Tibetan monks create mandala to honor Dalai Lama’s visit

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Tibetan Buddhist monks chanted at the Morial Convention Center on Tuesday in an event to highlight the Dalai Lama's visit to the city this week. The monks are constructing a sand mandala, or picture, in advance of his visit.
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Tibetan Buddhist monks chanted at the Morial Convention Center on Tuesday in an event to highlight the Dalai Lama's visit to the city this week. The monks are constructing a sand mandala, or picture, in advance of his visit.

The soul-penetrating chants of Tibetan monks reverberated through Hall G of the Ernest Morial Convention Center on Tuesday in preparation for the sand mandala being created in honor of the Dalai Lama’s first visit to New Orleans.

Open for public viewing, the sand mandala is an elaborate Buddhist art form painstakingly constructed over a period of days or weeks using colored sand and poured a few grains at a time.

On Friday, the mandala will be swept away and carried by ceremonial procession to the Mississippi River. The current will bring the blessings of peace and compassion imbued in each granule into the Gulf of Mexico and then into the world’s oceans, said Ronald Marks, dean of the Tulane University School of Social Work, the host of the Dalai Lama’s historic visit.

A crowd of close to 100 spectators gathered around the mandala and chanting monks, some sitting in meditative position, some with eyes closed and others holding phones in the air to capture the opening ceremony digitally.

The mandala is created in a state of intense mediation and precise artistry over the four-day period, but Gael Thompson, outreach coordinator for the Dalai Lama’s visit, said she found particular beauty in its taking apart.

“As Westerners we are so attached to outcomes and finished products. In this practice, it’s an example of how impermanence is present in life all the time,” Thompson said.

Marks called the process of the making of the sand mandala a “road map to enlightenment.”

The 16 monks building the mandala in the Convention Center are originally from the Drepung Loseling Monastery in India but are living in Georgia.

The crushed white marble granules that are colored with natural dyes were brought by the monks from India.

Ngawang Khenrab, spokesman for the monks, said that in part, the purpose of the mandala is for meditation and visualization. Khenrab talked about meditation as a mind-training practice with scientific results that have shown benefits including reducing stress and boosting the immune system.

“It is for everybody, whatever their religious background,” Khenrab said.

There are many types of mandalas, Khenrab said, and the one at the Convention Center is intended to invoke the presence of the Buddha of Compassion, Avalokiteshvara, and to request his blessing for healing, peace and harmony.

The Dalai Lama, who will be at the Convention Center on Friday, is considered to be the reincarnation of Avalokiteshvara.

As the chanting was brought a close with the playing of horns, drums and symbols, four of the monks began drawing out the design for the mandala, a process that took several hours, before beginning to pour the colored sand onto the surface.

The geometric design is made with meticulous precision using a protractor and compass.

Watching quietly, Hillary Albins said she attended the event out of curiosity, and because she was dealing with some things her life for which she hoped the monks and mandala might “provide some insight and compassion.”

A jewelry maker, Albins said she was also interested in the ancient designs and geometric shapes used in the artwork.

Upon hearing that the Dalai Lama was visiting the city in which she was born and raised, Albins said she was very excited. “It made me feel like somebody of significance was being thoughtful and turning toward the town that it feels like the governmental structures abandoned.”

Albins said she still had anger following what she said she refused to call Hurricane Katrina, calling it “the federal flood” instead, and felt many painful issues had been swept under the rug.

The Dalai Lama’s visit “is someone saying: We need to heal. That means a lot. It’s what I was waiting for,” Albins said.

On her way down the escalator from a walk through the room designated as the Tibetan Cultural Center, Marie Schmitt carried a newly purchased “Free Tibet” bumper sticker and string of Tibetan prayer flags.

Schmitt said she would stop by every day to watch the creation of the mandala. “It brings me calmness and inner peace,” she said.

The sand mandala will be open to public viewing inside Hall G of the Convention Center from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday and from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday. On Friday it will be available for viewing from 9 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., when the closing ceremony will include the procession to the river.