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East Meets the East Side

With the Help of a Jewish Grandmother, Exiled Tibetans Plant Roots in Baltimore

Christopher Myers
Mother Figure: Barbara Apolonio surveys Baltimore's tiny Tibetan community from behind the counter at her Karmic Connection thrift store.
Down from the Mountain: The Ja Ling Tibetan Buddhist Cultural Center before Sunday meditation services
Tibetan monk Geshe Nawang Kalsang prepares the altar
Enlightened Self-Interest: (from left) Tenzin Paldon, Kalsang, and Tsering Dorje in front of the Ja Ling Center
Nicole Leistikow
The Tibetan snow lions outside the center on Fayette Street.

By Nicole Leistikow | Posted 1/14/2004

For several months now, the gaily painted marble snow lions have regarded the bleak stretch of Fayette Street between downtown and the edge of the John Hopkins' East Baltimore biotech industrial park development. Behind the regal statuary, yellow, blue, red, green, and white prayer flags flap against a typical rowhouse.

Long a pair of unpainted Chinese Fu dogs that sat outside a defunct Mexican restaurant on Harford Road, the lions were discovered and mounted on Fayette outside the Ja Ling Tibetan Buddhist Cultural Center by Barbara Apolonio. Apolonio, a 67 year-old Jewish grandmother whose days are filled with what she calls "auspicious coincidences," wasn't entirely surprised at the amazing find. "Stuff just happens," she says. When you're around Apolonio, stuff often does.

Apolonio's sense of boundless possibilities and her faith in "the karmic connection between one life and another" are responsible for Ja Ling's re-creation of a Buddhist chapel on Fayette, where a few souls have begun gathering for meditation services on Sundays. Ditto on the uniquely Tibetan household of six next door, and the Ja Ling thrift store on Broadway, an institution intended to finance and advertise the Tibetan Buddhist Cultural Center that shares its name. Taken together, it all amounts to a modest beachhead on the city's east side for a small but growing Tibetan community, and Apolonio is in large part responsible.

"I have too many ideas," Apolonio admits one Sunday after the 10 a.m. service, while discussing her plans to attach some kind of Tibetan alternative-healing center to Ja Ling.

"You think too much," laughs the center's resident teacher, Geshe Nawang Kalsang, who only half means it. We gather our shoes from the entryway of a drop-ceilinged space carpeted in lime green, although the golden Buddha, thangka wall hangings, and images of the Potala Palace and the Dalai Lama give it a decidedly exotic air.

As does the presence of the center's teacher, with his maroon robes and gentle smile. Kalsang--or Geshe-La as his students and admirers respectfully refer to him--has seen firsthand how Apolonio's enthusiasms gradually work their way into reality. The first Tibetan to make the house next door to the center his permanent home in September 2001, he now resides with five other compatriots, what they hope are the beginnings of a larger crew.

Geshe-La and his housemates are part of a larger community of more than 130,000 Tibetan exiles worldwide who haven't had a homeland since 1949, when the China moved in, put the formerly sovereign nation under its thumb, repressed the practice of Tibetan Buddhism (a belief system central to Tibetan identity), and sent the Dalai Lama, the country's spiritual leader, fleeing to India. Tenzin Paldon, an energetic 26-year-old who escaped Tibet with her family in 1990, estimates that of the Baltimoreans who wander into the Ja Ling thrift store where she spends most of her days, "maybe 30 to 40 percent know about Tibet."

In 1996, the first Tibetan Freedom Concert, organized by the Beastie Boys' Adam Yauch, briefly brought Tibetans' persecution and lack of basic freedom to practice their religion into an international spotlight. The following year, Western movies such as Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet somewhat increased popular awareness of the Chinese takeover and the Tibetans' plight. Yet despite these reminders and the Dalai Lama's world celebrity, freedom for Tibetans remains an elusive hope.

The Chinese argue that they have improved the quality of life in a backward region and liberated peasants from an oppressive veneration of religious leaders. While material conditions have gotten better there, many Tibetans would prefer the old order of things. The vast majority of the estimated 1.2 million Tibetans who have died as a result of Chinese occupation did so before the death of Mao Tse Tung in 1976 and the subsequent loosening of some of China's harsher policies, but living in Tibet today as a practicing Buddhist is still dangerous. Displaying a picture of the Dalai Lama or expressing the opinion that Tibet should be free is still enough to get one thrown in prison, where survivors say torture is widely practiced.

