In a warehouse off San Pablo Avenue, stacks of silk-wrapped bundles reach nearly to the ceiling. Wrapped in scarves of red, yellow and saffron – traditional colors in Tibetan Buddhism – sacred texts are being prepared for shipment halfway around the world.
A young woman deftly rolls a long rectangular book in a square of silk, neatly folding in the corners and tying it up with a ribbon. Nearby, two volunteers brush red dye across the books’ exterior edges, while others methodically stack and assemble the texts.
For months now, a small group of volunteers has worked quietly and persistently on the Yeshe De project (named for an esteemed 9th-century Tibetan translator), assembling more than 150,000 books. The texts, cherished ancient Buddhist prayers and commentaries, will be distributed along with prayer wheels and sacred images to Tibetan clergy and laity at the 12th World Peace Ceremony, to be held in India this coming January.
Although the immense effort is now in its final crunch, with shipment scheduled for the last week in November, no one seems stressed or short-tempered. “Watch your breath,” reads a sign in English, Portuguese and Vietnamese, posted over one of the worktables.
Most of the volunteers are students at the Nyingma Institute, a Tibetan Buddhist center in Berkeley where people can live and work for periods of 6 to 18 months. But there are others as well – ordinary citizens who stop in for a few hours each week.
“Around the time of our shipping, this place is like a magnet; we get all kinds of people,” says Stephanie Hoffmann, Yeshe De coordinator. “Our oldest volunteer is 80 years old.
“Last week we had a group of 15-year-olds, students from a private high school in Oakland and from Berkeley High School. I asked them if they could choose one word to describe the experience of working here, and they said ‘Peace.’ Or ‘patience.’ Or ‘happiness.’”
The work is repetitive but oddly satisfying.
The workshop shares quarters with Dharma Publishing in the former Heinz Ketchup factory building on San Pablo, where colorful prayer flags now fly over the Spanish style stone walls and tiled roof. Since the Nyingma Institute was founded by Tarthang Tulku, a Tibetan lama who came to the United States in 1968, one of Dharma Publishing’s missions has been to preserve and replicate sacred Buddhist writings – thousands were lost or destroyed after the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1959.
“Imagine all the books in all the libraries in the West being destroyed, and you get an idea of the size of it,” said Jack Petranker, a senior editor.
Tibetan Buddhists see themselves as the keepers of the original Buddhist tradition, which came to Tibet from India beginning in the 7th century. During the next several centuries, Tibetan scholars carefully translated the earliest Sanskrit writings on the Buddha’s teachings into their own language. Beginning in the 1970s, Tarthang Tulku has led an effort to recover thousands of these sacred texts so they can be reprinted and distributed to the Tibetan community in exile in India, Nepal and Bhutan. Some of the books also find their way back to the few remaining monasteries in Tibet.
In 1989, Tarthang Tulku organized the first World Peace Ceremony in Bodh Gaya, India. About 500 Tibetan Buddhists attended that first ceremony and, with tears of joy, received copies of texts that they had feared lost forever. This year, between 6,000 and 7,000 Buddhists are expected to gather for the 10-day gathering in mid-January.
“It’s a very overwhelming experience,” says Petranker, who went to Bodh Gaya for the ceremony several years ago. “You have thousands of monks and nuns chanting together from morning till night. There are hundreds of people circumambulating the site, so you’re kind of caught up in this wheel of humanity.”
While a primary goal of the ceremony is to distribute religious books and artifacts, thereby helping to preserve the endangered Tibetan culture, Buddhists believe the annual gathering has a broader significance. Not only does it help preserve the endangered Tibetan Buddhist culture, but supporters also say the effort helps generate a powerful spiritual force that blesses the entire world.
Bodh Gaya, site of the Buddha’s enlightenment, is considered by Buddhists to be the center of the cosmos.
“When all these people get together to pray for world peace, to chant special prayers, in the most powerful place in the world, you have an incredible vortex of energy.” said Petranker. “What we’re doing here is for the benefit of all people. It’s immediately for the benefit of the Tibetans, giving them back their culture. But in the long run, it helps us all.”
To volunteer, call the Yeshe De office at 845-1710. For more information on the Nyingma Institute and its programs, visit the website at nyingmainstitute.org