Tibetan monks bring meditation, sand painting to Norman
Ryan Boyce, The Oklahoma Daily
Two Tibetan monks stood in the center of a large room, hunched over a pile of colored sand, meticulously arranging the individual grains to form an intricate pattern—a sand Mandala, an ancient Tibetan art form.
As they worked, the monks, dressed in crimson and gold robes, only looked up periodically to switch out the colored sand they were placing.
They worked in front of a colorful shrine to the Dalai Lama, decorated with flowers and images of “His Holiness.” Fabric prayer flags in myriad colors hung overhead, and the sound of other monks chanting drifted in from a room to the rear. To their right sat a table holding bowls of the vibrant, rainbow sand they were using to craft the Mandala.
They had brought color and a sense of life into the otherwise empty, brown room.
These two monks were from a group of nine that have come to Norman to share their message of world peace and to raise awareness about the endangered ancient culture of Tibet. On Saturday, they will sweep away the sand Mandala and hours of hard work, destroying their creation to symbolize the impermanence of the material world, according to a press release.
The monks are here with the Mystical Arts of Tibet tour, an organization that sends Tibetan monks around the world to share their culture. When the monks are not on tour, they reside at Drepung Loseling Monastery, Inc. in Atlanta. A local organization, The Indigenous Cultural Preservation Project, sponsored the monks’ stay in Norman this year. This is St. Stephen's United Methodist Church’s fifth year to host the monks, and church officials see it as an honor, said Diana Hanson, office manager for the church.
“We accept every member of the community,” Hanson said. “We really see it as a privilege to have them here.”
The monks kicked off their stay with an opening ceremony Wednesday afternoon, which included a traditional chanting ceremony prior to their creation of a sand Mandala.
The sand Mandala is 2,500-year-old Tibetan art form and its purpose is healing, said Nawang Khenrab Tenzin, spokesperson for the tour. The monks spend hours for days at a time placing different colored sands into a detailed, geometric shape before wiping the entire thing away.
The sand, created from ground marble, is thought to be blessed by the monks’ hands, so part of the destroyed Mandala will be deposited into a local body of water, where the sand particles will eventually drift to sea and spread their blessing throughout the world, according to a press release.
Tenzin explained the purpose of the tour is three-fold. The first is to spread global healing, peace and harmony through art and dance ceremonies, including lectures about how to remove negative energies from human life. Second, the monks hope to raise awareness about the situation facing Tibet and to share their culture with others. Lastly, the purpose of the tour is to preserve Tibetan culture, a culture Tenzin described as based on love and compassion, he said.
The situation facing Tibet refers to the Chinese occupation of Tibet. In 1959, communist China invaded Tibet and destroyed all 6,500 of its monasteries. About 250 Tibetan monks managed to escape to south India where they reestablished the Drepung Loseling Monastery.
However, Tenzin said the conditions in Tibet have only continued to worsen, with Tibetans being denied basic human rights and forced to flee their homeland every day.
Some Tibetans have begun to protest Chinese occupation through self-immolation, or the act of setting oneself on fire. Since 2009, 112 Tibetans have self-immolated. Tenzin described the self-immolations as a very sad phenomenon, but an act some Tibetans feel they must take.
“Two reasons: to have freedom in Tibet and to return the Dalai Lama,” Tenzin said to explain why they self-immolate.
The Dalai Lama is both the head of state and the spiritual leader of Tibet. Dalai Lamas are believed to be manifestations of Avalokiteshvara, the patron saint of Tibet. The current Dalai Lama has been in exile in India since 1959.
Tenzin recommended interested college students get involved and raise awareness about Tibet by joining Students for a Free Tibet, an international organization that campaigns for Tibetan freedom through education, grass-roots movement and nonviolent demonstrations.
The monks who are staying in Norman hope to raise awareness about the issues facing Tibet and to offer healing through their sacred arts. Tenzin explained that the sand Mandala is not merely something pretty to look at, it is a physical representation of the patience and attention needed on the path to enlightenment.
“It tells about a kind of map-way to reach the state of enlightenment, the state of purity, the state of ultimate peace,” Tenzin said.
Although Tibetan monks are Buddhist, the tour does not focus on the tenants of Buddhism. Rather, the monks teach meditation, a practice Tenzin said is universal among all religions.
“On this planet, one religion doesn’t work for all," Tenzin said. “We need many different religions.”
The monks’ ultimate message is one of peace, both at the macro and micro level, Tenzin said.
“Share your love with everybody,” Tenzin said.
The monks will share their wisdom by teaching people to focus on the present through focusing on love and compassion rather than material goods, Tenzin said.
“The only way to bring happiness within you, within your family, within your community, is through transformations,” Tenzin said.
The creation and destruction of the sand Mandala is a representation of how people should not become attached to material goods, Tenzin said. In the end, it is just sand.
The monks will work on the Mandala from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday and Friday and will dismantle the Mandala at 4 p.m. on Saturday at St. Stephen's United Methodist Church. They are also giving lectures on the path to enlightenment at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, according to a press release. All events are open to the public.