With eyes closed and hands clasped in prayer, the monks of Drepung Loseling monastery consecrated the mandala of wisdom moments before dismantling the art they had spent four days creating at Millsaps College. In their maroon and saffron robes, the monks chanted in their unique multiphonic style, the chant leader singing three distinct notes simultaneously, creating an eerie, otherworldly sound.
On Oct. 17, President Bush awarded the Congressional Gold Medal—the highest U.S. civilian honor—to the 14th Dalai Lama. As Tibetan Buddhists sought to celebrate the honor for their spiritual leader, the Chinese government cracked down on them, sealing monasteries, and cutting off television and radio stations. Many Tibetans were reportedly beaten and imprisoned.
In honor of the Dalai Lama, Thupten Tendhar and a group of nine other monks from India came to Millsaps College last week as part of a multi-city tour for "The Mystical Arts of Tibet," demonstrating the art of the Tibetan mandala.
Why come to the United States?
With this tour … we have three main purposes: The first is to share our art and culture with people for universal peace and harmony.
The second part is to raise awareness about the situation in Tibet. Tibet (was) invaded by the communist Chinese in 1959, so it has been almost five decades now and still there (are) no human rights and basic freedoms in Tibet. … Even the number of monks and nuns are controlled. ... The government gives "patriotic lessons," which is mainly educating about communism in the monastery, forcing them to denounce the Dalai Lama and their spiritual mantras. There are many monks and nuns who are martyrs in prison. Conditions are still very bad. … Even speaking out the name of the Dalai Lama is considered a crime.
The third purpose is to raise funds for the monasteries in exile.
Where is your monastery today?
Our monastery is now relocated in south India. It was in Tibet prior to 1959, but after the communist Chinese invasion, thousands of Tibetans escaped to India with the Dalai Lama. Of over 10,000 monks, only 250 monks from Drepung Loseling survived and came into exile, and established the monastery in Karnataka State in south India. ... The Dalai Lama and his exiled government is located in Dharamsala in the northern part of India.
What is the origin of mandalas?
(The practice) came from the time of Buddha, himself, who was born 2,500 years ago. As Buddha was born in India, the practice of mandala also originated in India. (Buddhism) came to Tibet in the seventh century and has been in practice there ever since. It is believed that (mandalas bring) positive and healing energies, and promote concentration and patience.
Why do mandalas? What is the purpose?
In Tibetan communities and in the monasteries, the mandalas are a part of meditation and retreat. After the completion of a retreat—a few months or years—we construct a mandala, and it is a part of the retreat.
Do you begin with visualizing and meditating on what the mandala will be?
That's right. But here we mainly share an ancient art form. Still, for the monks who do the mandala, for them it is still a sacred, spiritual practice. Of course, we believe creating a mandala will bring lots of positive and healing energies, not only to the practitioners but also to the viewers and the environment.
Tell me a little bit about your training.
We have an 18-year course of study, which includes logic, cosmology and ethics. But that's the mainstream. (For) mandala ... only those interested are trained. It's a specialty … (and) takes three years to be good, partly because there are hundreds of variations.
Can you tell me about the colors?
The material we use is ground marble, then ... flower and vegetable-based colors. We use 18 different colors. … In some areas, especially in the center, there are four colors used to represent the four elements of water, fire, earth and wind. … Fire is red, earth is yellow, white is wind and blue is water.
After the mandala is complete, then what?
We do the closing ceremonies with chanting and meditation and using the traditional musical instruments. (Then) we dismantle the mandala. One of the monks draws lines from the outermost part to the innermost. Then the monk takes a pinch of sand and puts it on the crown of his head, which symbolizes … that he and the deity (are) inseparable—in union. Then one of the monks comes out with a brush and gathers the sand in the middle. We take some sand to a flowing body of water, and the remaining sand is distributed to the audience in small plastic baggies.
The meaning behind dismantling is to bring us more awareness of the impermanent nature of (existence), the nature of constant change that permeates our lives, and makes us able to reach liberation, or the highest level of enlightenment.