August 21, 2014

Monks in Ferguson

Six Tibetan monks join Ferguson demonstrators to support justice for Mike Brown.

Joshua Eaton

Tensions continued to escalate in Ferguson, Missouri over the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager shot and killed by a white police officer, Darren Wilson, on August 9. His death set off days of protests and a heavy-handed, militarized police response that has sparked national outrage.

But Ferguson residents got a pleasant surprise on Sunday: A visit from a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks.

“Ferguson was a very heated issue in our backyard,” explained Patty Maher, who is hosting the monks during their stay in St. Louis. “Sunday was their day off. . . . We didn't know what to expect, but they gladly went. And as you saw, their presence was profound.”

The six monks, from Drepung Gomang Monastery in southwest India, arrived in St. Louis on Saturday as part of the Sacred Tibetan Arts tour, which their monastery puts on every year. They will spend the next ten months traveling cross-country to give lectures, create Tibetan sand paintings (mandalas) and perform traditional ceremonies.

According to the monastery’s website, the tour aims to increase awareness of Tibetan culture, raise funds for the monastery’s upkeep, and “make a contribution to world healing and peace.” This is the tour’s third year visiting St. Louis, though Maher says different monks come each time.

Geshe Tsewang Thinley is one of the monks visiting the US for the first time with this year’s tour. He grew up in a Tibetan refugee community in India, where many Tibetans fled after the Chinese invasion in 1950 and a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959.

“In Tibet, you know, many times it happens like this. Everywhere, every month, they have the problem in Tibet, same, the police shooting like this,” Geshe Thinley explained, speaking of Chinese forces’ frequent use of live rounds against nonviolent protesters.

Just four days after Michael Brown’s death, Radio Free Asia reported that Chinese police wounded almost a dozen Tibetans when they opened fire on a protest in Kardze. Since then, five of the protesters have reportedly died of their injuries.

Geshe Thinley, the other monks, and their assistant Tseltem Gyatso went with Maher to Ferguson for a couple of hours on Sunday. In front of the Quick Trip gas station destroyed the week before, they shook hands and posed for pictures during a festive daytime protest.

According to Amy K. Nelson, a contributing editor at Animal New York who was at the scene, a local woman made the monks a sign that read “From Tibet Justice For Mike Brown.” Others showed the monks the “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture that has become a hallmark of protests in Ferguson and beyond.

“People said that Michael Brown had, before the shooting there, hands up, but police also shoot him. This is wrong. So all people said, like this,” Geshe Thinley explained, placing his hands up, “and [we did the] same.”

Pictures of the monks quickly spread across social media, not least because of several tweets from St. Louis’s now-famous alderman Antonio French.

Twice since the monks’ visit to Ferguson, members of St. Louis’s African-American community have recognized them from social media and asked to take pictures with them. “How do you recognize them?” Maher asked one woman. The answer? Facebook.

This kind of engagement with the African-American community is new for Tibetan Buddhists in the US. There are no hard statistics on American converts to Tibetan Buddhism, but many experts agree that they tend to be white and middle- or upper-middle class.

And while the Tibetan exile-government's office in New York estimates that some 9,000 Americans have Tibetan ancestry, the Tibetan community and the convert community are often separate. That is especially true in cities like St. Louis that lack a significant Tibetan-American population.

“Tibetan Buddhist centers—and most Buddhist centers in the US—are not terribly diverse,” said Lama Rod Owens, one of the few African-American teachers in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. “Unfortunately we face a serious issue of segregation that, from my experience, is not based on any ill will or conscious attempts to segregate or remain separate, but a staunch unwillingness . . . to examine how whiteness and class privilege prevent meaningful inclusion and invitation to occur in Buddhist communities.”

Before the trip, Geshe Thinley was unaware of the Michael Brown case or of America’s problems with racial inequality. Visiting Ferguson was a crash course—one he was unlikely to get at a meditation center or university performance.

“Normally, people are really, really nice here,” said Geshe Thinley. “But why it happened, I don't know. . . . It's normally very peaceful everywhere in the United States, I think. . . . It's a little bit changing for my feeling.”

A grand jury will meet on Wednesday to consider charges against Daren Wilson as many across the nation call for broad changes in how police operate. Meanwhile, Geshe Thinley said he and the other monks say daily prayers for everyone who is suffering—in Ferguson, Gaza, Iraq, and everywhere else.

“I cannot do anything,” said Geshe Thinley, “but I can pray.”

Joshua Eaton is an independent journalist who covers religion and society, human rights, and national security.

Images: Facebook

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carterthad's picture

It was a tragic death of a young man, but I was not there and did not actually experience that moment , I do not know the actions that caused this. Isn't this why we suffer? believing what we think, not what we know?

