By Alicia Stemper/Vitamin O
A group of eight Tibetan monks from the Drepung Gomang Monastery in India visited our community in May. They spent five days constructing a sacred sand mandala at the ArtsCenter. Their leader, Geshe Monlam, has been a monk since the age of 13 when he expressed interest to his mother who replied, “It is up to you.”
The process starts with an opening ceremony, followed by one monk constructing the center of the mandala. As the mandala grows, Geshe Monlam explained that two and eventually four monks work together in shifts using techniques learned at the monastery. Creating a mandala takes enormous amounts of memory and meditation. Monks practice a minimum of three years. The current tour is 13 months long; monks will create at least 40 mandalas. The sand is actually powdered and colored marble. Different colors are applied by pouring the sand into a specialized hollow tube phonetically called a “buke,” which looks like a hybrid of a drumstick and a funnel. Bukes are numbered by the size of the opening with a #6 being the biggest. A monk rubs one buke against the other controlling the application of the sand by varying the strength of the resulting vibrations. Monks carefully suck any mistakes back up through the tube!
After the mandala is complete, the monks hold a closing ceremony, “a very old tradition in Buddhism,” representing impermanence. Half the sand is gifted to onlookers as a blessing, perhaps to use in their own explorations of Buddhist practices. The rest is taken to a body of water, usually a river. In the case of the Carrboro mandala, the monks dispersed the sand into Bolin Creek. “By putting it in water, we take the blessings to the ocean,” said Geshe Monlam. He stressed that mandalas are constructed for “the well-being of all sentient beings” and “many sentient beings live by the water.”
One of the purposes of the monks’ visit to the United States is to generate a greater awareness of the endangered Tibetan civilization and the massive displacement of ethnic Tibetans. He stressed that the monks want to support our community, especially our refugees, and our community’s care for them.