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Video: Tibetan Monks Create A Sand Mandala At The Menil Collection

A group of Buddhist monks are in Houston to create a traditional sand mandala, which will later be destroyed.


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Tibetan monks create a sand mandala


Six Tibetan monks in maroon and orange robes are quietly setting up an altar to the Dalai Lama in the lobby of The Menil Collection. The monks put out bowls of rice and fruit and sticks of incense as they prepare to bless the space and chant prayers.

Six Tibetan monks are setting up an altar to the Dalai Lama in the lobby of The Menil Collection.

The monks put out bowls of rice and fruit and sticks of incense as they prepare to bless the space.

The prayers continue for 15 minutes.

The monks are from the Drepung Gomang Monastery, which is a sort of university for Tibetan buddhists. The Drepung was founded in 1416, and this particular branch has 2,000 monks living in southern India. Among them is Geshe, who became a monk 28 years ago, when he was 11 years old. He and his companions each spent two years learning to create sand mandalas.

“It’s good for the next life, and fortune and virtues,” he said.

The mandala is an imaginary palace dedicated to the Buddha. Each color and image has symbolic meaning and is intended to be used for meditation to remind the viewer of certain truths or guiding principles.

Candace Levy came with her husband to watch the monks create the mandala. This isn’t her first time to watch a mandala in progress, but it is her first time to observe the opening rituals.

“I think it’s all about mystery. And there are so many things that I want to know now that I’ve seen the beginning of the ceremony,” Levy said. “I would love to know what they’re chanting, I would like to know what the words are, what they mean. So I think it’s about fascination, we’re fascinated.”

Levy says although she does not practice any particular religion, she thinks there’s something to learn from the traditions of all faiths.

“Because they chant in such a low tone, it kind of to me is almost like it’s coming from the belly. And it’s coming from that part of our bodies, that speaks of the chakras and the heart. And I think that’s why it’s so moving.”

The monks play traditional horns and drums during the blessing ceremony. Their visit to the Menil is part of the museum’s current exhibition Experiments with Truth: Gandhi and Images of Nonviolence. Menil Director Josef Helfenstein designed the exhibit over many years. He says the themes of peace and healing in the  mandala are intended to be beneficial to people who view the art.

“It’s a very ancient technique to create a very beautiful, colorful picture out of millions of grains of sand. And to see them do that over the course of many days, many hours, is fascinating,” Helfenstein said.

In a few days, the sand will be swept away to symbolize the impermanence of all things. Helfenstein says it’s an Eastern philosophy in a Western setting, a contemporary museum dedicated to collecting and preserving art.

“And then they dissolve it at the end, and they will put it into a river, in one of the bayous. The idea behind that is, again, very Eastern, but it’s a beautiful idea. That in this way, the sand, or the energy attached or associated with this painting or picture, will be disbursed throughout the world.”

One can only imagine the patience it must take to spend so many painstaking hours creating something you know will be destroyed. And the monks get to practice this lesson in patience over and over again. They will have completed 17 mandalas in 15 cities by the time they finish their tour of the U.S.

Visitors to the Menil can observe the monks create the mandala this week. A closing ceremony and de-installation of the sand will be held on Saturday, December 13 at 11a.m.