Sunday, May 18, 2014

On Monks and Mandalas

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I was going to post pictures of some lovely ephemeral art works and to use, as an introduction, an incident concerning the ephemeral artwork of some Tibestan monks.  However, the telling of the incident grew large and I decided to leave that tale as the post, the other pics will come later.

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Some time ago my wife, Kate, our boys Thomas and Elliot, and myself paid a visit to the National Museum in Canberra where we watched Tibetan Buddhist monks engaged in creating a beautiful sand painted mandala. The monks travel the world creating the mandalas using metal funnels, called chakpurs. The chakpurs place coloured sand in fine lines, dots and larger coloured areas by having metal rods rubbed over the ribbed spine of the chakpurs to create vibrations which causes the sand to flow like liquid.

Watching the four monks near completion of the mandala that they had been working on, I asked one what they did with it when it was finished. He said “We put in water”, motioning towards Lake Burley Griffin visible out of the museum windows. 

Some background to this:

The Tibetan mandala is a tool for gaining wisdom and compassion and generally is depicted as a tightly balanced, geometric composition wherein deities reside. The principal deity is housed in the center. The mandala serves as a tool for guiding individuals along the path to enlightenment. 
Monks meditate upon the mandala, imagining it as a three-dimensional palace. The deities who reside in the palace embody philosophical views and serve as role models. The mandala’s purpose is to help transform ordinary minds into enlightened ones. 
Mandalas constructed from sand are unique to Tibetan Buddhism and are believed to effect purification and healing. Typically, a great teacher chooses the specific mandala to be created. Monks then begin construction of the sand mandala by consecrating the site with sacred chants and music. 
Next, they make a detailed drawing from memory. Over a number of days, they fill in the design with millions of grains of colored sand. At its completion, the mandala is consecrated.The monks then enact the impermanent nature of existence by sweeping up the colored grains and dispersing them in flowing water. 
According to Buddhist scripture, sand mandalas transmit positive energies to the environment and to the people who view them. While constructing a mandala,Buddhist monks chant and meditate to invoke the divine energies of the deities residing within the mandala. The monks then ask for the deities’ healing blessings. A mandala’s healing power extends to the whole world even before it is swept up and dispersed into flowing water—a further expression of sharing the mandala’s blessings with all. 
The Tibetan mandalas are deceptively simple. They might look like they’re made up of basic patterns, but are extremely complex and might take weeks to complete. Buddhist monks undergo years of training before they can make a mandala. So before a mandala is made, a monk will spend time in philosophical and artistic study. Once a sufficient level of understanding has been reached, the mandala is created. 
In the personal monastery of the Dalai Lama, the Nyamgal monastery, monks spend about three years studying before making the mandala.

I discussed this creation and destruction of sand mandalas with my wife as we moved on to other exhibits and I expressed the view that the monks were bludging, creating these beautiful art works which they then destroyed whilst they expected the public to support them financially. I said that it was quite easy to sit on one’s backside and be spiritual whilst other people gave you money, why not create mandalas that could be preserved and sell them? Needless to say, Kate disagreed with me, pointing out how spiritual, gentle, kind and beautiful the Tibetan monks were.

A little later we came back past the monks working at their table. We waited near them whilst Elliot went to the museum shop and purchased a rubber snake. He placed this around Kate’s neck from behind, she shrieked and threw it off behind her. It landed at the feet of the monks, narrowly missing the nearly completed mandala.

Kate then took advantage of the stop to go to the bathroom. Whilst she was away, a uniformed lady with a clipboard approached and said that she was from the Canberra Tourism Authority, could she ask some questions for a survey? She asked how we found the museum etc and at that point Kate returned. Kate asked what was happening and I said “This lady is from the Museum. The monks complained about you nearly wrecking their sand painting.” Kate responded “THOSE BASTARDS.”

Gees, that was funny.
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Some other sandpainting mandala pics:

Note that sandpainted mandalas also have 3 dimensional elements.

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