That's why so many Tibetans continue to leave their country and why one group is trying to start an expatriate community in Baltimore. It's a tenuous enterprise, protecting a threatened culture while bringing a message of compassion and respect for life to an often harsh city. The normal inner-city problems--dangerous neighborhoods, poor schools, lack of jobs--are exacerbated for Tibetans by the alienation of learning English and missing friends. But the Tibetans' faith in the "dharma," or Buddhist Way, seems to lend them the strength to try. And, of course, they have help.

The story of how the group of Tibetans gradually came together in Baltimore over the past few years starts with Apolonio herself, who arrived two decades earlier. Born on New York's Lower East Side to a family of European Jews, Apolonio was a child of the 1960s who picked flowers from a bouquet of religions--including Judaism, Catholicism, and Christian Science--while running a thrift store in San Francisco during the '60s and '70s. Her eclectic heritage shows in her speech, which is peppered with a unique mix of New Agey logisms and references to Bible stories (both Old and New Testament) told in the service of Buddhism.

She began meditating after reading a book about it. Almost 40 years later, she still mesmerizes a listener with the story of chanting her first "Om ah hum" while sitting on a red velvet couch in an apartment over the Casbah, a San Francisco dive featuring loud belly-dancing music. As she tells her story, it seems as if Apolonio was magically drawn into a series of rendezvous with the spiritual seekers then floating around the Bay Area, including Dr. Ajari, a Siberian mystic famous among Buddhists for starting a Russian Lamaist tradition in the United States. Exposures to Tibetan Buddhism, such as a group of Tibetan nuns who showed up in her thrift store and insisted on bringing her to meet their lama, became so common that Apolonio concluded they were more than coincidence.

"I wasn't on anything," she explains. "I was Tibetan in a before life, and something opened up."

Her past, and past lives, followed Apolonio when she left California in the early '80s after the death of her husband in a car accident. She stopped in Baltimore to visit her cousin on the way to New York and ended up staying. Using her savings and a bank loan, she bought three buildings on the east side and soon opened up both a thrift store and a Tibetan Buddhist cultural center.

While her store, the Treasure Chest, closed in the early '90s and the first Tibetan center on Eastern Avenue never really took off, they live on in new incarnations, ones that seem, finally, to be gathering momentum. Enough to encourage six Tibetans to try to make a home here.

The idea behind the Tibetan Buddhist Cultural Center has been to create a self-supporting community, a haven for Tibetans and Tibet-ophiles, with meditation space, demonstrations of traditional painting and sculpture, Buddhist teachings, and opportunities to share about Tibet. Outreach has happened haphazardly, or providentially, depending on how you look at it. Commuters driving along Fayette spot the snow lions and call the number on the sign. Fells Point strollers come across the thrift-fabulous Karmic Connection, or its sister store manned by monks a few doors down.

The six Tibetans now associated with the center have come together in a similarly spontaneous way. While all share a devotion to Tibet and the Buddhism they grew up with, all have very different backgrounds. The three others were born in Tibet and later fled to India, to escape Chinese oppression. Three were born in India, where the mountain town of Dharamsala is home to at least 5,000 Tibetan expatriates, the Tibetan government in exile, and the Dalai Lama.

Visitors to their modest but cozy house are treated to salty Tibetan butter tea over lively conversation in English, Tibetan, and some Hindi. Bollywood blockbusters rented from the Punjabi market on Broadway are a household favorite and often play in the background. A photo of the Dalai Lama is attached to the TV antenna and a Tibetan flag is mounted above a La-Z-Boy chair.

Geshe-La was the first to arrive two years ago. He wears traditional monk's robes, bundling them up to get through the snow. After the monk moved from India to Minnesota in July 2001 to join his brother there, a Tibetan friend told him that the Ja Ling Cultural Center needed a teacher, and he moved again to Baltimore a few months later. Apolonio helped Geshe-La apply for permanent resident status, and soon he invited a friend of his own, Tsering Dorje, whom he knew from the Sera Mey Monastery they had both attended in southern India.

