Tibetan monks – creating a thing of beauty

Tibetan monks working on sand mandala

Since Tuesday, Tibetan monks of Drepung Loseling Monastery have been creating a mandala of colored sand in the midst of the hubbub in our Student Union.  While people stand to watch, talking excitedly about the tools, the method, and the intricacy, the monks simply work. The power of their meditation is evident in the serenity with which they move, deliberately but without rushing.  There is no conversation between them, although, when I watched long enough, I could begin to see the subtle gestures or slight touches that were used to make a little more room.

Sand Painting - Mandala
Image by seadipper via Flickr

Their web site says that, in Tibetan this art is called dul-tson-kyil-khor, which literally means “mandala of colored powders.” Millions of grains of sand are painstakingly laid into place on a flat platform. Formed of a traditional iconography that includes geometric shapes and a multitude of ancient spiritual symbols, the sand-painted mandala is used as a tool for re-consecrating the earth and its inhabitants.

It has been edifying to watch the monks work together.  There is a complete absence of the Western style of organization: no list of tasks, assignment of duties, or competition for recognition.  This is a community at work, each contributing what seems to be needed at the place that has fallen open.  The pattern is not flat; the sand is slightly heaped up to form ridges and hills in some locations – and these are identical in shape although created by so many hands.  There is no jostling – clearly counterproductive in such an endeavor.

This sand-painting, then, is not only a meditation and obedience to these traditional spiritual symbols. It is a meditation, a focus of attention, an obedience, to the other monks in the group.  It is an event with meaning at each of its stages.  These mandalas are re-consecrating the earth and its inhabitants not only by creating this moment of beauty.  They are also making a more peace-filled, contemplative way of life.  And it is attractive.

At 1 p.m. on Friday, there will be a closing ceremony with the completed mandala.  It will be destroyed,  as a metaphor of the impermanence of life. The sands are swept up and placed in an urn; to fulfill the function of healing, half is distributed to the audience at the closing ceremony, while the remainder is carried to a nearby body of water, where it is deposited.

As academics at a college, we usually learn by hearing words spoken. This week, we have had the chance to learn by observing something of beauty and wonder take shape under our eyes – and by seeing how good it is when people can work and move together in peace.

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