950, and subsequently destroyed more than 6,000 monasteries during the Cultural Revolution.

Lama Chödak Gyatso created Ari Bhöd and the Pema Drawa retreat to serve as a kind of American ark, to preserve Tibetan culture against the flood of foreign influence in Tibet itself. Lama Gyatso was particularly interested in preserving what he considered to be the most priceless part of Tibetan culture, “that which can bring peace to humanity.” Tibet is not only the highest region on Earth, with an average elevation of 16,000 feet, it is also home to one of the most peaceful cultures the world has ever known, and there is clearly much that Tibet could teach the rest of the world about peacefully resolving conflict.

And though the names, language and culture are unfamiliar to Westerners, there is nothing cult-like about Tibetan Buddhism -- there are no gurus or messianic leaders commanding obedience from their followers. The monks associated with Ari Bhöd are humble, serene men who have no interest in wealth or power, and two of them -- Ven. Lama Gelong Kalsang Rinpoche and Ven. Lama Nawang Thogmed -- travel all over Asia teaching ritual arts like sand mandala painting.

Ari Bhöd acquired the old YMCA property in 2003, and in the ensuing ten years has made profound and positive changes. With help from volunteers, a number of whom live in the Tehachapi area, the group has cleaned up the camp and built some new structures and renovated the old ones. Pema Drawa is used year-round with fulltime residents, and one building houses the Shi-tro Mandala, the most intricately detailed three-dimensional Tibetan Mandala ever constructed outside of India and Asia. It is an incredibly elaborate scale model of the sacred mansion where enlightened beings are said to dwell.

Ari Bhöd and the Pema Drawa retreat have found a serene home in the Tehachapi Mountains, a place where one of the great and inspirational ancient cultures of the world can find a refuge. It has added yet another interesting dimension to the tapestry of life in the Tehachapi area.
Jon Hammond has written for the Tehachapi News for over 30 years. Send email to:

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