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Tibetan Buddhist monks create mandala

Ann Marie Jakubowski | Tuesday, November 19, 2013

A group of Tibetan Buddhist monks will spend the week in Jordan Hall of Science constructing a peace sand mandala, a sacred part of ancient Buddhist tradition.

Arjia Rinpoche, director of the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center in Bloomington, Ind., will spend time in communion with and seven monks from Labrang Tashi Kyil Monastery in Dehra Dun, India while they complete the mandala. They will be in the Reading Room of Jordan constructing the mandala from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday.

Dominic Vachon, director of the Hillebrand Center, said he hopes the monks and their faith will help people to maintain compassion while encountering suffering and difficulty.

“While Arjia Rinpoche and the monks will not be talking directly about medicine, I believe that their intense practice and study of compassion will spark each of us to consider our own personal practices of cultivating compassion in all our helping work,” he said. “Even though the focus of the Hillebrand Center is on the science of compassionate care in medicine, we also study and reflect on the ways our religious traditions, spiritualities and philosophies of caring help sustain anyone involved in helping work.”

The event at Notre Dame marks the end of the monks’ seven-month tour around the United States, a trip aimed at raising awareness of their culture and money for their monastery. Vachon said the goal of this week’s event is not conversion but rather to catalyze people’s thought processes on compassion.

“We want all people to think about ‘how am I compassionate’ and ‘how can I be more compassionate, how is my religion making me more compassionate?'” he said. “Notre Dame is very committed to the mission of connecting with other faiths internationally, and I think it enriches all of our religious lives when we interact with other religions. My own Catholicism is deepened by learning from [Buddhism].”

Tenpa Phuntsok, one of the monks in the group, said the main goals from their point of view are to preserve their culture, to raise funds for the monastery and to share what they’ve learned from the mandala-building process.

“The word ‘mandala’ means ‘circle’ in the Sanskrit language, which means harmony,” he said. “We are making a mandala for the people here so they can understand what it is and what it means.”

The Notre Dame iteration is a peace sand mandala, which is a specific type with its own design and colors, Phuntsok said. His faith holds that all phenomena are interdependent, and he said he believes medicine and healing depend very much on the ideas within this particular mandala.

In a closing ceremony at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, the art will be dismantled and a portion of the sand will be given to guests. Phuntsok said some of the sand will also be released into a river, according to their faith tradition.

“It takes a lot of time and effort to create that beautiful mandala, so when we’re done we’ll dismantle it and put it into a river with many things in it, like fish,” he said. “The mandala has been blessed and so we bless the river by putting the sand into it so the fish can be blessed and be reborn like human beings.”

More broadly, deconstructing the mandala helps convey a message about the impermanence of the material world, he said.

“We dismantle the mandala because of the impermanence of nature, but not to scare people about life being impermanent,” Phuntsok said. “We do it to understand the natural law and to appreciate that law and our own impermanence, not to ignore it but to understand that all life is born and aging and ending.

“This sand mandala is very beautiful art, but you have to dismantle and destroy it because everything is impermanent.”

Phuntsok said his family is Tibetan in origin but he is one of about 120 monks in the monastery in India.

“Some of the older monks are from Tibet and many of the young ones are from India,” he said. “Some are orphans, some are poor. We come here to raise funds.”

Notre Dame’s Ruth M. Hillebrand Center for Compassionate Care in Medicine, the College of Science and Harper Cancer Research Institute have partnered to sponsor the group, with collaboration also from the Department of Art, Art History and Design; the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies; the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Stories; the Office of Information Technologies and the Snite Museum of Art.

Vachon said the different sponsors of the event each have different reasons for becoming involved, but the enthusiasm at Notre Dame has been “amazing and wonderfully supportive.”

“Arjia Rinpoche is not at the monastery, but he is a very respected Buddhist teacher in Bloomington,” Vachon said. “The Harper Cancer Research Institute was interested because he’s raising money in Bloomington for a children’s cancer hospital in Mongolia, and they want to develop a relationship with that hospital.”

The Department of Art, Art History and Design became involved based on their interest in the 1,000-year-old art, as did the Snite Museum of Art, he said. The Kroc and Notre Dame Institutes participated because of the event’s cultural exchange value, and the College of Science because of their interest in promoting appreciation for worldwide diversity.

The monks will speak Wednesday night at 7 p.m. in 102 DeBartolo Hall on “The Power and Practice of Compassion: Taking in Harshness and Giving Out Kindness.” The construction of the mandala is being filmed and streamed live by OIT via the College of Science website.

Contact Ann Marie Jakubowski at ajakubo1@nd.edu