Beginning on April 9 in the rotunda of Milwaukee City Hall, it took a handful of Tibetan monks less than a week and required millions of grains of colored sand to complete a unique work of cultural art. The piece was finished on April 12 for a few brief hours, before being deconstructed in a public and spiritual ceremony.
The group of artisans from the Drepung Loseling Monastery created the sand mandala, a bright work of art with intricate patterns painted entirely from colored sand, over four days as part of the Mystical Arts of Tibet traveling exhibition. The Milwaukee public was invited to watch the process as the monks shared a tradition that dated back 2,500 years.
The exhibition was designed to provide an opportunity for people to appreciate the sacred art, and to learn about the traditions and culture of Tantric Buddhism, one of the important branches of the Buddhist faith.
After China annexed Tibet in 1950, many monasteries and lamas – practicing Buddhist monks – established exile locations in India. Originally established at Lhasa in 1416, the Drepung Loseling Monastery was once the largest of its kind, with thousands of monk students.
The Dalai Lama, holy leader of Tibetan Buddhism, also established his headquarters in India. The diaspora that resulted increased the spread of Buddhist practice around the world, including in the United States.
A mandala is a geometric figure representing the universe in Buddhism. The form of art is called dul-tson-kyil-khor in Tibetan, which means “mandala of colored powders.” Millions of grains of sand were painstakingly poured into place on a table at City Hall, to form ancient spiritual symbols and traditional iconography.
The colored sands were dispensed from metal funnels called chak-purs. The process required each monk hold a chak-pur in one hand, while running a metal rod along its grated surface. The vibration produced allows the sands to flow out of the funnel like liquid.
During the closing ceremony on April 12, the monks consecrated the finished mandala with chants, music, and a mantra recitation. Following the Buddhist tradition, the mandala was swept away at the program’s conclusion. The intentional destruction of the artwork symbolized the core philosophy of their religion that nothing is permanent.
Some of the sand was distributed to the several hundred visitors, as blessings for personal health and well-being. Half of the sand was originally intended to be ceremonially poured into the Milwaukee River, but inclement weather prevented the observation of that tradition.
On April 13, Early Music Now hosted the monks for a performance at the Tripoli Shrine Center. “Sacred Music Sacred Dance” featured dance, chants, and music traditions from Tibet dating back centuries.