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Our Project

In 1995, American artist Jane Vance met a Tibetan man whose significance would inspire a collaboration culminating in A Gift for The Village, a documentary about an artist chosen to paint an eminent Tibetan amchi-lama—doctor and mind-healer—and about her painting as a gift for his village, reciprocated by celebration during an elaborate festival, and by unprecedented access to a vanishing tradition.

On June 28, 2007, this festival took place in the remote west of Nepal.

This festival was an amazing series of reciprocal gifts and affirmations, but nothing that happened in our travels to Nepal for this project was more moving for our team members than the ceremony held in Jomsom village to commemorate and bless the souls of our lost Hokie sisters and brothers, who died on April 16th, just ten weeks before.  Tsampa officiated a formal ritual to help guide the spirits of these Hokies into good and productive rebirths, and all of us on the Gift for The Village team had the honor to light the candles to represent everyone who died that day.  This ceremony echoed the beautiful candlelight vigil held on Virginia Tech’s Drill Field just after the tragedy.  Tsampa was especially appropriate to conduct this ceremony since he has come to Blacksburg in 2001 and taught as a visiting professor there.  The connection between our communities was already deep, but became deeper that night as Tsampa, his son Tsewang, and his nun daughter Karma Chuden led the prayers with those of us from Blacksburg.  As Nikki Giovanni said, we are Virginia Tech.  Those of us who build and heal and love are Virginia Tech.  We thank Tsampa-la especially for his strong leadership and the years of his Buddhist mind-training we could all sense during that ceremony.

Our team had managed to carry an enormous painting 13,000 miles from Blacksburg, Virginia, USA, to Kathmandu, to brocade its edges with the finest heavy Varanasi silk in traditional Tibetan thang-ka style, and to convince the pilots of small airlines linking the Kathmandu Valley to the very small airstrips in the west of Nepal that we MUST get our painting on board.  These elaborate persuasions, by the way, required the magic of many copies of our letter of endorsement from the Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India.  We all witnessed how, as we put it, His Holiness’ letter of support for our work “made the planes grow.”

Following the festival, four team members, Jane Vance, Jenna Swann, Jason Swann, and Sherrie Austin, accompanied by Vance’s cousin Cy Kassoff and by Amchi Tsampa himself, his son Tsewang, and a team of wonderful porters, especially our friend and excellent guide Narayan Bhatta, walked 155 miles to visit Raja Jigme Parwar Bista, the 25th in his blood lineage to be the King of Lo in the far remote west of Nepal, to give our respects and to inform him of our gift for the region of Mustang.  We also visited many haunting and powerful, nearly inaccessible caves and hermitages, following the path of Tibet’s greatest yogi, Padmasambhava, with Tsampa spending evening hours recounting the ancient oral history of Padmasambhava’s epic struggle with the pre-Buddhist chaotic forces of destructive ego and selfish power which made the lands we traveled so inhospitable and dangerous before his compassionate influence.  We also managed to be reach the recently discovered Cave of The Snow Leopard, in the valley of yetis, and to dine the same evening with the great Italian archival restorer, working in Lo, Luigi Fieni, the Michelangelo of our era. 

Our team believes that each event and each moment that happens has been long prepared for, but sometimes the universe seems to conspire toward a particularly imaginative confluence of people and their reasons to be together, and our collaboration in A Gift for The Village seems to provide evidence for being one of those times.

Our Nepali counterparts are simply amazing people, including the versatile, brilliant, and wise Amchi Tsampa himself, one of Tibetan Buddhism's renaissance minds. Tsampa defines the heart of this project, with his two feet grounded in two different worlds, the East and the West, which, thankfully, are not yet homogenized.

He spans, like a bridge, or like an arch, and in this new century of globally indisputable interdependence, Tsampa reminds us of what Leonardo da Vinci meant when he wrote about an arch being two weaknesses leaning toward each other to make a strength. Tsampa characterizes our time's defining role, the ability to be a translator, not just an ambassador, but a cultural conduit, in this case between Tibetan Buddhism after more than half a century in exile, and America, in its long-awaited moment of transition out of Neo-Con unilateralism.

Our project would not be nearly as meaningful for any of us without the personal blessings of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who has sent his personal approval and good wishes for our festival and our film.

Early in the process of our plans, Jenna Swann and Jane Vance wrote to His Holiness, since this was the first time that a westerner, and a female, had been granted permission to do the portrait of such an accomplished Tibetan lama as Amchi Tsampa Ngawang. Vance understood that she, as a western artist, and that we, as westerners with this gift, would be arriving at an edge between tradition and innovation, and we wanted to be sure of our footing. His Holiness clarified this place for us, and helped us proceed confidently into our unprecedented project. We are grateful for His swift, whole-hearted, positive response to our work.

In June of 2007, our team accompanied the five-by-seven foot oil-on-linen painting, Amchi, which we removed from its wooden stretchers, rolled as a huge scroll, packed in pvc tubing and secured in Jenna Swann's snowboarding bag, flying with our gift  to Nepal, where we joined translators and friends involved in this festival (some of whom flew from America to join us).

We secured our means to go out west by small flights, and moved from the summer monsoon afternoon rains of Kathmandu to the springtime flowers of Mustang, which is nearly six thousand feet higher than the Valley.

Upon our arrival in the village of Jomsom, we were in the hands of our host, Amchi Tsampa Ngawang Lama and his wife, Karma, and we stayed with them as guests at their home, which is also a restaurant and trekker's lodge, The Dancing Yak Hotel. We  all together created and enjoyed the first festival ever dedicated to a historically, culturally significant exchange between westerners and the people of Mustang.

