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Hey, hey, we're the monks

Popular Tibetan sand mandala project returns to the Jepson Center after long hiatus

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Since the late 1990s, Savannah has welcomed the quiet, smiling presence of the Tibetan monks of the Drepung Loseling Monastery to town.

The center of activity is at the Jepson Center for the Arts, and focuses on the monks' meticulous construction and deconstruction of a large sand mandala, a symbolic work of art depicting the balance of the universe.

That's no different in 2013, as the monks come back to town after a several-year hiatus, for a week-long residency beginning Sept. 23.

Why monks, and why so much monks? Because A) mandalas are timeless; and B) those friendly guys are so darn well-liked.

"It's one of the most popular and requested programs we've ever done," says Harry DeLorme, senior curator of education for the Telfair Museums, which owns and operates the Jepson Center. "People always ask about it. The monks seem to connect with people on a number of levels."

It goes like this: During the residency, you can come into the atrium of the Jepson Center and watch the monks build the mandala, sand grain by sand grain.

Then on Sept. 29, you can be part of a procession to the Savannah River, where the monks celebrate the transience of all things — the Buddhist ideal of attaining happiness through detachment — by literally dumping the mandala into the water.

Saying you don't have to be a Buddhist or even particularly religious to appreciate the monks, DeLorme muses:

"There are the aesthetics of the chanting and ceremonies, and then there's the appeal of the mandala itself as a visual art. Then there's the whole symbolic and spiritual dimension that other people respond to," he says.

"I think maybe there's a spiritual hunger out there that's needs to be fulfilled. People are looking for a transcendent experience."

As far as the Telfair is concerned, the reason to bring in the monks — with the financial sponsorship of the City of Savannah — is for their cultural impact.

"We're an art museum, so we present it as a cultural form," DeLorme says. "But it has all these different dimensions. Also there's the whole study of Tibetan Buddhism and meditation. Then there's the science and health dimension of Buddhist practice."

The close link between the Telfair and the monks began several years ago. The Drepung Loseling offices are in Atlanta — "The Dalai Lama has visited there and has an office there," says DeLorme — and they have a presence at Emory University.

"It's been something of an organic development," DeLorme says of the museum's relationship with the monastery. "The Telfair wasn't responsible for bringing them the first couple of times. Since we opened the Jepson in 2006, we applied to bring them here with the sponsorship of the City of Savannah."

It might seem odd that a deep South city would be so welcoming — indeed, anticipatory — about the visit of a relatively obscure group of Asian monks, many of whom don't even speak English. But maybe that's just another of those things that sets Savannah apart.

"In my experience, any time the museum has brought in a performance or exhibition that is focusing on a culture outside of our own, or outside the South's, we've had a lot of interest," says DeLorme. "It seems to be a trend over the years."

Just last month the Jepson saw huge crowds come out for its "Near East Family Day," featuring live Middle Eastern music and activities surrounding the new "Allures of the Near East" exhibit.

"There's a real curiosity here," DeLorme concludes. "People are open to experiencing the art of cultures removed from us."

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