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Tibetan monks bring their music, prayer and culture to Laguna Beach

Hong Dirienzo clasped her hands together and knelt with her face to the wooden floor of the Sawdust Art & Craft Festival’s Healy House as the guttural chanting of seven Tibetan monks rose around her, mingling with the sound of birds chirping in the trees outside.

The chants brought her back to weekends in Vietnam, where she grew up going to a Tibetan temple with her grandmother.

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“I still want to learn how to live like Buddha, with compassion and try to be good and be kind with everybody,” said Dirienzo, who came to the United States in 1975.

In past years when Tibetan monks visited Laguna Beach, Dirienzo, a hairdresser at Color Salon on South Coast Highway, cooked traditional Tibetan foods from recipes she found on Google. This is the monks’ seventh trip to Laguna; they last visited in 2016.

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This year, she said, she’s busy caring for her mother. But she was still eager to attend the monks’ opening ceremony Monday kicking off a week of activities at the festival grounds. She brought a bouquet of roses to add to an altar honoring White Tara, a Buddhist deity, and the Dalai Lama.

The monks, clothed in traditional orange and red one-shoulder robes, sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the altar, facing one another as they raised their voices in a chorus of prayers for peace, blessing and long life. They punctuated their songs with drum beats, handbells and cymbals and metal horns.

Dirienzo watched the ceremony on her knees, gently swaying along with the seated monks. Many of the nearly 50 people around her closed their eyes in meditation as the deep vibrations of the monks’ music pulsed across the floor. Some wiped away tears.

“I could just feel the energy getting lighter and lighter and lighter in here,” said Cher Mang, a yoga instructor at Cho’s Academy on South Coast Highway, where the monks will give a blessing Thursday. “Just their voices, you could almost feel your heart, like, bouncing with it.”

The monks are nearing the end of a year-long tour of the United States with the goal of sharing in other cultures and traditions and showing Americans a Tibetan monk’s lifestyle, said Ngawang Jinpa, one of the group’s leaders, who has been a monk for 31 years.

The men, from the Drepung Gomang Monastery in Karnataka, India, will spend most of their time at the Sawdust Festival grounds creating a mandala, an intricately designed geometric figure made from different colors of marble sand. On Sunday, they will sweep away the sand in a dissolution ceremony to show the ephemeral nature of life.

“May our hearts be open to experiencing the human kindness and tranquility that flows from this sacred art,” said Monica Prado, president of the Sawdust board of directors.

In addition to creating the mandala, the monks are spending time in Laguna giving blessings at various sites and selling scarves, necklaces, bracelets and home decorations to benefit their monastery.

“It's a ripple effect. If you can start in your own backyard, start in your own community spreading love,” said Kimberly Geigele Oswald, a Laguna Beach resident and president of Associated Properties Inc. “We’re all connected, and we forget that.”

After Monday’s ceremony, Dirienzo carried a tray with mugs of tea to Monlam Gyatso, one of the group’s leaders, and gave him an orange to be blessed for her mother.

“Their mission is to help us to be less suffering,” she said. “They don’t get stuck on material things, and that’s wonderful. They try to be connected [to a] more natural, simple life. … We only need love and food and a place to stay. Can you imagine if the whole world believes in what they believe — this world is so sweet.”

Here is the monks’ remaining schedule of public events at the Sawdust grounds, 935 Laguna Canyon Road:

Tuesday

• 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.: Mandala creation

• 7-8 p.m.: Chanting for world peace and “Meet the Monks,” followed by a Q&A session. Suggested donation is $10.

Wednesday

• 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.: Mandala creation

• 7-8 p.m.: Tara and Guru Puja for good health, relief of suffering and purifying obstacles. Suggested donation is $10.

Thursday

• 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.: Mandala creation

Friday

• 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.: Mandala creation

• 7-9 p.m.: Chod Puja, a combination of chanting, music, prayer and visualizations accompanied by Tibetan instruments. Suggested donation is $10.

Saturday

• 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.: Mandala creation, children’s workshops, artist booths and displays, meditation garden and labyrinth

• 7-9 p.m.: Cultural pageant featuring mandala prayer, the good luck dance, black hat dance, snow lion dance and more. Suggested donation is $10 per person and $20 per family. Children younger than 10 are admitted free.

Sunday

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• 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.: Mandala creation

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• 1 p.m.: Mandala dissolution ceremony and procession to Main Beach

The monks also will conduct a blessing of the South Laguna Community Garden Park at 10 a.m. Feb. 5 at South Coast Highway and Eagle Rock Way. Donations are accepted.

For more information on the monks’ visit, go to sawdustartfestival.org/special-events.

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