Tibet"s sacred sands The setting is an unlikely one. Six Tibetan monks from the Drepung Gomang Monastery sit in two facing rows, chanting before a blue platform just inches from the ground; above them, fluorescent lights from a low ceiling illuminate the monks" maroon robes draped with saffron colored sashes. Thirty or so people look on, some seated in meditation nearby, others watching from their chairs. The monks have a purpose: They intend to purify and make ready the physical and metaphysical space here in the chapel of the University of Indianapolis" Schwitzer Student Center, after which they will paint a sand mandala. The process will take three days of painstaking work, funneling colored sand into a brilliant design, one that is intended to have healing effects even after the last grains are swept away.
The monks of Drepung Monastery, in Indianapolis for a two-week visit, spend hours filling the design with a complex arrangement of Tibetan symbols in colored sand.
There are many ways to experience the ancient culture and rich spiritual traditions of Tibet. The monks of Drepung Monastery, in Indianapolis for a two-week visit as part of a world tour, are here with a three-fold purpose that seems auspicious in light of the first anniversary of Sept. 11. The first goal of the monks" visit is to contribute to world healing and peace through the sharing of Tibetan Buddhist teachings, sacred religious performances and chantings and the imparting of aspects of the rich Tibetan culture. In addition, the monks wish to generate a greater awareness of the endangered Tibetan civilization and human rights abuses that have occurred, and continue to occur, since the occupation of Communist China that began violently with the loss of millions of lives since 1959. Practically, the monks also hope to raise funds for their refugee community in south India, where more than 1,500 monks continue to practice in exile. The monks continue to be in need of proper food, suitable living conditions and education facilities, all of which will help to preserve the rich culture of Tibet and to shelter the continuing influx of refugees from various countries. Why Tibet? Once an independent country, bordered by China and India, Tibet has a recorded history of statehood extending back to 127 B.C. Tibet was not always peace-loving. Beginning in the seventh century, the country was engaged in a complex series of political alliances and disalliances occurring throughout the Asian continent. Tibetan armies conquered Arab-, Turkish- and Chinese-held territories through the ninth century, and at one time are said to have occupied the Chinese capital. Internal political conflicts ended this period, which was followed by one of philosophical and ethical development under the auspices of the Buddhist faith. To this day, Buddhism has remained dominant, although Communist China continues to undermine Tibetan identity and Buddhist practice through the destruction of monasteries, forced renunciation of the Dalai Lama through torture and imprisonment, and occupation. It is for this reason that a number of monasteries have fled the country and resumed their religious practices elsewhere. The Tibetan people simply wish for independence, a right significant to peoples everywhere. Jack Kane, a volunteer on the board of the International Tibet Independence Movement (ITIM), is not your typical activist. Speaking at the opening ceremonies, he steps up to the microphone in a gray suit, his graying hair and glasses giving him more the air of a business man. Then Kane gestures to the blue circle as if imagining what will be created there. The mandala, he says, is "an amazing piece from a spiritual standpoint and a work of art." The Medicine Buddha, one of thousands of possible mandala designs from Tibetan Buddhist tradition, is chosen to generate healing energies. In preparation for this, the monks engage in a series of chants, low, guttural tones that are at once melodic and atonal. The blessings, called "pujas," are accompanied by hand gestures and the occasional playing of drums, horns, flutes and cymbals. Once this ritual is completed, the monks will begin marking the rings that radiate from the mandala"s center - with the aid of compass, Sharpie and string. The monks will spend endless hours filling the design with a complex arrangement of Tibetan symbols in colored sand. Mandala, which is Sanskrit for "circle," has the symbolic meaning of "world in harmony." Here, brightly colored grains of sand are used; powdered flowers, herbs or grains, and also powdered colored stone, can also be used. In ancient times, precious and semi-precious gems were also ground to a powder for the creation of sacred mandalas. All mandalas have outer, inner and secret meaning; on the outer level, they are symbolic of the world in its divine form. Their inner meaning is intended to represent the transformation of the ordinary human mind into an enlightened one. And finally, the secret meaning is intended to manifest the perfect balance of the subtle energies of the body with the clear light dimension of the mind. The act of sand painting is said to facilitate purification on all levels. "We have had the opportunity to see [the monks] develop a beautiful work of art of sacred import Ö and to learn about Buddhism," Kane tells the audience. It is now two days later, and the monks are gathered around the completed mandala. The results are staggeringly beautiful. Brilliant designs emanate from the center in blue, orange, red, white and yellow; in its center is the form of a sacred mansion - this can be viewed as a universal symbol for all that is and all that connects, and individually, it could be meditated on as a symbol for the self. And therein lies the ultimate challenge: the letting go of the notion of self in order to achieve a spiritual emptiness, a meditative state that balances our ego and spirit in the process of daily living. Looking around the room, one ponders the various states of mind of those gathered. At this, the closing ceremony of the mandala, the small chapel is standing room only with an estimated 200 observers in attendance. Some sit as before as if in meditation as the monks once again engage in chanting, and others look self-conscious as they try to make sense of the sounds. The monks" lulling prayers are punctuated by a flurry of instruments, as if to ward off evil spirits; the sound is akin to the strike of midnight as the year changes, the clatter of sounds is almost a cacophony, and yet, in this context, it is strangely calming. The monks truly wish us to heal. The first ring of the mandala, the translator explains, represents "How one can overcome the negative emotions as well as how one can heal oneself of the mental and physical sufferings." This alone is worth meditating on; and most of us need all the help we can get. At the conclusion of the ceremony, the sand is swept into containers and guests are given the opportunity to take some with them. Finally, the monks lead us to a nearby pond where the remaining grains are released into the water. The intention is to connect the healing energy to all as the water carries the grains through rivers and ultimately to the ocean; but alas, this is simply a pond Ö and depending on one"s outlook, the sand will either remain, or its healing powers will somehow find a way to their greater intended source. The monks will participate in a number of other events in Indianapolis and Bloomington during the second week of their visit. For a complete schedule of appearances, including the creation of another mandala at Christian Theological Seminary, culminating in the performance of Tibetan music and sacred dance - also at CTS - on Sept. 13, visitwww.rangzen.org