Sitting cross-legged on the floor of Houston Memorial Chapel, a Tibetan Buddhist monk named Tenpa Phuntsok leaned forward to get a closer look at the artistic masterpiece he and several other monks were creating. Although a small crowd gathered around the group to watch, the space was completely silent except for the sound of the monks’ special tools.
Tenpa held a chak-pur, a ridge-lined funnel, and scraped it slowly with a rod. Each touch dropped a few grains of bright green sand onto the platform, where the monks were creating a sacred Buddhist sand painting called a Medicine Buddha Mandala. The finished product featured millions of grains of vibrant-colored sand arranged in intricate circles, scrollwork, and other shapes that required intensive artistic training and memorization by Tenpa and the other monks.
As he worked, he prayed that the mandala would have healing power. “We do this in order to eradicate the illness of all sentient beings,” Tenpa said. “When I work on this, I work very slowly, and I’m very careful. This keeps my heart and my mind very calm.”
The group of monks, who are from the Tashi Kyil Monastery in Dehradun, India, included Randolph College last fall on its tour of the United States. The tour was designed to educate people about Buddhism as well as to raise money for their monastery, which provides housing, food, and education for indigent boys and orphans.
“It was an opportunity for students to interact on an intimate level with a culture and lifestyle that isn’t all that accessible to them in the United States,” said Suzanne Bessenger, a Randolph religious studies professor who arranged the monks’ visit to campus. The event and program also fit perfectly with the College’s Quality Enhancement Plan, “Bridges Not Walls,” and its commitment to increase students’ intercultural competency, she added.
The creation of a mandala, an artistic representation of the divine world of a Buddha, is meant to consecrate the earth and heal its inhabitants. According to Buddhist scripture, sand mandalas bestow blessings on the environment and on the people who view them. While creating the mandala, the monks meditate to invoke the divine energies of the deities they believe reside within the mandala, and they ask for the deities’ healing blessings.
The process itself takes physical and mental strength. Memorizing the intricate details of a mandala can take years. The actual construction of the mandala is also taxing on the monks. They spend as many as 8 to 10 hours a day hunched forward over crossed legs as they sprinkle sand from the chak-purs. Dawa Dhargya, one of the monks who visited Randolph, said it is hard to sit in that position for so long, and it requires occasional breaks. “It is difficult, but we do it anyway,” he said.
Tashi Kyil was originally a Buddhist monastery in Tibet, but many monks fled when China seized control of the country and ultimately destroyed their home. They took refuge in India and established a new monastery that now houses about 110 monks. “Most of the monks are very young,” Tenpa said. “They’re from the Himalayan region. They come from very poor families. Some are orphans. We lead them to our monastery to give them education.”
Tenpa joined the monastery when he was 8 years old because he was intrigued by how monks always seemed at peace. Dawa became a monk when he was only 4 years old. “It’s very exciting, and very hard, to study Buddhist philosophy,” he said.
The monks visiting Randolph were patient as they shared their culture and beliefs with curious students and community members, and the experience was a priceless learning opportunity, according to faculty members.
“Learning about Buddhism in the textbook and seeing photos of monks are important. Having monks on campus, having lunch with monks, making tea for monks—those are irreplaceable experiences,” said Gordon Steffey, a religious studies professor.
Crowds of students, faculty, staff, and community members observed the mandala creation during the monks’ visit to Randolph. Many faculty members took advantage of the visit to enhance their courses. Religious studies students learned about Buddhism and the monastic life; art professors brought classes so students could study the mandala’s colors and patterns; and sociology students viewed the mandala through the lens of social theory.
Mareeha Niaz ’13, a global studies major, learned that some of the monks spoke Hindi, a language in which she is fluent. She was able to spend time talking with the monks and learning first-hand about international relations in Asia. “We hear about Tibet, we hear the phrase ‘Free Tibet,’ and it’s very ambiguous,” she said. “But when you meet these people, you understand that it really is a struggle of policy, politics, and culture.”
The educational benefit filtered to the outside community as well. Several Lynchburg residents, including Vicky Armstrong, found themselves drawn to the process.
“It is interesting to me on so many levels,” Armstrong said. “The skill and artistry are fantastic. The dedication is compelling. Obviously, it’s a labor of devotion and faith.”
When the mandala was completed, the monks symbolized the impermanent nature of existence by sweeping the sand together during a special closing ceremony. Afterward, many of the 150 people gathered for the ceremony lined up to receive small bags of the sand, which the Buddhists believe has healing power. The remainder was carried to a nearby creek, where it was dispersed in the water to carry the healing blessings to the world.
“This was an event that had both College-wide and Lynchburg-wide appeal and participation and both active and passive learning opportunities,” Bessenger said. “That is the promise of a liberal arts education, and of Randolph College in particular—a life more abundant.”