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Peaceful design: Monks creating multicolored sand mandala at UMass this week; public viewings possible

  • From left, Wavy Sitron, 8, of Northampton, Jennifer Sitron and Ben Patterson, 9, of Leverett, watch as monks from the Drepung Loseling Monastary create a sand mandala at the Old Chapel at UMass. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • From left, Ben Patterson,9, of Leverett, Jennifer Sitron and Wavy Sitron,8, of Northampton, look at the colored sand being used by monks from the Drepung Loseling Monastary, to create a sand mandala at the Old Chapel at UMass. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • From left, Julie Paterson, Ben Patterson, 9, of Leverett, Jennifer Sitron and Wavy Sitron, 8, of Northampton, watch as monks from the Drepung Loseling Monastary create a sand mandala at the Old Chapel at UMass. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Monks from the Drepung Loseling Monastary work to create a sand mandala at the Old Chapel at UMass. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ven. Thirchin and Ven. Kunga, monks from the Drepung Loseling Monastary, work with other monks to create a sand mandala at the Old Chapel at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ven. Thirchin, a monk from the Drepung Loseling Monastary, reloads his tool with colored sand while working with other monks to create a sand mandala at the Old Chapel at UMass. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Monks from the Drepung Loseling Monastary work to create a sand mandala at the Old Chapel at UMass. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • From left, Wavy Sitron, 8, of Northamtpon, and Ben Patterson, 9, of Leverett, watch as Ven. Thirchin, a monk from the Drepung Loseling Monastary, reloads his tools with sand while working with other monks to create a sand mandala at the Old Chapel at UMass. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • From left, Ven. Kunga, Sonam Dawa and Ven. Thirchin, monks from the Drepung Loseling Monastary, work to create a sand mandala at the Old Chapel at UMass. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A monk from the Drepung Loseling Monastary works with other monks to create a sand mandala at the Old Chapel at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS



For the Gazette
Thursday, April 19, 2018

AMHERST — A traditional Tibetan Buddhist sand mandala takes days to complete — the art is meticulously crafted by monks who place dyed sand one line at a time. Their final product, a colorful and symbolic piece of art centered around a deity, is a testament to faith and compassion.

Then the creation is ritualistically brushed away and destroyed. The sand is collected and released back to the earth in a body of running water and given to spectators as blessings.

“We believe that every one of the sands carries healing energies. It goes across the world and it touches sentient beings and environments to heal negative thoughts,” said Rinchen Wangyal, one of a group of Tibetan monks creating a sand mandala in the Old Chapel at the University of Massachusetts. “The destruction symbolizes the impermanence of life and also emptiness, that everything dissolves into space.”

Wangyal and the other monks are working for eight hours each day from Tuesday to Friday for the event, which is being coordinated by the Asian Arts and Culture Program of the UMass Amherst Fine Arts Center.

“Each mandala is consecrated to a deity,” said Ranhanaa Devi, program director at the Asian Arts and Culture Program. “This deity is called Avalokitevara, the essence of compassion and loving kindness ... He encompasses everything from other Buddha’s into himself that comes as love and kindness.”

Overlooking the mandala is an altar adorned with a photo of the Dalai Lama and an “offering field” of fruit, water, rice and flowers. The offerings are made to help accumulate more merit for sentient beings, the Dalai Lama, the Buddha, Dharma (teachings of the Buddha) and Sangha (the community of Buddhist monks,) Wangyal said.

Before the work on the mandala begins, the space is consecrated to expel all evil beings, visible and invisible, Devi said. Then the monks spend around an hour drawing the basic geometric lines of the mandala. The mandala the monks are creating at UMass this week contains more than 500 individual lines.

After the lines are drawn, the monks work quietly as sacred chants play overhead, dispensing water-colored sand made from crushed marble through a cone-shaped tool called a chakpur around the center deity. The chakpur releases sand through the vibration created by rubbing a metal rod up and down the instrument.

“We have five main colors that represent the five manifestations of Buddha,” Wangyal said. “We believe the mandala has healing energies. When people see it, it lets people come down and relax and heal their negative influences.”

Wangyal explained that the mandala is the union of compassion and wisdom, that it inspires “bodhicitta,” or altruism and love towards all sentient beings. Along with this love, Wangyal explained that the mandala symbolizes natural reality and emptiness.

“You have to develop that wisdom,” Wangyal said. “Once you realize your natural reality you have developed that wisdom.”

The monks travel across the globe as part of “The Mystical Arts of Tibet,” a program endorsed by the Dalai Lama and actor Richard Gere to celebrate the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism in the west. The monks last created a mandala on the UMass campus in 2013.

“While western Massachusetts is very diverse, there’s not much knowledge of the diversity. The nuances of cultures are something that one needs to experience and engage with,” Devi said. “Culture in Asia is not separate from art. It’s a living tradition ... In the present political climate where everything is so divisive, this is a good moment for us to come together.”

Each monk comes from the Drepung Loseling Monastery in south India, a monastery that has been in exile since the its original location in Tibet was destroyed in 1959 by a Chinese invasion. Only around 250 monks were able to escape and seek refuge in India, and now the re-established monastery has around 3,000 dedicated monks.

“You notice that they don’t have any notes to follow what’s going on, it’s all from immersive practice,” Devi said. “They learn thousand pages of prayers, they learn everything by rote. It becomes part of you, you absorb that.”

Julie Patterson of Leverett brought her 9-year-old son Ben to see the mandala because she said she is always looking for events she can bring her children to that stray away from traditional digital media. Joining her was Jennifer Sitron of Northampton and her 8-year-old daughter, Wavey.

“I’ve seen it in films and I am so excited to see it in person,” Sitron said. “This is incredible.”

“Something sacred like this is really special to show our 8- and 9-year-old,” Patterson said. “Our kids are interested in beauty, art and culture, and that’s why we’re here ... I think it makes a really good impact for kids so they can realize there’s still meaning in the world.”

Public viewing hours for the sand mandala are from 1 to 6 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday and from 1 to 4 p.m. on Friday.