Tibetan monks come to town as part of national tour to share their culture

Tibetan monks Tsultrim (right) and Tenpa prepare a traditional dish of steamed dumplings called momo for guests before a dinner Wednesday at Unity of Charleston. The monks served food and taught about their culture and monastery.

There are a few ways for a traveling band of eight Tibetan Buddhist monks to quantify its current trip. Members of the Drepung Gomang Monastery, located in southern India, can count the days since they left home in June 2014. They can tick off the states they’ve visited, covering a swath of the U.S. from Wisconsin to Florida. Or they can tally up the number of momo they’ve methodically filled, crimped and steamed.

Or maybe they can’t: Tsultrim, the only English-speaking member of the entourage, declines to guess exactly how much dough they’ve shaped on this current dumpling diplomacy tour. At Unity Church of Charleston, its host for a weeklong stay that concludes Sunday, the monks prepared about 300 momo over the course of one afternoon.

“Many people know momo,” Tsultrim said while tonging the Himalayan snack from a steamer basket to a foil serving tray for a buffet supper. “They like the momo.”

Cookie Washington, who helped organize the monks’ residency, isn’t sure how many Charlestonians are familiar with momo, close kin to Chinese baozi, Japanese gyoza and Korean mandu. “People in Charleston don’t always know enchiladas,” she says, laughing. Giving Americans the opportunity to learn about momo, sand mandalas and other hallmarks of traditional Tibetan culture is the main reason the monastery years ago launched its ambassador program.

The tour, which also aims to raise awareness of the political situation in Tibet and financially support the 2,000-person monastery, follows a somewhat standardized itinerary: Many U.S. congregations look forward to seeing Drepung Gomang delegates every year or so. But the group has never before stopped off in Charleston.

“We’re an embrace-all-religions-kind-of-church, so we’re excited to learn about Buddhism,” Washington says.

Washington was surprised to learn few of the monks are vegetarian. Although they prepared a soup of tomatoes, onions, cabbage, spinach, water and eggs to round out the dinner at Unity, they filled half of the momo with beef. As Tsultrim explained, the omnivorous habits are a vestige of living in high-altitude Tibet, where “there are no vegetables.”

Earlier in the week, Tsultrim and his fellow monks conducted a sculpting demonstration for schoolchildren featuring yak butter, a mainstay of Tibetan diets. Since organizers couldn’t locate actual yak butter, they used Play-Doh instead.

According to the official schedule issued to the monks and their bus driver, the visitors had very little free time while in town: Tsultrim says he’s hardly seen the cities they’ve visited, preferring to focus on connecting with program participants.

The monks’ local duties began last Sunday with altar set-up and a meditation discussion; they’re painting sand mandalas from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. today at Unity Church, 2535 Leeds Ave.

“We’re here to share our culture,” Tsultrim says.

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