Could a mask maker’s quest to see the Dalai Lama bring about world peace?
Gankhuyag “Ganna” Natsag’s journey, or at least one leg of it, started after midnight in New Delhi. Under a dark December sky, the Mongolian American artist boarded a minibus with six other passengers and several large boxes. The one labeled “fragile” contained the culmination of his life’s work.
The entourage traveled through the night, 330 miles north to Dharamsala, the Indian city that bows at the knees of the Himalayas. During the 12-hour drive, Ganna, his wife and their friends chatted and sang Mongolian songs. They made frequent stops to eat chicken curry and garlic naan and stretch their limbs before the next long bout of sitting. They shook off sleep to keep an eye on the driver, who had to navigate corkscrew mountain roads.
At several points along the route, they spotted military forces crouched in position, their guns fixed at passing vehicles. But Ganna was not alarmed. He knew the guns were helping to protect the border against the peevish neighbors to the east and west, China and Pakistan.
The group coasted into McLeod Ganj, a suburb of Dharamsala, before noon. A few streets shy of their hotel, they were approached by security guards wielding weapons. The guards informed them that they could not proceed in their unlicensed transport. So Ganna and his group split up into two rental cars for the short ride up the hill.
After checking in, Ganna craved rest. But the Arlington resident first needed to prepare for the one man who could bless his endeavor into being.
In 48 hours, Ganna was going to meet with the Dalai Lama.
“I’m ready to talk about peace in the world,” said Ganna.
“I want to build a physical World Peace Pagoda in Mongolia, because if we have inner peace, we have world peace.” ¶ In Ganna’s dream sequence, the global peace leader would endorse his project with a blessing, a signature or even a tweet on his @DalaiLama Twitter account. Approval of the Mongolia complex would also boost Ganna’s expansion plan to build a second, smaller version in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley . The franchising of peace.
In his ninth-floor apartment in Arlington, Ganna sits at his computer while dumplings warm in the oven. He clicks open a photo compilation called “My Life Through Peaceful Art,” a pictorial recording of his personal history. He pulls up the first image, a black-and-white portrait of his family. He is the little guy with pillowy cheeks cradled on his mother’s lap.
Ganna was the fourth child born to a seamstress mother, Khand Sham, and an engineer father, Ganna Baasan. Six more kids followed. The family lived in a one-room, three-bed ger (a Mongolian yurt) in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. He slept under a sister and brother on a platform that folded out like a trundle bed.
At home, his mother sewed dresses for a factory and traditional ensembles on the side. The kids learned the trade and pitched in. His father was also handy with needle and thread and would often assemble hats, bags and belts out of leather and fur.
“What I learned from my mother — to sew,” Ganna says, “this gave me food.”
In 1972, adversity struck. Ganna, who was 11 at the time, remembers running down a starlit street to the fire station, where he asked to use the phone to call for help. His father was ill and needed medical attention. A day later, he passed away. Ganna’s mother was now the sole provider for the brood, who ranged in age from 2 to 20.
“Our number one need was food,” he says, “and number two was warmth. Number three was clothes, but we didn’t worry about clothes because we sewed all of our costumes.”
Ganna’s photo timeline jumps over these years. There are no Nikon moments of the family gathered around the wood-burning stove cutting cloth. No images of Ganna as a teenager designing jackets and selling them in the city market to make extra money. None of the clan as a whole unit again.
Between secondary school and his mandatory three-year military service, Ganna worked as an assistant artist with the Mongolian National Artists Union, designing souvenirs in the socialist government’s fine arts factory. He painted faces on wooden dolls and created twee costumes for the figures sold in the state-run stores.
The pictures start up again when he is 18 and in the Mongolian army. He is the lanky guy with the shaggy bowl cut and tranquil expression.
In the army, only his uniform changed; his artistic pursuits remained. As a soldier, his days often revolved around playing chess with the officers, decorating their workspaces with murals, sewing uniforms and painting portraits of his superiors.
The world outside was bracing against the Cold War. When he returned to civilian life and art school, he had peace on his mind. In 1985, he submitted a papier-mâché globe covered in painted antiwar images to an international peace competition. He beat out artists from 160 nations and won a trip to the Soviet Union.