Thirty-year-old Dorje, who survived 11 months of poor food and daily beatings in a Chinese prison for shouting "Free Tibet" in public, doesn't like going into detail the torture he experienced. Frequent laughter tightens his broad cheeks and makes it hard to believe he had to leave his mother and seven siblings behind in Tibet, and can never return to see them. Although phone cards offer cheap minutes, Dorje only calls about once a month, worried about jeopardizing his family's safety. "[The Chinese] sometimes record what we are speaking," he explains through Paldon, who translates from Tibetan. "So it is a little dangerous." He has been in Baltimore a little more than a year and a half now and has won political asylum in the United States. Although his English has improved with classes at Baltimore City Community College, he remains shy about speaking. The homemade roti served with tea in the house are his own.

With her fluent English, Tenzin Paldon often serves as the house's translator. Her short black hair bobs around her chin as she speaks passionately about her awareness that "we [Tibetans abroad] are the only ones that can preserve our culture." She came to Baltimore from New York in February 2003 with her husband, Kalsang Topgyal, a law student and activist involved with the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy in Dharamsala. That's where the two of them met, while she was volunteering in the Dharamsala center's health department serving new arrivals from Tibet, refugees like herself. (Topgyal, intercultural director for Ja Ling in Baltimore, is away in India for the next two months to work for the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy.)

Paldon heard about the house from Geshe-La, whom she knew from India, and came to Baltimore for the opportunity of starting a Tibetan community. She says she misses the conviviality of being near the 2,000 to 3,000 Tibetans who now live in New York, but she still sees friends at the occasional protest outside the Chinese Embassy in Washington. However, holidays spent in Baltimore, such as Losar (the Tibetan New Year, which will be celebrated on Feb. 21 this year) and the Dalai Lama's birthday on July 6, are quiet. "During the special events, we don't gather any Tibetans here," she says. She's looking forward to her husband's return in January. Although she's unsure of the more distant future, Paldon says the one thing she knows is that "I want to study." Not finding much time for classes outside of her full-time job behind the counter at Ja Ling has been frustrating for her.

While Paldon, with her excellent English and outgoing personality, seems like she's making the transition to Baltimore just fine, it's harder for others in the group. At 23, Sonam Donup looks like a typical college kid, brushing shaggy bangs out of his eyes and working out two hours a day at the gym. In India, he grew up assimilated in Delhi, with all Indian friends, until he moved to a Tibetan community in Dhera Dhun in his teens, where he rediscovered his culture.

After coming to the United States in 2001 and living for a year in New York, where he hung out primarily with other Tibetans, the transition to Baltimore hasn't been easy for Donup. Though he feels more comfortable speaking Hindi than English, he doesn't feel close to the Indian population here. And when asked how he finds Baltimoreans, he says, "Outside [of the center], I don't have any friends, so I don't know." His New Year's Eve in a church hall basement in New York with other Tibetans was an improvement over last New Year's, which he spent working at the gas station across the street from the Ja Ling center. In New York, he brags, "I have a lot of friends. When I go to a party, 60 persons [there], I know them."

Finally, there's Lhamo Norkey, also in her 20s, who heard about Ja-Ling through a friend chatting with Apolonio's 22-year-old daughter online. She says she left Colorado to join the Baltimore experiment feeling that "other Tibetans are spread everywhere," and that coming together is important. Norkey's young-looking face framed by long hair belies the responsibilities she has taken on. Having earned certification as a nursing assistant from Baltimore City Community College, she now works full-time at a local residential nursing home.

The household is part of a slightly larger Buddhist fan club drawn together by Apolonio, including the members of her immediate family. Although Apolonio's husband, Paul Apolonio, and his three children from a previous marriage are Filipino and Catholic, that doesn't stop them from getting involved in her Tibetan Buddhist pursuits. A sophomore at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, 15-year-old Leonardo Apolonio can be found helping at the Karmic Connection after football practice. Paul, who's been teaching Donup construction skills, serves as an always-on-call handyman for both the Ja Ling center and the thrift stores.

Barbara Apolonio has a talent for harnessing the skills of those she meets in the service of her enthusiasms. "I just go from moment to moment," she says, though that doesn't mean her course is uncharted.

Whether Apolonio has planned it this way or not, it's a good time to be promoting Buddhism in Baltimore. Andre Papantonio of the Baltimore Shambhala Meditation Center, located on East Mount Royal Avenue, says that in recent years his organization has gotten "tremendously larger," going from a basement study group of fewer than 10 members in the late 1970s to around 100 committed individuals today. He notes exponential growth in the last seven or eight years, so much so that the Shambhala Center is looking to move to larger digs, for the fifth time.

