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In Healing and In Solidarity, Tibetan Buddhist Monks Extend Their Guidance

Geshe Gyntso, A Tibetan Buddhist master and teacher, sits behind a small altar of ceremonial objects. It is Monday afternoon, the last of a five-day-long event. He pours liquid from a bumpa vase adorned with peacock feathers. Seven monks chant, crash symbols, and play two wind instruments on either side of a mandala that spans five feet by five feet. They are preparing to dismantle the mandala as a representation of impermanence. The mandala is comprised entirely of colored sand. The monks created the masterpiece grain by grain.

            At the center of the mandala is a white lotus, symbolizing His Holiness the Dali Lama. Like a lotus flower in the physical world, emerging from the mud with pristine petals, the image symbolizes the mind of enlightened beings, free of the three poisons: desire, hatred, and ignorance. 

            The mandala required four days to complete. The process involved the monks’ collective effort. On the first day, Thursday, each of the monks drew out the foundation of the mandala form in turns, using a marker attached to a compass. As the circle expanded outward, the effort required that four monks draw within their range and then pass the pen to another’s hands, then taking hold to stabilize the focal point of the compass. As they worked, there radiated a great amount of patient, focused energy and a quiet compassion.

            These eight Tibetan Buddhist monks are on tour across the Eastern U.S. from the Drepung Monastery in South India. They came to Rochester with four objectives:

            • To share Tibetan Buddhist teachings,

            • To build solidarity,

            • To raise awareness of Tibetans’ struggles under occupation by the Chinese                         government,           

            • To fundraise for 2,000 Tibetan refugee monks for food, medicine, and                                     educational facilities. 

            While some of the monks worked on the mandala, others held meditations, chants, discussions about various principles of Tibetan Buddhism, and demonstrations on how to use the chak-purs. Chak-purs are hollow metal funnels with ribbed edges used to ‘paint’ the sand mandala. One chak-pur is filled with sand while the other acts as an agitator. One can also use a metal rod. The vibrations of the rubbing friction cause the sand to move as a powder ink. The practice is straining, quietly arduous. One participant, Annalisa, says that she found the chak-pur practice relaxing. “It was a new experience in learning patience,” she says. “Once I used my mind and tried to focus the energy to my hand… I found it much easier to control the sand that was coming out of it.” 

            Joe Bahamonde is a first timer at the center. For him, the experience during meditations has allowed him time to step outside of his self while observing his mind. “I am looking to find an inner-peace that I haven’t had for some time,” he says. Rita McNulty has come back to the center after a hiatus. She says, “the images that I’ve received during meditation [have been a gift]… I’m usually in physical pain and I’ve not been in any pain this weekend so I’m forever grateful for that.”

            Tanpa is one of the younger monks at twenty-five years old. He was born in the Eastern region of Tibet, but moved to the capital in Central Tibet when he was thirteen to study at the monastery. When he was seventeen he went into exile. He and 21 others including two five-year-old children, made the journey on foot through Himalayas, through Nepal, and into India. The journey just to get to the Himalayas was 500 miles, and for two days they had no food. Tanpa says that he will never forget it, that it motivates him to be a good monk. 

            Tibet has been under occupation by the Chinese government since 1949. In 1959, after a brutal suppression of national uprisings in Tibet by the Chinese military the Dali Lama and 80,000 Tibetans fled in exile. In the past five years approximately 130 Tibetans have self-immolated in protest of the injustice of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Dawa, the monks’ translator and driver, explains that, “Freedom of movement is severely curtailed, you need permission from Chinese police to travel from one city to another, [and there are] thousands of undercover spies everywhere Tibetans gather. [People face] imprisonment for having photos of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.” 

            Monday afternoon, the clouds are thick and heavy, a mark of autumn in Rochester. Inside Creative Wellness Opportunities of the Mental Health Association, the Geshe walks clockwise circles around the sand mandala before methodically taking a vajra, or dorje in Tibetan, which is a ritual object that symbolizes indestructibility and irresistible force (the properties of a diamond and a thunderbolt respectively) to the sand. He draws into the image up to the center, to the lotus. He continues in this fashion eight times total. Thereafter two of the monks, Tanpa included, sweep half of the sand into an urn to be wrapped in a silk cloth and poured into the Genesee River and left the other half for the audience as an offering of healing.


(This article was commissioned by Creative Wellness Opportunities at the Mental Health Association in Rochester, NY. It was featured in their November 2014 Newsletter.)

© 2014 Mutual Aid Film