His first foray out of Mongolia was to the country that had quashed his culture’s main belief system. In the 1930s, Russian troops destroyed more than 800 Buddhist temples, murdered thousands of monks and melted down countless religious statues. Buddhists went into hiding.
“For 70 years, we had no religion because of the socialist system,” he says.
“We couldn’t put a Buddha in the home because someone might call the police. But everybody inside was Buddhist.”
At the Dalai Lama’s temple, about 4,000 practitioners were attending the teachings, including 600 Mongolians who occupied prime real estate in the prayer hall: the seating area surrounding the holy leader’s inner sanctum. People came early to secure their spots. They threw down thin mats, blankets and cushions, an Eastern version of the resort pool scene. Nearby, monkeys and dogs antagonized one another.
Ganna waited for hours by the security checkpoint with his boxes. Time was ticking: He had just over a day to prepare for his meeting.
The Buddhist spiritual leader conducts public teachings at his temple inside the Tsuglagkhang complex in McLeod Ganj and holds intimate meetings in his private residence. Ganna’s appointment was coinciding with four days of Mongolian Buddhist teachings, which he would attend. Between the lessons and prayers, the Dalai Lama would invite guests into his quarters for grin-and-greets or more official conversations. Ganna was penciled in for the second day of teachings, a Wednesday, the morning after his 54th birthday.
“Me, nervous?” Ganna said. “Yes!”
He hoped to propose his plans to build the pagoda. The artist believed that if His Holiness blessed his project, a powerful energy would “spread all over the world peacefully and bring success.” He knew, too, that a blessing would garner support from various communities (Buddhists, peaceniks) and donations in shades of green (land, money).
Ganna’s creation extolled Buddhist principles as well as such universal ideals as kindness, acceptance and respect for all sentient beings. His blueprint was intricate and involved, comprising several structures (eight stupas, an 80-foot Buddha, ornate entry gate) and attractions (meditation studio, arts center, interfaith museum). To illustrate his ideas, he brought a wedding-cake-size model draped with tiny Tibetan prayer flags, glossy posters and brochures. A handmade book with architectural renderings and photos of his family (his wife, Munkhbayar “Mogi” Dashzeveg, and two kids) and with celebrity Buddhists (Richard Gere!) came sealed with the kiss of an inscription:
“We respectfully seek to acquaint your Holiness with our project with the hope of receiving your blessing,” the Ganna-penned note read. “We would be enormously honored and gratified if His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama would accept our request to be our patron.”
When Ganna was finally cleared to enter, he lugged the heavy containers to the Mongolian “lounge.” He carefully removed the rubber silicon model from its protective wrap and calmly assessed the damage from his travels. He discovered a broken stupa top and a cracked corner, but the busted bits didn’t rattle the unflappable Mongolian. “In nomadic life, you are always losing or breaking something,” he said, “because you are moving during all four seasons to follow the cattle.”
Ganna and two friends glued the model and covered it with silky blue fabric, a reverential color in Buddhism.
To arrange face time with the Dalai Lama, it helps to know someone. For Ganna, that someone was Lama Gegeen, the eighth incarnation of one of the highest-ranked lamas in 17th-century Mongolia. Because of his status, the 18-year-old shares a special bond with the Dalai Lama, often walking within whispering distance of the leader.
Ganna’s uncle had served as a top-level lama before the Soviet crackdown, and his family held a prominent position in Buddhist circles. These connections led him to Lama Gegeen, who signed on as Ganna’s project adviser in 2013.
Lama Gegeen was staying at a three-star hotel atop a crumbling hill that required the legs of a mountain goat to reach. The evening before the appointment with His Holiness, Ganna and his entourage of friends, including several supporters from the States, crammed into Lama Gegeen’s guest room. They stood in rainbow formation around the lama, who sat crossed-legged on the bed like a nonchalant teenager.
The visitors each bowed and approached with gifts: a bulging bag of candy, waffle cookies, crispy snacks, scarves, books, a golden stupa. When an American presented him with a high-protein, sugar-free bar, he remarked in English, “Oh, I know this chocolate,” and added it to his growing stash.
