Circle of Enlightenment: Tibetan Buddhist Sand Mandala

Festival Introduction

What does it mean to heal, to “become whole”? What is health? What is “dis-ease”? How are these concepts culturally constructed? These are among the themes and questions of Healing Across Cultures, a year of focused inquiry, courses, and cultural events at St. Lawrence University sponsored by a grant from the Christian Johnson Endeavor Foundation. This year’s Festival of the Arts explores health and healing primarily from a Tibetan Buddhist perspective.

Buddhism teaches that what is problematic about life is suffering. Birth, sickness, old age, and death are part and parcel in this realm of cyclic existence. Yet it is possible, according to the Buddha, to transcend suffering, to become whole, i.e. to heal. To do so entails understanding the nature of Mind and the interdependence and transient nature of all phenomena. The elimination of suffering may be achieved through the development of concentration, penetrating insight, and the practice of ethical behavior. In Tibet, prior to Chinese occupation, numerous monasteries provided the training grounds to achieve these skills and this understanding. The elimination of the sacred/secular duality was embodied in the spiritual and political leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama, who is believed to be the reincarnation of Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion.

The 1999 Festival of the Arts provides a window into the Tibetan Buddhist universe, secular and sacred, and thus a key to comprehending a view of health and healing radically different from that with which we are most familiar. Two monks from Namgyal Monastery will be on campus for three weeks to create and ritually dismantle a Kalachakra Mind sand mandala and to give related workshops. The festival also includes an exhibition of the Tibet Heinrich Harrer experienced just prior to the Chinese invasion in 1950, which complements an exhibition of Alison Wright’s photographs of contemporary Tibetan refugees. Sacred and ritual objects such as thangka paintings, prayer wheels, and sculptures will be displayed with a traditional Tibetan Buddhist altar. Because meditation is considered a powerful tool to achieve healing in the deepest sense, four workshops on meditation will be offered, two Zen and two Tibetan Buddhist. Tibetan monks of the Drepung Loseling Monastery will perform sacred dance and music and give lectures and workshops on Tibetan healing, sound as medicine, and Buddhist attitudes toward the environment. Lectures by Daniel Cozort, Anne C. Klein, Roko Ni-Osho Sherry Chayat, and Robert A. F. Thurman will provide scholarly and practical perspectives on the myriad relationships between Buddhism and healing.

On one level, a mandala may be understood as a representation of the universe, created in the hope that it will contribute to world peace, a global healing. On another level, according to Dr. Daniel Cozort, mandalas incorporate the idea of a subtle body and work their healing by having the patient identify with a Holy Person and imagine living in a sacred cosmos. The mandala is deliberately destroyed in a final dismantling ceremony to help us understand the transient nature of all things.

-- Catherine Shrady
1999 Festival of the Arts Co-chair

Tibetan Buddhist sand mandalas were first presented in the West in 1989 with permission from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In 1993, the Richard F. Brush Art Gallery offered what I thought would be a fairly modest program -- the construction of a Tibetan Buddhist Chenrezig sand mandala and an accompanying lecture by the scholar M. David Eckel. For three weeks, two monks from the Namgyal Monastery created the mandala, a complex, symbolic representation simultaneously understood as an architectural ground plan for the deity Chenrezig (the Buddha of Compassion), an intricate map of the universe, a ritual offering, as well as a tool used in meditation and visualization. The response was overwhelming. Thousands of school children, college students, and community members visited the gallery, many probably never having seen nor heard of a sand mandala, most returning several times to witness its slow, painstaking construction.

What impressed me at the time was how the mandala drew people of all ages and from all walks of life, many visiting the gallery for the first time. Unfortunately, in a Western context, artmaking and the viewing of art are too often considered elitist activities. Yet this most elite act -- the creation of a sand mandala considered one of the highest forms of sacred teaching in Tibetan Buddhism -- spoke profoundly to those not typically “trained” to understand and appreciate “art.” Traditional Western definitions of the function of art and “art-as-object” were no longer relevant, and as a result, the project threw many of these assumptions right out the window.

After the dismantling of the mandala in 1993, the monks handed out small sheets of paper so community members could take some of the sand home with them. To this day, individuals tell me “I buried the sand in the walls of my new kitchen,” or “I sprinkled the sand in my garden.” My sand sits in a small, green curvilinear bottle on my desk at work, a daily reminder of the impermanence of all things in life. I am always touched by the personal stories, by how the mandala affected the lives of those in my community.

Tibetan Buddhists believe that all sentient beings have Buddha-nature, that they have the ability to become enlightened as a Buddha. One of the monks who will be in residence this spring, Venerable Tenzin Yignyen, said that in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, the most important aspect of creating a mandala is the motivation behind it. Proper motivation means that one seeks enlightenment, or attains Buddhahood, to purify one’s self, but more importantly, for the benefit of all sentient beings. Tenzin noted that seeing a sand mandala plants a seed in one’s mind for present and future generations. I think he referred to this idea when he stated, “Wherever the water is clear, the moon will be reflected there.”

-- Catherine Tedford
1999 Festival of the Arts Co-chair

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