Bhutanese Monks Escort Never Before Seen Art, To Somewhere They've Never Seen. Spiritual Enlightenment Ensues

On a particularly calm, low-trade wind day in Kailua, I found myself walking through a multi-million dollar mansion that fronted the ocean. As I crossed a footbridge over a winding swimming pool, past the guest quarters and through the living room, I could make out the colorful prayer flags strewn across the back lawn. Directly facing Kailua Bay, Steve Inglis was tuning up a guitar. A chef carried a large wooden bowl filled with salad greens. And Debbie Misajon, the Americas and Europe sales director for Aman Resorts, approached, uttering with pure calmness, "The monks are in the water."

Misajon nodded in the direction of 40-plus Bhutanese monks who had arrived that afternoon from their isolated Himalayan country, and were now frolicking on the sandy shore. I was greeted by a sight not many are privileged to witness. Monks of all ages (16 to 67, I later found out) stood in the shallow surf, hiking their crimson and gold robes up around their waists. Some were still as statues, focusing on a point in the distant horizon. Others shed their robes ventured further out to sea, until they were chest deep in crystalline Kailua Bay water. Others walked up and down the shoreline, marveling at the gurgling surf that lapped back and forth over their ankles.

The glory in this unique scenario is thus: The majority of these monks had never left Bhutan. For those uncertain of the geographical makeup, Bhutan is bordered by China and India; there is nary an ocean in sight. What I was witness to was a group of highly spiritually focused individuals seeing, touching and immersing themselves in a vast ocean for the first time in their lives.

"Every one of these monks, since the time they joined the monastery [as early as 6 years old], says a daily prayer that includes the line 'Your mind needs to remain as vast as the ocean'," said a Bhutanese government representative that escorted the monks to Hawaii. "Until now, none of them knew what that concept meant. They never saw how vast an ocean was before."

We've got goose bumps too, don't worry. It's expected.

The reason for this unique scenario spans the course of a 10-year initiative, that began with a San Francisco-based Asian and Himalayan art curator who laid over in Bhutan during a vacation. This led to a conversation with the curator of Asian art at the Art Institute of Chicago, who was relocating to a position at the Honolulu Academy of the Arts. A few key players that include historians, filmmakers, financiers, a Sotheby's art specialist, various government officials and Misajon's Amankora hotel in Bhutan, and a movement had been set in motion. A selection of thangkas -- Bhutanese silk tapestries -- loaned from 200 temples and monasteries, would cross the Pacific to Honolulu, where they would be displayed for the first time outside of Bhutan. "The Dragon's Gift: Sacred Arts of Bhutan" opened this February at the Honolulu Academy of the Arts, where the 110 objects and 330 films of ritual dances -- each never seen outside of Bhutan -- will remain on exhibit, until May 23rd. The silken scrolls date as early as the 7th century; some as late as the 19th century had to be restored and preserved, after years of neglect.

Highlights include a rare 18th century appliquホ thangkas from the Buddhist master Jamgon Ngawang Gyaltsen, and an equally rare set of 19th century Arhat paintings of Buddha and his 16 disciples. The monks perform Buddhist rituals at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. daily, Mondays through Fridays.

As for the monks, a team will accompany the artifacts for the duration of its two-year tour, which includes the Rubin Museum of Art in New York (in September). Until then, visit the museum, and keep an eye out for crimson-robed Buddhists wading in shallow waters.

The Dragon's Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan - through May 23, 2008

Honolulu Academy of the Arts

900 South Beretania - (808) 532-8700

Admission: $20

The majority of these monks had never left Bhutan.