At the gathering, Ganna played a DVD that featured the latest pagoda design. He wanted to build a 177-foot-tall pagoda with an 80-foot Buddha statue that visitors could enter like Lady Liberty. Each level (stomach, heart, throat, eye, for example) would offer a different sensory or learning experience. The statue would hold a transparent globe that would refract light like a disco ball. The illumination would signify enlightenment, and visitors could bathe in the transcendent honey glow of that energy.
Lama Gegeen, chewing on a piece of candy, considered the plan.
“It is better to not be inside the Buddha,” he said through an interpreter. “It is too much of the artist’s way. You must be respectful.”
He did, however, approve of the educational components and the universal message of peace.
“It’s a very good idea for the kids during summertime,” he said. “Everybody from the world will come and learn about Mongolian culture and Buddhism. But peace is inside everybody, no matter your religion.”
Other supplicants were waiting outside, so the group bowed their farewells to the lama. A radiant Ganna left on a cloud of optimism. He believed that Lama Gegeen would speak favorably of Ganna’s intentions to the Dalai Lama.
“Lama Gegeen was so happy,” he said. “If we feel good, good things will happen.”
On the way out, Lama Gegeen handed one of Ganna’s guests two half-eaten bags of candy.
Early in his career, Ganna embarked on an ambitious project that would intimidate even an established artist with a prolific portfolio. He decided to re-create all 108 masks in the Khuree Tsam, a sacred Buddhist ceremony held in Mongolia from 1811 until 1937. The ancient summer ritual resembled a thorough spiritual housecleaning. The dancing monks, dressed in fanciful and ghoulish costumes, would shoo away malevolent spirits and usher in benevolent ones. But the Khuree Tsam was powerless against the Soviets, who extinguished both the celebration and the masks.
Ganna did not learn of the elaborate masks until the late 1980s, when he was working at the Bogd Khan Palace Museum in Ulaanbaatar. The institution, which possessed the only surviving pieces (more than 30), was assisting a film crew producing a documentary about the rite. The subject matter captivated Ganna and sent him on a decades-long odyssey to reclaim the past.
For 10 years, he researched the history of the masks. He spent another decade constructing them using traditional techniques (clay, papier-mâché) and materials (animal bone, skin, tails, fur). In 2002, he immigrated to the United States — in part to expand Mongolian culture here — but the move didn’t hinder his progress. Five years later, he staged the full 108-mask cast in Chinggis Khaan Square in Ulaanbaatar; Mongolia’s prime minister was in attendance.
“The Khuree Tsam project brought me closer to the spiritual world,” he says, “and it re-created destroyed traditions.”
Ganna’s achievement led to international recognition. Esteemed institutions in Europe ( Museum of Ethnography in Geneva, Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, International Carnival and Mask Museum in Binche, Belgium) and Asia (Mongolian and Tibetan Cultural Center in Taipei, Taiwan) purchased his costumes for their permanent collections. Cultural venues in his adopted country hired him to demonstrate Mongolian crafts. His work was shown in such gilded arenas as the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, National Geographic and the Kennedy Center.
“Ganna is the ambassador of Mongolian culture,” says Jon Lohman, Virginia state folklorist at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities , who has collaborated with the artist. “And in a short period of time, Ganna has staked his claim as one of the truly exemplary traditional artists in Virginia and the country. He is a national treasure.”
“Mongolia has many Ganaa, Gana and Gannas,” Ganna says. “But if they say ‘Maskmaker Ganna,’ that is me.”
Not long after completing the colossal project, Ganna was ready for his next monumental challenge. The idea for the World Peace Pagoda hatched out of a 16-foot-tall stone stupa set in the unforgiving landscape of Bayankhongor province in western Mongolia, the birthplace of Ganna’s parents. In the summer of 2013, the community had commissioned the artist to construct the religious structure, selling goats and belongings to raise $60,000 to fund it. His creative vision expanded from the provincial to the universal.
“I researched many stupas worldwide and discovered that parents and ancestors aren’t the only good reason to build a stupa,” he says. “I can build it for nature and world peace.”
For inspiration and instruction, he set off on pilgrimages to Buddha’s birthplace in Nepal and the mountains of Mongolia, where he announced his plans to the spirits of the earth and sky.
In 2013, he spent nearly six months hunkered down in his windowless Arlington studio crafting a detailed model of his idea. He constructed towers with Tinker Bell-size prayer wheels and carved teeny Khuree Tsam masks into the walls of the main stupa. He wired the structure with twinkling white lights. Out back, he set aside a parking area for cars and buses as well as horses and camels, the ride of choice for Mongolian nomads.
