ONE OF Savannah’s most eagerly anticipated events is here, as the Tibetan monks of the Drepung Loseling Monastery in Atlanta visit the Jepson Center for a week-long residency.
As usual, the focal point of their visit —literally—is their painstaking public creation of a beautiful, one-of-a-kind sand mandala, built in the Jepson Atrium.
Only to ceremonially pour it into the Savannah River right after they’re done, in a public march to the waterfront from the museum.
We spoke to the delightful and inspiring Geshe Ngawang Phende of the Monastery in advance of their visit.
- Photo by Geoff L. Johnson
How much of the mandalas are planned and how much is spontaneous?
Geshe Phende: The design of the mandalas is all in textbooks. Some of them written more than 2500 years ago in India. The mandala practice is one of highest of our practices.
In the textbooks we have everything about the geometries, how big, the colors, the objects, everything is according to the text. We have to follow the textbooks.
How do you decide which monk does what?
Each individual has talents. For example, with the flower designs in the mandala. Some people are very good artists and do more beautiful work, some not that much.
But the lotus has to be a lotus. There is also a tradition where you make the mandala 3D, in wood.
During mandala building always the artist has to keep intention in mind. And the main intention is altruism. Seeking benefit for all sentient beings.
The main practice after we finish the mandala is to visualize. We are meditating, offering blessings, requesting blessings for this region and for Savannah.
The design we are working on is called Unshakable Victor. The focus is stable peace. We want to build the mandala to instill in each individual’s mind to become very stable, very calm and stable. It’s mainly a blessing to make a stable community.
Do monks need special training before being allowed to work on the mandala?
Of course there is much training. First, monks have to memorize the entire textbook. After that we teach training measurements, from east to west north to south. How big, how small, all the geometry.
The geometry is quite complicated. One inch wrong, and the whole mandala is wrong. We first use white chalk to mark it all out. That first geometry is very crucial.
Then monks need to learn about drawing. There are many objects in the mandala, and you have to learn how to draw them. When you are able to draw first with pencil and then with pen, then we give you sand and tools to learn how to make these things.
We also teach colors, and especially how to mix the sand into colors. It takes several months to learn how to mix colors.
- Photo by Geoff L. Johnson
Is there anything special in particular about the sand itself?
For the sand we use marblestone, crushed marble. Maybe in ancient times they used ordinary sand, but these days for mandalas we use marble.
You have to be very careful because there is very tiny powder to get out. And the sand must be a specific size – if it’s too tiny then it’s like dust. It can fly off and damage other colors. So we put the sand into water and take the dust out. The monks must learn how to process all these things.
The mandala is all beginning from the center. Then getting bigger, bigger, bigger. Each area has a flower or other auspicious objects.
Now we have to learn the meaning of these objects. That’s when the mandala becomes very involved with the philosophy of what they represent, their symbolism. What meditations are needed, what’s the purpose of this.
When finish the mandala you meditate, the real actual practice. Without knowing all the symbolism it’s hard to practice. Without knowing, then the mandala is just like art. But when you know everything it’s not just art. There’s a meaning behind everything.
When you’re meditating do you think, ‘These are dangerous times today,’ or is the message pretty much the same no matter what’s going on in the world?
Mainly the same message of course. That trouble in life is not caused by external problems or by how good or bad something outside yourself may be.
When we say I’m suffering, I’m happy, when we talk about suffering and happiness, those things are each individual’s experience. It’s in their mind that they experience suffering or happiness or anything in between.
You can have a person living a perfect life who has everything and everything goes their way. But they are always angry, greedy, selfish, with negative emotion.
These people always remain unhappy! It doesn’t matter how beautiful their life is.
If a person knows what is in their mind they remain very positive. No anger, no attachment. Living without mental afflictions leads to a happy, enjoyable, precious life. Suffering in life is natural. What’s important is focusing your mind on the positive.
Some external problems we can’t solve. If you’re stuck in traffic there’s nothing you can do! In the course of being stuck in traffic you feel angry or depressed. But those feelings aren’t from traffic. The main cause of inner pain is created by anger or attachment.
The dog in the backseat is not feeling stressed—the dog is feeling excited and enjoying it! You’re both caught in the same traffic, but they’re not experiencing it the same way.
When people feel hopeless that’s one of the most dangerous emotions. Hopelessness makes you very weak. When you feel weak, everything is difficult to fix. To fix any problem you need internal strength.
Every problem you engage is curable. You have full power to change your mind, not rely on other people, on your family, on your business.
Every difficult emotion, you can change it. So that you always have courage.
I think when Americans hear you say attachment is bad, we don’t understand. We are raised to think emotional attachments are positive.
Ah yes! That’s because people often don’t distinguish attachment from love. We say don’t be attached, but be love.
Attachment creates a selfish mind. My children, my family, my friend, my business. Everything comes out of me-me-me. The fundamental cause of attachment is selfishness. It creates greed and anger and stress. Every human problem comes from attachment.
But love is unconditional. It doesn’t come from self-centeredness. I love this person, I just want them to be happy. They want happiness, so I wish them to be happy. With a person not seeking their own benefit it’s much easier to tolerate and forgive. To make connection with others.
Attachment is always changing and unstable. If you get a benefit from that thing or person you’re attached to, you stay attached. If you don’t get a benefit, you feel anger.
If you have a beautiful car and somebody scratches it, you might feel very angry. How much anger will be based on how attached you are. Strong attachment, you feel very angry. Little attachment, you feel little anger. But it’s the same scratch.
That brings us to the question: After working so hard on the mandala, why do you destroy it right after it’s done?
Yes, there are many reasons, but the main symbolism is to get rid of attachment.
When we see things that look very beautiful, we feel attachment. When we feel attached to an object, our mind is stuck to that object. You lose your freedom. And when you combine permanence with the beautiful, then we really become attached.
So with the mandala, we work very hard to create a beautiful thing, and then in one minute we destroy it. It shows no matter how beautiful things might be, all of them are impermanent. That’s why we teach the impermanence of reality. Everything is changeable. Everything will end.
The other part is that every grain of sand is put down with very positive altruistic intention. Each grain of sand has lots of good energy. We bless it. So we give to other people, we share our energy. The bigger our energy the more we shape our environment.
We pour the sand into the river, because the river joins into the ocean. And the whole world people live in is surrounded by the ocean. We send our good healing energy into the ocean to go all over the world. Even to the living beings in the ocean, to bless those creatures as well.
In the Buddhist faith there are invisible beings, spirits. Water spirits, wind spirits. We send our energy and love into the river to share that energy.