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Progress of the Sand Mandala - nhpeacenik
Progress of the Sand Mandala

Friday night, I went to Peterborough to hear a presentation by the monks of the Gaden Jangtse Monastery on the sand mandala they are making at the Mariposa Museum this week. I arrived at the museum, went upstairs, and took a seat next to some people I knew from a nearby Waldorf community for brain-injured adults. I settled spontaneously into a meditative state, opening my eyes periodically to look at the assembled thangkas and ritual objects from throughout Asia, and at the roped-off central quadrangle of the main exhibition room, where the innermost circle of the sand-painting was almost complete after five hours of work by the monks earlier in the day. The quadrangle was bounded by strings of colorful prayer flags with peace motifs. The sand painting was on a wooden plank that rested on a red cloth and was surrounded by the red cushions where the monks would sit to do their work.

Slowly, the room filled with people of all ages. many of them chatting and using their cell-phones. Children started to get irritable and parents started to get strict. The dull roar of the crowd contrasted strongly with the decor of the room, which was obviously meant to instill a calm, concentrated attitude.

The monks came in and took seats on cushions at the south side of the room. David Blair introduced thier translator, and he introduced the monks to the crowd, which was now a quiet and attentive. They are just completing a year-long tour of North America making sand mandalas and raising donations to keep their monastery/university near Bangalore, India going. The institution keeps Tibetan culture alive and attracts novice monks fleeing the small towns of Tibet where the monasteries would traditionally find boys and girls to become novice monks and nuns. Three of the four monks were born in Tibet, and one was born in India. Each of them has advanced training in some aspect of Tibetan culture and Buddhist religious practice. The youngest, the one born in India, is the chant master. The monks demonstrated the tripartite chant they use to pepare themselves for work each morning, and the sound of the deep throat-sung chants reached not only my ears but my gut and my heart with their vibrations. They explained the tools they use to make the sandpainting: a brass funnel with a tiny opening at the bottom, having groved sides. A silver sraper is rubbed rhythmically along the side of the funnel, causing it to release a controlled stream of sand onto the board. The sand is actually white marble dust, collected from holy sites, ground fine, and mixed with bright natural pigments. On Saturday, I got a chance to watch the monks at work, Their concentration is phenomenal. They sit in lotus position on a flat cushion and bend forward so that their faces are only inches from the board. while they scrape the funnels and release thin lines of sand prcisely onto their intended place, building the mandala outward from the lotus in its center. I don't have a camera, but several people were taking photos with thier cameras and cellphones, so there should be a lot of photos before the process is complete Tuesday or Thursday. The monastery has made a realplayer video of the process, including the sound of the chanting,, which you can see at http://dharmawebcast.org/vid0003/v00000003.ram .

The translator explained that through meditation and chanting, the mandala becomes a real temporary mansion for the female buddha of compassion, Avalokiteshwara. As soon as the mandala is complete Avalokiteshwara is ceremoniously invited to inhabit it along with her retunue. She performs the blessings for which the mandala was constructed and is then meditated and chanted back to the celestial realms. The mandala is once again just a design, and like all things in this world, it must dissolve or die. The sand is swept to destroy the image and is ceremoniously poured into the Contoocook river where another small stream joins it two blocks from the museum.

The specific mandala being constructed here is a compassion mandala. All compassion mandalas are made according to an ancient unchanging pattern, so that no personal reativity enters into the process. Mandalas with other purposes, such as healing, also exist, but the compassion mandala is the most common, since all beings need compassion (I might add "especially now").

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