He rushed to complete the finishing touches, leaving an open space on the stand for the Dalai Lama’s signature.
On the day of the appointment with the Dalai Lama, Ganna and his group passed through the arched gate as the morning sky brightened. Everyone was dressed in his or her temple best.
Ganna wore an off-white deel, a traditional Mongol robe, with black swirls on the shoulders and the World Peace Pagoda logo on the back. His head was half-submerged in a matching broad-rim hat with a knob on top. His ponytail draped down his back like a frayed tassel. He was buoyant but focused, hiding his jitters behind a careful smile.
He had learned that he could not bring the model into the meeting — for security reasons — but Ganna had a Plan B: The Dalai Lama could show his support by autographing a poster of the plans. But the party had to forfeit all their gifts and supplies for inspection. So no poster, either.
Ganna, sanguine to the core, adopted a Plan C. The officials would allow him to carry in the miniature version of the Bayankhongor monument, which they considered a sacred Buddhist object. The wooden stupa was blinged-out with 24-carat gold leaf and carvings of four deities, plus the Dalai Lama’s name.
The entourage waited quietly in an antechamber dominated by a circular couch and bookshelves stacked with religious texts. Ganna didn’t utter a sound. His face was placid, almost stony. He gripped the stupa tightly, as if it were a lucky amulet.
A man in an impeccable suit called the visitors into a parlor decorated with vibrant Buddhist paintings and a grasshopper-green carpet. Ganna was the first in line and the first to address their host, who stood expectantly in the center of the room.
“We come from America, and we want to build the World Peace Pagoda in Mongolia.”
He handed the Dalai Lama the stupa. The leader’s moon face lit up, and his ever-present smile widened.
“We want you to bless it,” Ganna said.
The Dalai Lama cradled the object in his hands and gazed at it with the tenderness of a parent receiving a gift from a child. He gently bowed his head and touched his forehead to its smooth surface, releasing an unseen shower of good wishes.
On the other side of the couch, temple photographers snapped away. The group lined up in two rows. Ganna and the Dalai Lama held hands, and everyone grinned for the cameras.
A few minutes later, en route to the main hall, Ganna was reflective and withdrawn. His face sagged from lack of sleep and emotional exhaustion. He had imagined a longer and more fruitful discussion. He felt like he had the Dalai Lama’s blessing, but not the coveted signature.
“Everything is good,” he said, as if he were having a private conversation with himself. “It will happen.”
Then he joined his fellow Mongolians and prayed.
Before the trip to India, Ganna sought a different — but no less important — consecration. On a September afternoon, he ventured to Shenandoah National Park with his wife and an artist friend, Tim Nelson.
Ganna had a favor to ask of the Native American spirits: Could he construct the peace monument nearby?
At the Tunnel Parking Overlook off Skyline Drive, they lit incense, erected a mini-shrine on a stone wall and sprayed milk, a gift offering cherished by Mongolian nomads. Nelson sported a real wolf head as a tribute to the animal spirit of the native father.
The friends lifted their faces to the heather-gray sky. Ganna, arms stretched high, addressed the invisible ancestors.
“Please bless the World Peace Pagoda and give us the land,” he said. “We need your permission.”
Suddenly, a boy in a feathered headdress appeared on a hill crest. The trio choked up at the symbolic sight. (The youngster wasn’t a hallucination; his parents were following close behind.) Soon, a rain cloud blew in, tossed down a quick shower and dispersed to reveal a rainbow.
A deer, which represents the mother spirit in Mongolian lore, padded over and grazed on the grass.
“Every sign is there,” Ganna said in amazement. “They agree: Shenandoah is the right place to build the World Peace Pagoda.”
Now Ganna would have to seek the Dalai Lama’s blessing in India. Next he would have to search for available land between Manassas and Shenandoah. Organize a fundraising campaign. Compile a list of donors. Draw up blueprints. Research quarries. Hire builders for both sites.
But all of that was for the future. For the moment, the message was clear: The spirits were believers, too.
Andrea Sachs is a travel writer forThe Washington Post. To comment on this story,
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