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Tibetan Sand Mandala in Marblehead

August 16, 2011

Photos, video and text by Katie Freedman

Marblehead locals were offered a rare and extraordinary opportunity to bear witness to the creation and destruction of a Tibetan sand mandala this past weekend at the Marblehead Arts Association. The sand mandala is a sacred Tibetan Buddhist art in which layers of colored sand are carefully and laboriously laid starting from the center and working outward. The Mandala is a way for the Monks to re-consecrate the Earth. Following its completion on Sunday afternoon the Mandala was ceremoniously swept up, placed in a jar, and released into the ocean symbolizing the vulnerability of life.

Locals who took advantage of this unique experience headed to the King Hooper Mansion in Old Town last Thursday through Sunday. There, many friendly volunteers welcomed all who came into the Marblehead Arts Association. They passed on a few interesting ground rules, such as not allowing the bottoms of ones feet to face the monks, before sending each individual up the historic creaky stairs to the third floor. At the top of the stairs rows of shoes from those already in attendance lined the hallway along with more smiling faces to welcome the curious onlookers into the Ballroom Gallery for this enlightening experience. Although removal of shoes was not required there was an energetic buzz surrounding this courteous gesture made by all who entered. The rhythmic sound of the creation of the sand mandala flowed from the Gallery with an enticing cadence. There were approximately twelve people scattered in the sun lit room on Friday afternoon, including three small children. Some were sitting on floor cushions in yoga-like poses while others sat quietly on chairs. Everyone, including the children, seemed to be captivated by the moment. The energy in the room was peacefully dynamic and uplifting. The sand mandala, only on day two of its creation, already appeared complete. However, within minutes of watching the monks work diligently on the floor adding new sand to the circle, it was clear that the intricacies of the finished product were only just beginning to take shape.

The front of the Ballroom Gallery was roped off to the viewers of the mandala. A small table with a picture of the Dalai Lama had a prominent spot at the front of the room next to the mandala. Geshe Gendun Gyatso was accompanied by another monk who sat on a floor cushion while creating the mandala. Both men were adorned in impressive red and orange robes and the two spoke often to one another in Tibetan. A hand held metal funnel, called a chak-pur, is the tool used to lay the grains of sand onto the mandala. A metal rod is run along the grooves of the chak-pur to release the sand slowly and steadily. This metal rod on the grooves creates a rhythmic sound that fills the room and was also the sound that was first heard in the hallway before entering the ballroom. The mandala is drawn by freehand without templates but appears perfectly symmetrical. It changes drastically as each layer is placed down and becomes increasingly more intricate. Occasionally, Geshe Gendun Gyatso would cross the thin tape that separated the mandala from the public and sat with the spectators to answer questions. One onlooker mentioned to Geshe Gendun Gyatso that yoga would be taking place in the building and he informed her that even the movements of yoga would disturb the placement of the sand on the mandala and that meditation would be preferred. Thus, articulating how delicate and precise is the art of the Tibetan sand mandala.

The Ballroom Gallery was also displaying the artwork of Kathleen Staab – “Reflect and Reflexion”, who had witnessed a sand mandala by Geshe Gendon Gyatsu in Rockport and wanted to bring that experience to Marblehead.

Geshe Gendun Gyatso, is a Tibetan Monk and trained Mandala master. He is constructing a sand Mandala from August 11 through August 14 in the Ballroom Gallery. A Sand Mandala is an intricate sand painting dedicated to world peace. Layers of gem-colored sand are painstakingly placed grain by grain on a 4-foot circle, infused with prayers and meditation, to form a breathtakingly beautiful symbolic design of the universe.

Geshe Gendun Gyatso was born in Ladakh, India in 1961. In 1969, at the age of eight, he became a Buddhist Monk at Sera Je Monastic University in southern India. He studied logic and epistemology, the study of nature of knowledge. In 1982, he was fully ordained by His Holiness The Dalai Lama. He studied in the Geshe Program for twenty-five years including Tantric Study at Gyumed Tantric College in India. In 1993 he was awarded his doctorate (Geshe) degree in Buddhist Studies as a Doctor of Buddhist Philosophy. After obtaining his doctorate degree Geshe Gyatso went to England to learn and study the English language. He is now fluent in English as well as his native Tibetan language and numerous Indian dialects.

Geshe Gendun Gyatso went on to study comparative religion as a visiting scholar under the Boston University Fellowship Program for Theological Study. During his studies Geshe Gendun became an Affiliated Chaplain at Boston University and Chaplain at Harvard’s Dana Faber Cancer Institute.

Between 2002 and 2005 Geshe Gendun Gyatso taught at several dharma centers in Colorado. He founded the Healing Dharma Center in Boston in 2005, and continues teaching there today. Biographical information was attained by the Marblehead Arts Association.

For a brief movie of the creation of a Tibetian Sand Mandala… click here.

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