Our documentary chronicles this festival, held on June 28th, 2007, as well as the preparations required to have arrived at this moment. During the ceremonies, we formally presented the Amchi painting as a gift to Tsampa's village of Jomsom, and read to the people of Mustang the congratulatory letter of praise that Swann and Vance received from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who recognizes Amchi Tsampa's important lifetime of accomplishments and the importance of our film.

We met and enjoyed and worked alongside many villagers and many prominent attendees, who were able to read as well as to look at the Amchi painting, since it contains not only images but a lengthy hand-painted text, in Tibetan, English, and in imagery, telling the story of Tsampa's lineage, his achievements, his first visit to the West, and his commitment to his people back home. Nepalis and Tibetans will no doubt see both the traditional iconographic formalities of the painting, as well as the new, first-time variants, such as Virginia bluebells, tulips, forget-me-nots, birds-on-the-wing, lilacs, and irises being added to the usual repertoire of chrysanthemums and lotuses ornamenting the landscape behind the central figure of Mustang’s celebrated Tsampa.

Our Nepali hosts also included Tsampa's extended family members, but we must again mention his wife Karma, an exemplar of women's involvement and leadership in their community, and his five amazing children, as well as our special friends Yangchen Lhamo, the only grandchild, her mother Zompa, and our very special friend and tireless, selfless helper, the young and beautiful Laxmi.

But our Nepali links also include a broader range of great friends, for example, the CEO of the famous Kathmandu Guest House, Mr. Rajan Sakya, whose father started the best entrepreneurial hotel catering to westerners in Nepal. For forty years, the Guest House has served as a gracious welcome to westerners who have found Nepal, and Rajan Sakya has interesting perspectives on what makes ties between westerners and Nepalis go beyond the mere polite and superficial.  We feel at home at The Guest House, and would stay nowhere else in Kathmandu.  No praises are enough for the amazing staff of that hotel, and for all of our friends at Gurkha Encounters, the best travel agency working within Nepal.

We are grateful to our friends of many years, Sunil and Sarita Shahi, of Kathmandu, and to their family, and to our dear friends Mr. Rehmen Bhatt and his brother-in-law Yusef, without whose comforting friendship and amazing discussions we would not feel so at home in Nepal.

In Mustang, we must also thank Pema Dhoka Thakuri of the venerable and well-run Red House in Kagbeni, whose family is our family, especially including her and her husband Tenjin’s third daughter, Tsela Lillian.  We also thank the leaned local historian and photographer Mr. Bhakti of Marpha for the delicious cold apple juice and the welcoming khatags and the bouquet of sweet Williams which he personally delivered the morning after the festival.

Our American creative team includes the two of us who originally traveled together in 2000-2001 to film their first documentary, Into Nepal: A Journey Into the Kathmandu Valley. Jane Vance is the artist, and Jenna Swann is the videographer and the award-winning teacher who, in 2000, became the first recipient of the McGlothlin Award for Teaching Excellence.

With Swann and Vance was our brilliant second videographer Tom Landon, who worked with us on our first project to produce Into Nepal. As Blue Ridge Public Television's former producer and education specialist, and as a certified history teacher and currently an Advanced Placement teacher for Virtual Virginia, Landon brought production experience, another excellent filming eye, wonderful insights, and warm friendship to our efforts.

We were honored to have Sherrie Austin of Hawaii join us as our still photographer. Austin's compositions are as poignant and dramatic as O'Keeffe paintings, and her ideas about how to treat people and moments as fleeting but enduring treasures were a perfect fit to this project.  Austin took more than five thousand photos in Nepal.

Reba Hoffman is an excellent, articulate 8th-grade science teacher, with high expectations of her students, and she is a model for her Blacksburg Middle School children and for all of her friends and peers. We were thrilled to have her fine open mind encounter the subtle mysteries and magic of Mustang.  Reba commented that as she walked through the agrarian villages of western Nepal, she felt completely at home, remembering her own childhood with farming grandparents in southwest Virginia.

Jason Swann, our outdoor specialist, is a natural friend to everyone he meets. He was our logistics man when the heavy monsoons made for difficult trekking in late July, descending thousands of feet from the village of Jomsom, when we needed to ford swollen rivers, waterfalls crashing down on our trails, dodge hungry leeches, and hug rain-sodden, collapsing cliffs.  Our team often sought his lead, looking for his comforting six-foot one-inch lean silhouette ahead on the trail.

Diane Scribner-Clevenger is a practicing minister and an experienced pilgrim of spiritual journeys and was our guest for this trip. 

The seven of us who flew to Nepal together in June of 2007 were inspired and supported by our children, our families, our friends, our partners, our colleagues, and our communities. On November 29th, in Blacksburg, Virginia, five of the seven team members were able to be present for our first public celebration of this project. There, we were joined by our mayor, Ron Rordam, our Montgomery County Schools superintendent, Dr. Tiffany Anderson, many professors from Virginia Tech, and dozens of friends, including art critic Suzi Gablik, who has been so supportive of and written about Vance's work. We gathered in front of the Amchi painting in Jane's home, and Tom Landon spoke about collaboration and cultural exchange.

The creative team for A Gift for The Village looks forward to completing production of an hour-long public broadcast documentary about our experiences and hopes to create a companion book. Vance and Swann are extremely grateful to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and to Amchi Tsampa for their vision and for Tsampa’s welcome to so many new friends on this trip.

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