A blessing in sand

By Vivek Kemp, Naples News, June 7, 2007

Tibetan Buddhist monks come to Naples to create an intricate mandala of sand that, in the end, they’ll return to the earth

Naples, Florida (USA) -- Four monks hunch over a square card table. Each holds long, thin copper funnels with openings as small as needles. They’re filled with sand.

With copper sticks, the monks rub a small ridge of bumps on the top of the funnels. The speed determines the amount of sand that’s released — faster more sand, slower less.

The process sounds like a washboard jamboree.

Every movement, color, pattern and release of sand in the creation of one of the most ancient religious relics, the mandala, has been predetermined for the monks by thousands of years of Buddhist texts and tradition. The process, which began in the Watson Gallery at the von Liebig Art Center on Tuesday, will take up to 125 hours to complete the 4-by-4-foot creation.

Seven monks are there from a monastery in Kerala, a town in the south Indian state of Kanartaka. For the last year, they have been touring the country, sharing Buddhist teachings and mandalas. Most recently they visited California.

They came to Naples after a spokesman for the group contacting the von Liebig, says Robin De Mattia, spokesperson for the museum.

While the monks do make a basic outline of the mandala before they start laying sand, the intricate styling, which consists of ridges and patterns within the sand, is memorized.

The monks that make these sand sculptures have spent as many as 20 years learning the craft.

One of their monastery’s senior monks, 41-year-old Geshe Thupten Tendar, started his training when he was 16. He was 27 before he put down a single grain. In those 11 years he says he had to learn the significance of the colors, the width of lines and the patterns within the sand.

Still, when they are done, the monks will sweep the mandala into a container and take it to a flowing body of water, thus spreading the blessings of the Buddha.

Destroying something of such intricate beauty and painstaking attention is a hard concept for many Westerners, but for the monks, it makes sense. Their faith teaches detachment from physical things. The destruction of the mandala shows the impermanence of those material things we find important.

But much of this undertaking is a disconnect from the world around them. On a wall nearby, there’s the 84-by-65-inch painting of a naked man and woman laced within each other’s legs a few feet behind a large photograph of the Dalai Lama. Even the surgical masks the holy men wear to prevent an errant breath from misplacing specks sand.

"We are very happy in this space," says a senior monk, Geshe "Professor" Thupten Tendar, speaking through an interpreter. "Many people come here to view the art and we are happy they will see the mandala as they pass through. This is exactly where we are and where we’re supposed to be."

The mandala they are creating is dedicated to the Buddha of compassion, Avalokiteshvara or Chenrezig, a white-colored deity with 1,000 arms. The monks believe that simply laying one’s eyes on the mandala will help that person achieve inner peace and eventually enlightenment.

The purpose of the mandala is not only to share the blessings and the message of the Buddha, but for the monks to practice and show their devotion. Their minds must be totally focused on the sand.

If a monk makes a mistake, Tendar says, the monk was not mindful enough on his task. He lost focus. Therefore, in the monk’s next life he will have a poor memory and lack of focus.

Mistakes can be corrected. The sand must be sucked up through the copper funnels and then the mandala must be redone. This happened in Kansas in May 2007, when a young boy walked through a half-completed mandala.

The monks’ reactions? "No problem," according to a report by the Associated Press.

The monks’ trip is part goodwill mission — to create worldwide awareness of Tibetan Buddhism, a faith that was savagely targeted by the Chinese government — and part fundraising opportunity for the monastery.

They sell Indian wares and set out donation boxes. All the money collected goes to funding the 1,000-plus monks and monastery back in Kerala, they say.

The money is a secondary concern, says Tendar.

"We come to help spread peace," he says.

The mandala

The center of the mandala is an eight-petal lotus blossom, a flower associated with the birth of the Buddha. It is believed that when the Buddha was born lotus blossoms bloomed under his feet. The eight blossoms each

represent a different incarnation — or message — of the Buddha. The monks have simplified the von Liebig mandala by only placing four deities on the blossoms.

On the center of the lotus is a symbol of the Buddha of compassion. The center is green to represent the seed of enlightenment, which the monks’ believe is planted when you look at the mandala.

Outside the lotus there are four T-shaped doors. These face in the four cardinal directions. The structure of a mandala is the same as the architecture of a monastery. Each of the T-doors represent a path into the mandala. Like a monastery, you must enter the mandala from the East. The path from the East is believed to help relieve humans from sorrow.

The four directions are also symbolized by specific colors. Each color also corresponds to another form of Buddha.

  • The North: green, which represents protection from evil, the seed of enlightenment and the elimination of jealousy. Buddha Amogasiddhi.
  • The South: yellow, which stands for merit. The Buddhist faith is based on acts of compassion. The more of these acts the more merit you earn and the closer you come to nirvana or enlightenment. Buddha Rathasambhava.
  • East: white for purity and peace. This is also the color of the Buddha of compassion, Avalokiteshvara a.k.a. Chenrezig. Buddhists’ believe in reincarnation. The reason we are reborn, they say is because of ignorance;

because we make mistakes in our current life that must be corrected in our next. Their goal is to stop the cycle of rebirth. White represents the elimination of ignorance. Buddha Vairochana.

n West: blue for the elimination of hatred. This color can be substituted for black, which is the color of wrath and evil. Buddha Akshobhya.

The mandala can be made to represent any of the above traits and Buddhas by placing them in the center of the lotus.

If you go

What: Mandala closing ceremony, Buddhist chants, song and blessings n When: 2 p.m. today ceremony starts; also Buddhist music and dancing at 7 p.m.

Where: The von Liebig Art Center, 585 Park St., downtown Naples