Tibetan monks build a sand mandala at the MOA

Technophiles miss out on the message of a transient, ancient art
Originally published in The Ubyssey & theubyssey.ca on Nov. 19, 2009 || Culture

Tsengdok Rinpoche braves the cold ocean to complete Tibetan ritual

Listen to the audio version of this story

For seven days, Tibetan monks hunched over a circular outline at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC. Using cone-like metal tools called chak-pur, they crafted an elaborate design using millions of grains of coloured sand.

On Sunday Tsengdok Rinpoche, from Vancouver’s Tsengdok Monastery, stood over the finished product: an intricate work of art known as a sand mandala.

Using a brush, he began to sweep it into a blur.

But the destruction of the design is part of the traditional Tibetan ritual.

“The meaning of the mandala is to remind people that nothing in life is permanent,” said Rinpoche through a translator. “Don’t get too attached, even to the most beautiful things.”

From November 8 to 15, five visiting monks from the Gaden Jangtse Monastery in India created and displayed the mandala in the Great Hall of the museum. Two Vancouver-based monks, including Rinpoche, hosted the quintet as part of their 2009 Sacred Art Tour.

“We started in July from Toronto,” said Vivien Wen, a tour organizer. “[The monks] have worked so long and hard and perfectly—but then they let life flow.”

Many attendees were moved by the transience of the symbol, which represented the god of compassion. People lined up to collect tiny bags filled with sand from the mandala.

“The message of living in the moment was conveyed,” said Yuan Jiang, a clinical psychology graduate student.

Holding on to grains of sand

Tsengdok Rinpoche begins to dismantle the sand mandala

But what does living in the moment mean in a culture of documentation?

Throughout every sacred dance, meditative chant and costumed performance, onlookers held up their digital cameras and smart phones.

“We’re such technophiles,” said Danny Bakan, a post-graduate student who came across the ceremony on his way to buy a cappuccino. Even with an assignment on his mind, Bakan was drawn in.

Eventually, he reached for his iPhone.

“When I snapped a picture of [the sand mandala] I thought, ‘Well, now I’ve kept it‚‘ and as soon as I put it on my Facebook page, I’ll be sharing it.”

As Bakan spoke, a student beside him nodded.

“I don’t think it’s even necessarily about the picture,” said Daniel Goldberg, “It’s about doing something to try and preserve the ephemeral experience.”

Returning to the Water

Beneath a dark and drizzling sky later that afternoon, the monks stood on Spanish Banks’ rocky shore. They were surrounded by community members who had carpooled from the museum. The onlookers, many still holding cameras, teetered on rocks and crowded closer to the monks.

To complete the ritual, the monks had come to return the sand to a nearby body of water. That way, the blessings and healing powers of the mandala could flow back into the world.

Rinpoche stepped out from under a ceiling of umbrellas.

He removed his shoes and stepped into the cold water. As the other monks chanted and played their instruments, Rinpoche released the remaining sand into the ocean.

Meanwhile, museum attendees Peter Bell and Eleanor Dean stood at the shores of Tower Beach.

The two drifters had not tried to secure a ride to Spanish Banks to join the monks, choosing instead to empty their own bag of sand, a memento from the event, into their hands. They blew the grains into the water.

“It wasn’t mine to begin with, so I’ll pass it on,” said Bell.

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4 thoughts on “Tibetan monks build a sand mandala at the MOA

  1. Hopefully the actual ritual calls for literally the “nearest body of water” and not an ocean specifically, otherwise Tibetans in Tibet would have a long walk to finish that one off. 🙂

      • One thing I have noticed about the Tibetan interpretation of Buddhism is the adaptation to necessity. Vegetarianism, for instance, is simply not an option for them, living where they do.

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