Thursday, November 11, 2010

Tibetan Sand Mandala: Precision and Prayer

Mandala from Loseling Monastery brochure
Tibetan monks from the Drepung Loseling Monastery in Atlanta came the University of Alabama at Birmingham this week. They came to present "The Mystical Arts of Tibet" throughout the week. On the first day, following and opening ceremony of chants, music, and mantra recitation, they began construction of a sand mandala in the lobby of the Alys Stephens Center for the Performing Arts. One of the monks explained to those of us gathered that the mandala would be a tool for resolving conflicting emotions. The sand mandala would then be swept away after its completion (which would take several days) to symbolize the impermanence of all things.

At the opening ceremony the monks donned their hats and brought out horns, drums, and bells to accompany their ritual involving chants and prayers. It was the first time I had witnessed first hand the Tibetan chant, which involves a quite unusual vocal phenomenon involving a deep rich multiphonic voice. Each chant master simultaneously intones three different notes (don't ask me how they do that!). The group of nine monks filled the room with sounds and tones that for me seemed to have a centering and cleansing effect.

Before the ceremony began, the different colored sands and instruments used to place the sand were on display. A monk explained to one of the spectators that the sand is made from white marble that is ground to a fine consistency.

The monks began the mandala by setting out lines using something similar to a carpenter's chalk line. Then a large compass was used to mark chalk circles. Smaller compasses were then used to lay out smaller circles.

Lines were meticulously plotted out across the table. The monks had several rulers on hand, just like the ones used by students in algebra and geometry classes. 

While some engaged in the careful and steady preparation for the mandala, other monks were on hand to answer people's questions. I noticed a string of wooden Buddhist prayer beads. I told the monk that I was familiar with rosary beads which I use in meditation and asked him how the Buddhists use their prayer beads. "It is a system of counting," he told me. "We move one bead as we say each prayer or mantra. When we have done many prayers with the beads, then they contain a spiritual power that can protect us when we carry them. For example, if I put these beads around my wrist (the string of beads was the size of a bracelet), then if I become angry with someone and want to hit them, the beads remind me, 'No, I must practice compassion.' "

I had to leave to run some errands. When I returned a couple of hours later, I found that the monks had completed an inner circle at the center.

I went back three days later (Thursday afternoon). They had made great progress, still with some work left before completing the mandala. I asked them the name of the mandala. "Medicine Buddha," one of the monks told me, "also called Healing Buddha."

According to the local newspaper report earlier in the week, the monks never decide which mandala to do until they arrive, get a feel for the place and its energy, and come to a consensus. The mandala which was begun on Monday will be completed on Friday. Following a closing consecration ceremony, the colored sands will be swept up. The sweeping away of the beautiful and intricate mandala symbolizes the impermanence of all things. Half of the sand will be distributed to the audience for personal blessing and healing. The rest of the sand will be carried in a procession to a body of water to disperse healing throughout the community and the world.                                                      


Here is a view of a mandala that some Tibetan monks did in Chicago. 

The Mystical Arts of Tibet tour, in addition to the sand mandala, involves presentations of music and dance. The purpose is to share Tibetan culture with others. The Drepung Loseling Institute was formed in Atlanta, Georgia in 1991 and is affiliated with Emory University. Its objective, according to their brochure, is to promote trans-cultural understanding and scholarly exchange.

Photo from Loseling Monestery brochure


[For additional reading I would recommend:

1. The Jew and the Lotus, by Roger Kamenetz. This is a fascinating account of a delegation of rabbis who travel to Dharamsala, India for dialogue with the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama had invited them for a visit because he wanted to learn from them “the secret of Jewish spiritual survival in exile.” The book is a wonderful discovery of Tibetan Buddhism and Judaism.

2. The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton. Thomas Merton had studied Buddhism and felt that it was possible for a Christian monk to learn form the Buddhist discipline and experience. This is the journal he kept while on pilgrimage to Asia. It also includes other writings of his, including the address he gave at a conference on monasticism in Bangkok shortly before his untimely accidental death. Here one finds lively insights into Buddhist as well as Hindu thought. I read with great anticipation his journal entries leading up to and chronicling his visit with the Dalai Lama in India.]


1 comment:

  1. The Navajo also do sand painting, differently, but just as beautiful. I had to try and do one for a Native American Studies class I took. Not being artistic in the first place may have been a hindernace. I really had a hard time trying to do the intricate details. Basically my project came out looking like an elementary kid did it =0)


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