This week in the Villard Room, three Tibetan Buddhist monks will be creating a sand mandala, and will be holding a dissolution ceremony on Sunday, April 26. For those who haven’t had experience with the origin or meaning of this practice, Associate Professor of Religion, Michael Walsh wrote a description in an emailed statement.
He wrote, “The term ‘mandala’ is a Sanskrit word that means literally ‘circle.’ It’s a concept used in many parts of Asia but is most closely associated with esoteric Buddhism, and in the case of the sand mandala, Tibetan Buddhism. Typically, the mandala is seen as a residential palace for a deity who will usually be placed at the center of the mandala, the most important part.”
Walsh continued, “They can be representative of something, the cosmos, for example, but most of the time they are understood to be the actual thing itself. i.e. if a mandala is made for a deity, it isn’t just representing or symbolizing that deity, it is in fact the deity itself.”
What is the significance of these mandalas coming to Vassar at this specific time? Professor of Art and Curator of the upcoming Loeb exhibit, “Embodying Compassion in Buddhist Art: Image, Pilgrimage, Practice” Karen Lucic, spoke about the connection between these two events. “What the exhibition is about is a Bodhisattva or a special kind of Buddhist figure who is working to help all beings…Not only is he represented in art, but he’s associated with many practices of self-development and self-actualization that actually helps people be kinder and more compassionate,” Lucic said.
She continued, “One of the practices that’s associated with compassion is the making of sand mandalas and this is a specifically Tibetan Buddhist practice and it’s a very special form which combines art with spirituality. So I thought that having lamas here who were trained in doing the sand mandala would be the perfect celebration for the opening of this exhibition.”
The beginnings of this event that Lucic has spearheaded developed years ago, starting with an idea for a project. She explained how the idea began and how she developed it, “I decided I would…do a research project which would culminate in the exhibition and so in doing this, I’ve not only studied the art but the kind of practices that are associated with it. I met the [lamas who are coming] at the Asian Art Museum. They had an exhibition last year of Tibetan art and they invited these same lamas to come and make a mandala. And then that planted a seed of an idea for our own exhibition and so I contacted them and they were kind enough to say yes.”
To realize this idea and expand the reach of the event, Lucic reached out to others in the Vassar community. She commented on this, “Before I even started on this project, I contacted Sam Speers because I thought there was a really important spiritual dimension to this that went beyond art that might bring in many different segments of the community.”
Director of Religious and Spiritual Life (RSL), Sam Speers, commented on his office’s involvement with this event in an emailed statement, “My colleagues and I in the RSL Office are especially delighted to be able to sponsor this program–as the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life–where the latter term sometimes escapes people’s notice. This is a key event in RSL’s Spirituality Initiative, which we launched this spring with a series of programs on Embodying Compassion, all leading up to this week’s mandala.”
Apart from spirituality and the subject of compassion, other aspects of the exhibit links it to the art and practice of sand mandalas. Lucic spoke on this subject, “What connects the sand mandala to our exhibition is that we have a painted mandala in the show. The show is about the Bodhisattva compassion. The mandala that’s in the show represents the palace of that particular Bodhisattva and then I asked the lamas to make a specific kind of mandala that’s devoted to that same figure. So it will be a continuity between that particular object in the show and what’s going to go on in the Villard Room.”
Focusing on the creation and the creators of the sand mandalas themselves, Walsh gave more detail on their purpose and production, “The mandala is also understood to be a locus of divine power and as such can bestow blessings on those who view it. For the practitioner, he or she will often visualize the mandala in their own body, or identify himself or herself with the main deity at the center of the mandala. In this case, the mandala acts as a meditational aid.”
These aspects of creation was addressed by one of the lamas who is visiting to make the sand mandala, Dr. Hun Lye. He accompanies two lamas originally from Tibet, Lama Sonam, who now lives in Boston, and Khenpo Choepheo, who now lives in Pittsburgh. Originally from Malaysia, but currently living in Asheville, N.C., Lye serves as Spiritual Director at Urban Dharma, the Buddhist center he founded in Asheville. Lye spoke about his background in Buddhism and the study of religion, “Up until recently I taught religion at the college level but about three or four years ago, I made a transition so that I’m now full-time at the Buddhist center. So I do come from an academic background in religious studies.”
Unlike Sonam and Choepheo, Lye was raised ethnically Chinese and Buddhist and acquired–rather than grew up learning–Tibetan Buddhism. “In graduate school, I focused on the study of Chinese Buddhism. At some point, I connected with the Tibetan Buddhist tradition during my undergraduate years and then that connection became stronger and stronger. And so, now I’m part of a Tibetan Buddhist known as Drikung Kagyu,” Lye said.
He continued, “The other two lamas are also members of this lineage. They were born into Drikung Kagyu families in Tibet and they became monks [in their] early teens. But because of the political situation in Tibet, so they had gone into exile and left Tibet. They have lived in this country for at least 10 years.”
To incorporate the many intricacies and processes it takes to create the mandala, the three lamas split up the work based on skill and experience. Lye commented on this distinction, “Of the three of us, Khenpo Choepheo is the main master at work. So the most difficult task is the laying down of the grid for the mandala. That entails drawing basically the whole blueprint; using pencils the whole blueprint is laid out on the surface. And then after that, all the decisions about what designs turn up in which quadrant–the mandala is divided into four quadrants–what colors and all of that, he makes all of those decisions. Lama Sonam and myself are basically assisting in filling the colors.”
Although Lye makes it seem like filling in colors with sand is the easy part, he also highlights the concentration needed for this practice. “If you like very detailed and deliberate work and you’re good at focusing, then it becomes addictive, in a sense. Particularly when the sand goes down. The way of getting the sand to come out of the funnel is you rub the funnel which has ridges to it, and the vibration fro the ridges pushes the sand out. So the vibration when you rub against those ridges, it’s a very specific sound that I find soothing and I think other people do too. So it takes focus and attention and if you like that kind of focus and attention, then it’s enjoyable.”
Through her studies of Buddhism and sand mandalas, and extensive travels around the world to witness the art, Lucic also observed the same aspects of intensive focus. “These mandalas are very popular among Westerners, even though they might not understand the tradition or what everything represents, there is something about the concentrated focus of the lamas that’s really compelling. I think it’s because we live such a distracted life…and to see these lamas so focused and making such delicate and exquisite works, it creates an atmosphere that’s very calming, very uplifting.”
Lye echoed this sentiment, “It has become certainly something that many Americans find to be fascinating. I think…people find a certain resonance with Buddhist ideals or Buddhist principles by simply watching the construction of a mandala. Traditionally it’s post-construction when it’s ready to be used ritually or meditatively that then people gather.”
He continued, “Here, the flexibility of tradition–and religious traditions even–is that it’s open to new interpretation and new ways that people connect with it. But I don’t think, in my opinion at least, that it has to be one way or the other, I think it just shows how flexible this tradition is.”