Monks build and destroy mandala

by Kascha Semon | 11/17/98 6:00am

Seven Tibetan monks worked for three days building a sand mandala on the floor of Rollins Chapel this week, only to destroy the sculpture on Sunday while a crowd of over 400 community members and students watched.

The monks created the mandala, a traditional Buddhist exploration of the relationship of heavenly bodies, the human body and mind, to help liberate people from "problems and negativities" and "circular existence," the group's translator, Tensin Ngodup, said. This particular mandala, dedicated to the Green Tara deity, was built to promote world peace.

Over the weekend, visitors to Rollins watched the monks draw outlines of the mandala's geometric shapes and iconography and gradually fill in the lines by shaking sand through a metal funnel. The monks left the finished mandala, covering about three feet by three feet, on display in Rollins until Sunday afternoon.

Then, in front the Rollins' alter, transformed by an image of the new monastery on a large tapestry, the men chanted ceremonially and circumnavigated the mandala.

After dedicating the mandala through prayer, the monks brushed away the sand and hours of the work, as a lesson in impermanence. They gathered the grains into small bags and a large glass jar and gave observers samples of the sand blessed by the Dalai Lama.

The group proceeded down Tuck Drive, following the monks dressed in traditional gold and burgundy robes, who carried incense and rang bells. Standing in the wind on the boathouse dock, the monks poured the sand into the Connecticut River.

Nima Taylor '00, a member of the Students for a Free Tibet -- one of the groups sponsoring the event, said the monks hoped to share their culture and religion, raise awareness of the political situation and raise funding for their growing monastery during their visit.

The men traveled from the Ganden Jangste Monastery, in Mungod, India, to the United States to visit dozens of schools and groups across the country as part of the Joyful Wisdom Tour.

The monastery now houses over 3,000 people studying Tibetan Buddhists practices. It has been growing since it was rebuilt in 1969, when overcrowding has forced the monks to ask for outside assistance.

Originally founded in 1409 in Tibet, the monastery was reconstructed in India after Chinese communists destroyed it in 1950 during the Tibetan invasion. The Indian government welcomed the refugees, and gave them permission to live through out India, but the monks concentrated themselves in Mungod to preserve the teachings, central to Buddhist philosophy, Geshe Sonam Younten said through a translator.

The monastery attracted many Tibetans, especially young men in their 20s, but as the group aged, the monks felt that a school would help promote teachings among the young. The Indian government gave the monastery money to build a small grass hut that eventually grew to a small house and temple to use as a school.

The monks said the new monastery teachings and way of living are the same as the old monastery. In India, however, the monks must spend half of the day working in fields to feed themselves, while in Tibet they were free to study the whole day.

Today, more and more Tibetan people flee China to escape persecution and find sanctuary in the monastery.

Many people, including the group's ritual master who escaped in 1990, leave over the snow-covered border mountains, losing limbs to the cold on the way, Geshe Sonam Younten said through a translator in a speech last Wednesday.

"Tibetan culture is being seriously undermined," Taylor said. He said he would like to return to Tibet but the Chinese government makes it very difficult for natives to return because "they will bring back ideas about freedom, about the outside world."

Although a majority of people are Tibetan, the monastery welcomes anyone Western or non-Western who wishes to join the commune. Germans, Americans and South Americans have joined the Tibetan refugees living in India to practice, memorizing texts and studying Buddhist philosophies.

"Anyone who wishes to study continuously can ... but they have to take care of the rules of the monastery," Ngodup said.

Taylor, a native Tibetan and Buddhist, who was instrumental in brining the monks to campus said he has been involved in raising political awareness about the Tibetan situation for many years. He co-founded the Students for a Free Tibet group on campus his freshman year with Serin Houston '00 to promote awareness on campus.

In the past few years, the group has held letter-writing campaigns and raised money to bring speakers to campus, including the Ganden monks.

While at Dartmouth, the monks stayed in Thetford, Vt., with Light Gate, a group practicing Buddhism and other non-Western religions, where they also spread religious teachings.