Dharma Bums in Berkeley

The one Tibetan painting I found on the walls at Dharma College.

Dharma College opened its doors to the public yesterday on Harold Way, in Berkeley, a side street they’re trying to rename Dharma Way. Every street is Dharma Street, of course, being a potential avenue of enlightenment, but I do feel bad for Harold.

Why was I there?

A friend had forwarded an email about a Tibetan art show. As a quasi-Zen aesthete, I drove over the bridge and found parking across the street for a hefty $1.75 an hour. I entered the magnificent 1924 Walter H. Ratcliff-designed Spanish-Colonial Revival landmark, formerly Armstrong College, and started chatting with people.

I soon realized this wasn’t a Tibetan art show. This was something else, a bigger story with tentacles, including but not limited to the Nyingma Institute, Dharma Publishing, and 1,200 years of idyllic Tibetan isolation, guaranteed by sheltering mountains and desert, devastated by China’s 1959 invasion.

If it weren’t for China, I would never have heard of the Dalai Lama, and someone called Tarthang Tulku would never have left Tibet, or settled in Berkeley in 1969, or gone on to establish 17 entities for the preservation of Tibetan culture. One of which is Dharma College — an arm of a vaster enterprise laid out in the mandala below and described here.

This was all news to me and was in no way elucidated at the “public event.” I researched the back story only because the “Tibetan art” turned out to be 99% reproductions of paintings, and silk-screened enlargements of line drawings, by art school grad Rosalyn White, chosen by Tarthang Tulku to learn the exacting disciplines, spiritual and technical, involved in classical Tibetan scroll paintings, or thangkas.

The result of Rosalyn White’s years of exacting apprenticeship is, alas, not very stimulating simulacra, further degraded in the public mind by having computer-generated prints passed off as originals. The originals might or might not be viewable at the retreat center Odiyan, comprising 1,000 acres off Highway One in Sonoma.

Dharma bums in Berkeley stare at quasi-Tibetan scrolls at Dharma College.

I admit I’m annoyed with Dharma College for the vagueness of their use of the term “Tibetan art.” Vagueness in spiritual matters might be strategic but can also be profoundly annoying. Vagueness in one thing suggests potential vagueness in others, as well as a desire to control information in a way that misleads. Vagueness emerged as the house style, reiterated in promotional materials and press kit, and even in the talk given by Roslyn White introducing her own work.

Things that were not vague were the pitchers of lemonade and tea generously provided post-tour. Talk was of Arnold Palmer as the thirsty mixed the drink named for him. A hard-working harp soloist in the corner evoked the harmonious realms. An ancient Viet Namese nun named Hue Tri, dressed in dove gray robes, declared herself “without rank” and thus won the hearts of the stragglers who lingered to chat.

I bought Dharma Publishing’s blank book to stare at the mandala.


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