During the week September 21-25 we were privileged to witness the creating of a Mandala Sand Painting here on our campus at the University of Illinois. The 5-day live exhibition was sponsored by the Asian American Cultural Center, the Illini Union, Buddhists for World Peace, and other university groups. It featured monks from Drepung Loseling Monastery, re-established in India after the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959 that closed monasteries and forced monks to flee.
Many of the monks from the Monastery in India went on Mystical Arts of Tibet tours to other countries. As a result of these, in 1991 the monks were invited to establish a seat in USA and Drepung Loseling Monastery, Inc came about in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1998 it also became affiliated with Emory University in Atlanta. The goal of this non-profit organization is to study and preserve the Tibetan Buddhist traditions and to promote transcultural understanding. The organization, in conjunction with Richard Gere Productions, co-ordinates the Mystical Arts of Tibet World Tours and oversees the Drepung Loseling Educational Fund to help monks in training.
It was fascinating to watch the young monks at work on the Mandala Sand Painting, a unique Tantric Buddhist artistic tradition. “Mandala” is a Sanskrit word meaning “cosmogram” or “world in harmony”. Generally, all mandalas have outer, inner, and secret meanings. On the outer level they represent the world in its divine form; on the inner level they map how an ordinary human mind is transformed into an enlightened mind; on the secret level they depict the subtle energies of the body and the mind.
To make the mandala, millions of grains of colored sand are laid into place on a flat platform over a period of days. The monks destroy the mandala when it is finished, symbolizing the impermanence of all that exists. They sweep up the colored sands, giving some to those attending the deconstruction ceremony to aid in their purification. The rest are poured into nearby running water, so the healing energies can be carried all over the world.
In the first stage of the construction, the artist monks draw their design on the platform table, using a ruler, compass and white pencil. To apply the sand, the monks use a metal funnel. They fill the narrow funnel with colored sand and then rasp it to release a fine stream of sand. The artists begin at the center of the mandala design and work outward. In the otherwise silent room, we found the rasping sound strangely soothing.
Usually the artist monks use colored sands, but sometimes they use powdered flowers, herbs or grains, or even powdered and colored stone.
Many people passed through the Pine Lounge in the Illini Union to watch the monks at work and many students chatted to the monks too, so hopefully some cultural understanding was also taking place.
(above right: containers with colored sand, and the special funnels)