Tibetan Monks Create Sand Mandala

by Robyn Rime

For three days last April, the Lorette Wilmot Library became home to a Tibetan sand mandala.

A sand mandala is a traditional practice that uses millions of grains of colored sand, painstakingly laid into place on a flat platform over a period of days or weeks to create a painting representing the mind of the Buddha. Nazareth’s mandala was created by monks from the Namgyal Monastery Institute of Buddhist Studies in Ithaca, N.Y., who act as cultural ambassadors from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The event was sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences, in particular the departments of religious studies, Asian studies, and art; the art therapy program; the Center for Spirituality; the Hickey Center for Interfaith Study and Dialogue; and the Institute for Pluralism, all in collaboration with Brighton Pathways to Health.

“Hosting this program at Nazareth gives community members the opportunity to experience first-hand the ancient artwork and spirituality of one of the world’s greatest religions and religious leaders,” says Lynne Staropoli Boucher, director of the Center for Spirituality.

Mandalas are complex symbolic structures, with many layers of meaning and beauty. Although aesthetically pleasing, mandalas are meant for religious use and are not intended as museum works of art. It is only in recent years that the Dalai Lama has permitted mandalas to be made in public as a means of teaching about Tibetan culture. The Namgyal monks have become especially well known for the creation of sand mandala exhibitions in museums and galleries throughout the world.

The mandala construction itself is the result of long and disciplined effort, but it is nonetheless a temporary work. When the monks are finished, the mandala sand is cast into a body of water to emphasize the impermanence of all things and the importance of nonattachment. When the sand enters the water, the kindness and compassion of the deity are disseminated into the world to benefit all beings. A mandala is thought to bring peace and harmony to the area where it is being constructed; monks use this unique practice to bless the earth and its inhabitants.

In conjunction with the mandala creation, Namgyal resident monk Lama Geshe Lobsang Dakpa presented his lecture “Loving Kindness and Compassion,” discussing the root of human nature and how to nurture the seed of compassion. All proceeds from the lecture went toward building a Tibetan monastery in the Ithaca community, the first Tibetan monastery in the region and the only Namgyal Monastery in the U.S.

“Nazareth College, as I see it, was well primed to host a ritual art form integrating values that are culturally and religiously specific yet broadly human,” says Corinne Dempsey, Ph.D., associate professor in religious studies and program director for Asian studies. “The monks’ library creation and dharma talk offered us golden opportunities for intercultural learning and exchange—the kinds of opportunities that Nazareth community members can truly appreciate, offering insights and inspirations likely to resonate in the weeks and months to come.”

Robyn Rime is the editor of Connections.

Tibetan monks creating sand mandala

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    Note: The Institute for Pluralism was renamed to the Office for Diversity & Inclusion in 2016.