Monks’ mandala a grand sand aspiration

BY CHRISTIE STORM, Arkansas Democrat Gazette, Nov 12, 2006

FAYETTEVILLE, Arkansas (USA) -- Some call it painting with sand. Grain by grain, colored sand is funneled by skilled hands to form an intricate, sacred design — a mandala.

<< A monk creating a mandala

Mandalas, or sacred designs, are used by many religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. The word “mandala” is Sanskrit for “circle” and most designs are done in a circular pattern, although some are square.

But, not all are done in sand, which is a laborintensive and impermanent project. After hours of painstaking work, the completed mandala is destroyed to symbolize the impermanence of life.

Two Tibetan monks visiting at the University of Arkansas are constructing a sand mandala of Buddha Akshobhya in the Bogle Exhibit Hall on the fifth floor of Old Main on the university campus. In Buddhism, each Buddha represents a different quality of the enlightened mind. Buddha Akshobhya embodies the perfected state of consciousness and the environment, or purification of form.

Rinzin Dorjee is constructing the mandala and Geshe Dorjee is assisting him, along with honors students in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences.

Sidney Burris, director of the Fulbright College honors program, says mandalas are a visualization of the purified mind.

“It’s an ancient religious practice,” Burris says, adding that mandalas are said to bring peace and harmony, which can lead to greater compassion and a sense of well-being.

The two monks arrived in Northwest Arkansas in August. Geshe Dorjee is teaching an honors class on Tibetan philosophy and culture, as well as a class in Buddhist philosophy at the university. Rinzin is his student.

The monks are constructing the mandala as an educational tool for the students and community, and as an offering of peace and harmony.

Until 1988 Tibetan mandalas were only seen by the monks and nuns of the Buddhist monas- teries. The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, allowed a mandala to be open to the public for the first time that same year. The project was a sand mandala constructed by the Namgyal monks from Dharamsala, India, in New York’s Natural History Museum.

The mandala at Old Main will be open to the public as well. Visitors are invited to watch Rinzin at work 9-11 a. m. and 2-4 p. m. Monday through Friday. Geshe will be on hand to answer questions, while Rinzin works in silence. Visitors will also be able to try their hand at funneling the sand to form a design.

Geshe says the mandala is representative of a pure environment, to be viewed from a state of wisdom and compassion. Each mandala is a visualization of various attributes. This mandala represents healing and happiness.

“I hope we can bring a lot of positive thoughts and energy to the university and the community,” Geshe says.

To construct the 4-by-4-foot mandala, Rinzin is using a chakpur, an elongated metal funnel, to control the flow of the sand as he works on the design. With the skill that comes from experience, Rinzin can manipulate the chakpur to allow one grain of sand at a time to fall into place.

The use of the chakpur started in the 18 th century. Until that time sand mandalas were made by hand — by holding the sand between the fingertips and slowly applying it to the design. Some mandalas are still done by hand, but the detail is not as sharp as those done with a chakpur.

Geshe says mandalas were at one time made with precious rocks or ground conch shells. Mandalas are full of symbols, with each shape and color representing a different meaning.

Seeing the mandala take shape is inspiring, Geshe says.

“It inspires us to head into a good direction, led by pure thoughts,” he says. “Everything can build up from nothing, from a grain of sand.”

The construction of the mandala requires concentration and dedication. Usually, sand mandalas are made by several monks working together, but Rinzin volunteered to do the project alone as a gift to the university community.

Burris says making the mandala is a meditation for Rinzin. As he is working in silence he visualizes the deity and uses a silent mantra. Burris adds that the mandala is not an exclusively Buddhist project, but rather includes themes found in all cultures — structure, harmony and balance.

The closing ceremony will be held at 4 p. m. Friday. Rinzin and Geshe will destroy the mandala and give packets of the consecrated sand to those present for the ceremony.

Geshe says the consecrated sand is often used to bless houses or bring positive energy to the sick. Sand is also sprinkled over the dead as a rite of purification.

After the ceremony, sand from the mandala will be sprinkled into the stream at Wilson Park to spread a blessing through the community.

Geshe says destroying the mandala after so many hours of work is not difficult, for the monks accept the impermanence of life.

“It doesn’t matter how beautiful, nothing lasts forever,” he says. Information is available online at www. readwrite. typepad. com / tibet anculture.