Empowerment and impermanence: making a mandala in Newport

The touring monks of Gaden Shartse Monastery in India will spend six days sharing Buddhist teachings and raising funds for the Tibetan culture in exile

As a photographer and communications consultant for nonprofits, Tripp Mikich worked for more than a decade with Tibetan monks touring the United States. He assumed that work was finished when he moved recently to Lincoln City. But while he was visiting his hometown of Placerville, Calif., over Christmas,  he went to view a sand mandala made by the monks of Gaden Shartse Monastery in India.

The monks offhandedly mentioned they were going to be in Newport. His response: “‘Are you serious?’ It was a happy surprise to find out they were coming to my new backyard.”

Mikich, who says his own practice is rooted in the tradition of Vietnamese zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, is working with the Gaden Shartse monks to share information about their visit March 12-17. The Gaden Shartse Monastic College was founded in the 15th century in Tibet. When China invaded that country in 1949, Gaden Shartse survivors fled to India and eventually started a new monastery. The monks are on a two-year tour to share Tibetan culture with Americans with stops in Florida, New Hampshire, Los Angeles, Seattle, Nebraska, and the Oregon Coast.

Shanu, youngest of the Gaden Shartse Tibetan monks on the tour, works on a Manjushri Sand Mandala. The thin funnel in his hand is called a "chakpur" and is especially made for this task. A thin metal stick is used to "ratchet" or vibrate the funnel so it sends a controlled, thin stream of sand in fine lines to make the details and background colors. Rather than being laid "flat," the sand is fact mounded into ridges and troughs, creating a brocade-like effect. Photo by: Tripp Mikich

Shanu, youngest of the Gaden Shartse Tibetan monks on the tour, works on a Manjushri sand mandala. The thin funnel in his hand, called a chakpur, is especially made for this task. A thin metal stick is used to “ratchet” or vibrate the funnel so it sends a controlled, thin stream of sand in fine lines to make the details and background colors. Rather than being laid flat, the sand is mounded into ridges and troughs, creating a brocade-like effect. Photo by: Tripp Mikich

During their six days in Newport, they’ll offer public talks and host Tibetan Buddhist sacred rituals and ceremonies, as well as two family-friendly, all-ages workshops on Tibetan butter sculpture, Tibetan calligraphy, and the making of sand mandalas.

The highlight of the visit promises to be the construction of a Medicine Buddha Sand Mandala, work that will take place over the six days of the visit and will be open to the public at the Pacific Maritime Heritage Center. Admission to all events is by a suggested donation of $10 to $30. However, it is emphasized that no one will be turned away. Mandala viewing is by donation.

I asked Mikich to share some of his knowledge about the monks. His responses have been edited for clarity.

The Manjushri Sand Mandala is one of the many designs the monks have spent years learning to make. In the background are the formal head-gear the monks wore for ceremonies and rituals, as well as the drum and musical instruments used in ceremonies. Bells and "dorjes" or "vajras" (thunderbolts) on the corners of the table carry shapes and designs with symbolic meaning. Photo by: Tripp Mikich

The Manjushri sand mandala is one of the many designs the monks have spent years learning to make. In the background are the formal head-gear the monks wore for ceremonies and rituals, as well as the drum and musical instruments used in ceremonies. Bells and “dorjes” or “vajras” (thunderbolts) on the corners of the table carry shapes and designs with symbolic meaning. Photo by: Tripp Mikich

Why do they do these tours? I’m assuming it’s to educate?

Mikich: It’s really about raising money to support the 1,500 monks at the monastery in India. They have almost no other way to do it, and tours like this go to Europe, Asia, Latin America, and so on. Yes, it’s a way to share the culture and spiritual life of Tibet, but it’s important to remember that Gaden Shartse and similar monasteries are a culture in exile and a nation and people of refugees. Without the kind of public recognition, moral and financial support that we can give them, the Tibetan people and their way of life would be even more endangered and threatened than they are.

There is a lot going on in the six-day visit, but the event that seems to be attracting the most attention is the Medicine Buddha sand mandala. What makes this so exciting?

The mandala itself is beautiful, with bright colors and intricate and symbolic designs. The process of making it is a very concentrated, meditative process to watch. The monks are using these thin, long funnels that go back hundreds of years as instruments for making these things. There is a sound that accompanies it. The design is not a flat design, but it has a dimensional quality. It winds up looking like elaborate brocade made of sand.

Participants of all ages will have a chance to employ the same instruments the monks use in a sand mandala workshop March 17. Photo by: Tripp Mikich

Participants of all ages will have a chance to employ the same instruments the monks use in a sand mandala workshop March 17. Photo by: Tripp Mikich

In the context of the mandala, it’s like you are looking down at the top of an unfolded model of a palace. This is the celestial palace of whatever particular entity the mandala is representing or dedicated to. In the case of Newport, the mandala will be the Medicine Buddha. The Buddha was often referred to as the doctor who healed. It’s a very joyful process.

I understand people will be able to stop by the Maritime Center and watch the monks create the mandala, but there are also two formal ceremonies. What are those about?

When they come to the end of this, there is a ceremony on Saturday that is the Medicine Buddha empowerment ceremony in which the spiritual energy  is transmitted to the audience through the high lama on this tour, Geshe Lobsang Wangyal. Geshe is the title for a monk who has completed the highest level of learning and training in the Tibetan monastic tradition, taking some 24 or more years to complete. It is the equivalent of holding several Ph.Ds. During the ceremony, he is transmitting to the people his wisdom and enlightenment.

Tibetan monks of Gaden Shartse Monastery have been on the road for over a year, making presentations and sand mandalas from coast to coast. They will be in Newport from March 12-17. Photo by: Tripp Mikich

Tibetan monks of Gaden Shartse Monastery have been on the road for over a year, making presentations and sand mandalas from coast to coast. They will be in Newport from March 12-17. Photo by: Tripp Mikich

The second ceremony at 2 p.m. Sunday is what they call the dissolution ceremony. This is the other thing that makes the sand mandala so unique. Through chants and traditional musical instruments, the ceremony will ritually dissolve the mandala back into emptiness, which basically means that nothing we see as created — like a chair, or rock or tree — has self-existence. It only existed because other things make it so.

After spending 100 hours creating the mandala, they literally sweep it up in a pile. It’s beautiful to watch. People ask, ‘How do they save it?’ They don’t. The dissolution ceremony represents the impermanence, the emptiness, of all created things. We are all going to dissolve into emptiness. There is nothing that lasts forever. Some of the sand is distributed to the audience as gifts. The rest is taken to some body of water and is poured back into the water as kind of a blessing.

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust, investing in Oregon’s arts, humanities and heritage, and the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition.

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