DB's picture

There are riots in Tibet too my friends. The simple fact is that these monks recognize tyranny when they see it.

carterthad's picture

I am glad the monks were there for peace, but to raise arms up in solidarity for one group without knowing the whole facts

davide's picture

The "spark" has been discussed everywhere. Perhaps you weren't paying attention.
Speaking as a white person, I haven't been labeled "racist and worse" because of Wilson's actions.
Perhaps we should discuss the dangers of making wildly inaccurate accusations.

Dominic Gomez's picture

So shall you Reap: We 'Muricans are sure gettin' the eeffects of our historical karma now, eh good buddy!

helgecko's picture

Well, that's something I never would have anticipated encountering on a tricycle comments board - blatant racism. I suppose it's good to have my assumptions challenged, though.

A few things - I have never heard of "out-of wedlock" sex or childbearing as being against the tenants of Buddhism. This sounds more like a Puritanical Christian ideology to me. I also think that there would be hundreds of thousands of single parents around the world who would be rightfully upset by your assertion that their children are "almost certain to be neglected, abuse and traumatized". That is an extraordinary and completely unfounded claim.

More importantly though, I find it highly disturbing that your post seems to suggest that African Americans are somehow simply "worse" than white people.
We see this attitude in Australia as well, directed towards our Indigenous population. White people look only at crime statistics or "culture of irresponsible sexual practices", and completely ignore the horrific histories which have led to generational trauma and also the ongoing insidious and dehumanising bigotry and oppression these people are faced with on a daily basis.

Your seeming assertion that African Americans don't deserve support in their appeal for justice because you don't approve of their culture is extraordinary to me.

I am new here, and hope that your posts are in no way representative of the wider tricycle community.

workbc9's picture

The data show that children do better when raised in a stable 2 parent home. As an correlation but not causation there is data to support a greater incidence of abuse to children by women, and in a single mother setting. Not just to race but setting.
Agreed, never heard those as tenants of Buddhism, your comments are very good and funny. But I think as a general (Buddhist or intelligent) concept if we act in a certain way, causes and conditions, will lead to positive or negative outcomes.
We need to take personal responsibility and help others in out life to due like wise to reduce suffering, I'm sure, being in this forum, you would agree? We need to seek the truth and act to that end.

lshaw's picture


Is there something to be learned from history? After determination of fact --- by whatever methodology --- is one then bound to intepret the tissue of fact(s), with the hope/aim of holding up the dharmic mirror to oneself? Is racism limited to Caucasians?

mlatela's picture

Religion and politics mix - they must! The practice of compassionate justice, courage, and perseverance in the face of oppression is a response to the "state." Civil rights - right to speak, to gather - value the human person as an agent of action, not simply sad reflection. You have to roll up your sleeves, get dirty, get involved. How wonderful and SAD that these visiting monks identify so clearly with the chaos in Ferguson...And they WILL pray.

workbc9's picture

What do you mean politics? Government? Force?
Justice means what? Retribution?
I agree people have rights to gather, to speak, and argue, to convince people of positive change.
But violence is not cool. And the use of violent force is not ok to make someone agree to your POV.
History confirms religion and politics(government) is a very bad idea.'s picture

It's great that these monks have joined this protest against violence. I wish that they would make such a public demonstration of their opposition to violence against women; violence which happens every second of everyday, across every culture, in every country across the globe.

helgecko's picture


They are obviously deliberately and spontaneously falling pregnant and giving birth just to upset poor, beleaguered white men like you, What Is___. It mustn't be tolerated! Back to the good old days of public stoning! Hurrah!

workbc9's picture

Not sure what you are saying fully, but women do have a powerful impact on raising children. Data is very powerful that outcomes on most metrics for children are better in a two parent household, (of course not all).

wsking's picture

Did you notice that things calmed down today? The presence of the monks is a great blessing...! They put themselves in the middle of it, the Buddha manifested in the form the people could relate to and approve, and whiiiishhh!
Smoothed out! Amaaaaazing! Wow! Thank you, Drepung Peacemakers! Nice job!

workbc9's picture

Like the rain. Or people looking at what really happened that night. Or people waking up to causes and conditions.

workbc9's picture

Justice for Mike Brown? What does that mean if he tried to kill Daren Wilson? What about the suffering of Mr. Wilson? Taking a polarizing position is that mindfulness?

carterthad's picture

the law of causation, without direct experience , we do not know.

lshaw's picture

Agreed. It seems that Mr. Wilson has already been tried in the court of the media. Also, were the looters one saw the other night interested in justice for Mr. Brown?

carterthad's picture

I concur, we must make peace in the middle without being one sided, both sides are suffering.

workbc9's picture

I agree.
Where there is anger and attachment how can it lead to peace?
"Justice" in this case might be infused with all the elements which seem to contradict elements of mindfulness.
Maybe the monks think differently but the writer of the article takes a position which may not be reality.
The truth is important. It seems all parties are suffering,

carterthad's picture

I concur