Visiting the Buddhist Monks

September 8, 2010

Among the traditions of Tantric Buddhism, perhaps none is more striking than that of Mandala Sand Painting. Although steeped in magical thinking, the practice can nevertheless be appreciated by the most rational of us for its cultural insights, as well as its breathtaking artistry.

My wife, Diana Gawen Harris, and I were able to watch such an artwork being painstakingly made during a two-day visit to the spiritualist camp, Lily Dale, in Western New York, June 26-27. There, visiting Tibetan monks—otherwise living in exile at the Drepung Loseling Monastery in Atlanta—began to create a mandala . The word is Sanskrit for a cosmogram, a design representing a “world in harmony.”

The monks began with an opening ceremony to consecrate the site. Then they drew on a flat platform the outlines of the design, followed by the actual construction of what in Tibetan is called dultson-kyll-khor or “mandala of colored powders.” The work involves exquisitely careful pouring of colored sand—millions of grains—from fine metal funnels called chakpur . The meticulous process is something to behold. (Subsequently, the sand is washed away in flowing water to symbolize the impermanence of everything and, supposedly, to disperse the mandala’s “healing energies.”)

In the Assembly Hall where the mandala was being created, the monks had also displayed some Tibetan prayer wheels, and they were kind enough to remove the top of one so I could photograph it showing the lengthy mandala roll coiled inside. By grasping the handle and rotating the hand, one sets the cylinder spinning and so, supposedly, sends out the mantra—not as a prayer to a deity, but as enlightenment manifest, a means of harmonizing the environment and creating “positive energy” (hence its faddish adoption by many New Agers). (I have two of these Tibetan prayer wheels—one modern, one antique—in my collection.)

On the first evening of our visit we also attended the monks’ Tibetan Healing Ceremony which was said to help “activate one’s inherent healing potential that promotes physical, emotional and spiritual well being as well as environmental and global healing” (see Lily Dale Assembly 2010 Workshop Guide , p. 16). Involving meditation and sacred chants, the ceremony does not of course work magically, but for me it served as a metaphorical balm for our troubled world.