COLUMBIA — On Monday afternoon, three Tibetan Buddhist monks in saffron robes were hunched over a table on the second floor of MU's Ellis Library.
They were creating a pattern of intricate shapes and symbols called a mandala out of colored sand.
A painstaking process, this particular mandala takes about 24 hours to complete. Less than an hour after it's finished, the monks will destroy the work in a sacred ceremony.
The monks came to Columbia on Monday as part of their global effort to share Tibetan art and promote universal peace, friendship and diversity. While here, they are building the mandala and will perform sacred songs and dances Thursday night.
The sand painting and the performance are components of their Mystical Arts of Tibet tour. Eight monks and their English-speaking guide have been traveling and performing in the U.S., Canada and Mexico since February 2008.
The sand painting and its transient nature serve as a metaphor for constant change and the impermanence of all things, said their guide and spokesman, Thupten Tendhar.
“By understanding this impermanence, we are able to transform ourselves from negative to positive, from good to best,” he said.
The creation of a mandala is a form of meditation and spiritual practice in Tibetan Buddhism, and it generates positive energy and healing, Tendhar said. The center of the composition is a deity, surrounded by a design that represents the floor plan of a sacred palace.
The deity for this mandala is Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of compassion, which is symbolized by a lotus.
There are hundreds of types of mandalas, each one centered on a deity, and each having layers of meaning — mental, physical and spiritual.
Sam Devaram, senior chair of the Missouri Students Association/Graduate-Professional Council's International Programming Committee, organized the event and selected the deity.
“It’s more apt for a university and students,” Devaram said. “I felt compassion is more broadly applicable to everyone.”
Up to four monks work simultaneously on a sand painting, each for about two hours at a time. This group began at 1 p.m. Monday and expect to be done by noon Thursday.
They work by running a metal stick against a ridged tube called a "chak-pur." A stream of colored sand trickles out of the tube, landing precisely on an outline drawn on the table. The colors, symbols and designs for each mandala are determined by ancient Buddhist scriptures.
The completed mandala will be on display for about half an hour until the dismantling ceremony begins.
The monks will chant and meditate while one performs a ritual for the dissolution of the deity. Another monk uses a brush to sweep the sand and collect it in a vase.
They will distribute about half of the sand to the audience in small plastic bags, while the remaining sand will be dispersed into a flowing body of water – either Flat Branch Creek or the Missouri River, depending on the weather.
“The water carries it to the ocean, dissipating compassion throughout the world,” Tendhar said.
The group in Columbia is among 3,000 monks who live at the Drepung Loseling Monastery in Mundgod, a town with a settlement of Tibetan refugees near the southwest coast of India.
Most of the monks left Tibet to find a home that would let them freely practice their beliefs.
Tibet was invaded by the People’s Republic of China in the 1950s, and after a failed uprising in 1959, the 14th Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of the Tibetans, fled to India and established a government-in-exile. Tibet is now an autonomous region under Chinese rule.
Five in the group, including Tendhar, were born in Tibet and later fled to India. Three were born in India, and one is from Bhutan.
One of the monks, Geshe Wangden Tashi, decided to leave Tibet when he was 15, in order to meet the Dalai Lama and freely learn about Tibetan Buddhism.
With a group of companions, he walked for a month to Nepal, mostly traveling at night to avoid Chinese guards. They didn’t have a guide or proper food, he said through an interpreter, and the climate was harsh and the terrain dangerous. In Nepal, they were directed by local Tibetan organizations to India.
His parents were too old to make the journey, and it’s been almost impossible to communicate with them since the Chinese government can filter the letters he sends. Tendhar has a similar story, making the trip to India at age 12.
The Mystical Arts of Tibet tour was started in the late 1980s. In addition to the cultural events, it aims to raise awareness of the current situation in Tibet, and to support Tibetan refugees in India.
The monks at the monastery have been taking turns on the tour, each traveling for over a year. This group will return to India in December.
Traveling does not hinder their religious practices, which include meditation, chanting and mantra recitation.
“Every place is equally sacred,” Tendhar said. “When one is aware of the sacredness of the space, it becomes a temple.”
During the tour, they have been staying with either local families or in hotels.
Tibetan monks aren’t required to have a strict diet, and only three in the group are vegetarian. They say they have had no problems eating at the MU campus dining halls.
The tour will close with the performance at 7 p.m. Thursday in Jesse Auditorium. It will include various traditional dances, a prayer for world peace and a monastic debate.
Other events include a lecture, “Tibet Today” at 6 p.m. Wednesday in Jesse Wrench Auditorium at the Memorial Union.
Tashi, who is a geshe, equivalent to a doctorate for monks, will give an overview of the history of Tibet and explain the current social and political situation of the Tibetan people.