Tibetan monks make Sutter stop on world peace tour

From the Sera Mahayana Monastery to Sutter street: Monk mandala-ing

Five Tibetan monks from Sera Mahayana Monastery in Southern India crouch on the floor of the Don Soker Gallery on Sutter Street, scraping sand out of brass cones with sheep’s horn tools.

Their orange and wine-colored robes match the brightly-colored sand – tangerine and yellow and bits of royal blue – slowly filling in sections of a large, ornate mandala. They have been working on the sand drawing since their morning prayers, and they will continue to work on it all week.

On Saturday, the millions of sand particles will be swept away into the water. Impermanence is the point, one of the monks told me.

The monks are on a world peace tour. They will build sand mandalas across the United States, working west to east, throughout the summer. Any money raised through donations or the sale of photographs and amulets will directly fund their 5,000 member monastery. 

On the to-do list? Well first, streetlights. The monastery is trying to light the dark road that leads to their campus, but purchases lights one-at-a-time. So far, they’ve installed 40 lights, but the road is long, and will require many more. Next, there’s paving the road itself.

Artist Topher Delaney teamed up with Tsering Wangmo, a second-generation exhile Tibetan based in San Francisco, to brink the monks to the Don Soker Gallery, where Delaney’s current show, “The Queen’s Croquet Ground” is installed.  The mandala is five feet across and rests on the gallery’s floor, visible from the street and to the passersby who stop to peek in the window.

The monks document their spiritual undertaking. Photo by Emily Appelbaum

“Mandala” is a Sanskrit word that refers to the residence of various deities and their retinues. It's a spiritual map. A sand mandala is a two-dimensional cartography of this divine mansion – a microcosmic diagram of a universe in harmony. 

Every morning, before the monks start building the colored sand's delicate layers, they begin with a prayer and a chorus of traditional Tibetan instruments. Then, they work, arranging themselves barefoot on pillows, and using more pillows under their forearms as bolsters.

They rotate, one or two or three working at a time, while the others speak with visitors or sit together on a bench, occasionally snapping a cell phone photo as the work proceeds. All have closely cropped hair, soft voices, and dimples when they smile.

Their days here are quite a change from those at the monastery, where they would start at  five in the morning with butter tea – a strong black tea mixed with salt, milk, and yak butter, and whipped up in a special churn – and can last until midnight. 

One thing that doesn’t change, though, are the musical prayer sessions, which take place here to separate the work on different layers on the mandala, and back home separate sessions of debate over Buddhist teachings. 

For more information, see Delaney’s website, or the Sera monk’s world peace tour website

Or, you know, check them out on Facebook.



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