Baltimore even has a Buddha Day, celebrated annually in May since 2000 by the 13 or so groups affiliated through the Buddhist Network of Greater Baltimore. Zen remains the most popular tradition represented, but there are several other flavors of Buddhism in the area, including Burmese and Vietnamese.

To this scene, Ja Ling brings a new political and cultural component. While American Buddhist centers tend to be predominantly white, middle-class, and distant from cultural Asian roots, Ja Ling offers the rarity of speakers who, when they detail the importance of compassion, know what it's like to have turned the other cheek under extreme circumstances--after the invasion of their homeland, after having their way of life banned, even after being tortured. At the end of October 2003, two prominent Tibetan nuns, Passang Lhamo and Choeying Kunsang, spoke at Ja Ling about surviving Drapchi prison in Lhasa, Tibet; in 2002, they had told their story before a Congressional Human Rights Caucus. Their stories and those of the Tibetan members of the Ja Ling community are rare offerings locally.

Fortysomethings Nancy Gallo and her husband, Tony Chang, Californian imports to Charm City and regulars at Ja Ling, say they started coming to the center because, as Gallo notes, "we just bonded with Barbara right away," and because Tibetan Buddhism as practiced at Ja Ling seemed accessible. Visitors are given chants to read written in both Tibetan (with an English transliteration) and in English. Previously, the different languages involved in Gallo's Japanese Buddhist background and Chang's practice of Korean Buddhism made it difficult for the couple to practice together. Ja Ling's Tibetan-to-English translations were the perfect compromise.

But practicing compassion in Bawlmer isn't easy. If you thought loving your neighbor as yourself was difficult, try the Buddhist version, and think of how you would treat that parking-space stealer if he or she were your mother. Chang grimaces at the excruciating challenge of imagining an annoying boss as his mother, as Tibetan Buddhism mandates.

"She couldn't have been my mother!" is often one's first reaction to such a challenge, explains Chang. Gallo agrees: "It's physically hard!"

Now a supervisor at his workplace himself, Chang uses skills he learned through Buddhism to feel compassion for those taking his orders. "It's made my life a lot better," he says.

While the pile of individual successes may be mounting, the work required to establish a Tibetan paradise in Baltimore is far from over. Turning an eclectic mix of the curious into a cohesive congregation will take serious devotion. Holding together a fledgling Tibetan community will require even more.

The group, which used to number seven, recently lost Tenzin Dawa, who returned to India for school. Sitting around their living room, Geshe-La, Dorje, and Donup rattle off the locations of "permanent" Tibetan communities elsewhere in the United States: Washington, D.C., Virginia, Minnesota, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, Utah, Wisconsin. They are hopeful, but not optimistic, that Baltimore will one day join the ranks.

"We are trying to make a Tibetan community, but it's very difficult--people must choose," Geshe-La says. He knows that Tibetans with young children are looking for "good neighborhoods with good character, good habit" and might be turned off, like so many others, by Baltimore's distressed neighborhoods and school system.

While going back to Tibet is his ultimate goal, Geshe-La is not holding his breath. "Mao said, 'Religion is poison,'" he explains. "Now they giving a little bit religious freedom," but the kind that, he believes, is "only show," to keep off pressure from outside countries. "I have a hope for change," he concludes. "How long it take I don't know."

Meanwhile, Geshe-La is focusing on creating fellowship in Baltimore, making "dharma friends," as he calls those who share his belief in the importance of compassion. When asked if there is anything he doesn't like about his new home, it's difficult for him to say. One gets the sense he finds hate an extremely unfamiliar feeling. One thing he says he doesn't enjoy is the American holidays. Christmas has little to offer a Buddhist monk, and Thanksgiving seems to him an occasion for needless slaughter. "They killing millions of turkeys," he says disapprovingly.

Geshe-La would prefer not to eat meat at all, but has to for his health. The anchor of the community, he valiantly battles through dialysis three times a week, a fight that leaves him frail and easily tired. It may be his kidney disease that makes him look older than his 36 years, or it may be his wisdom, as Geshe-La softly elaborates a message he believes.

"Love and compassion is not that much existing," he says. "Here in Baltimore, we have many cases of drug addiction. These show that people are really not concerned about their happiness."

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