On the path to enlightenment, a brontosaurus and the Buddha of Compassion certainly seem like strange bedfellows. But not even the looming sauropods in the Great Hall of the Peabody Museum could discourage a few exiled Tibetan monks from their work to relieve the world of suffering — one grain of sand at a time.
In a case of Jurassic meets monastic, the Peabody Museum of Natural History is playing host to three Tibetan monks from the Dalai Lama’s Namygal Monastery through Saturday while they practice the Buddhist ritual of the creation and dissolution of a sand mandala. Their second stop during a two-month tour of America, their stay at the Peabody is a mix of the old and the old — eastern religious tradition competing with the paleolithic — but visitors’ audible excitement demonstrated that there was something quite new about the group of monks delicately placing colored sand in intricate patterns.
Meaning “circle” in Sanskrit, a mandala is a kind of symbolic map or plan that represents the cosmos. David Heisor, the head of education and outreach at the Peabody Museum, explained that the sand mandala is not merely an object but also a kind of meditation itself.
“In the center of this mandala today is the Buddha of Compassion, Chenrezig,” he said. “The monks create this beautiful piece of art and spirituality with sand, but they’re visualizing something much deeper than what is simply on the table. They say that every grain of sand itself is infused with the Buddha of Compassion.”
Tenzin Choegyal, a traditional Tibetan musician who helped organize the journey, also emphasizes the spiritual importance of the sand mandala.
“Tibetans believe that every being has the seed to become a Buddha,” he said, “but because of our ignorance we often forget this. The sand mandala helps to visualize the Buddha of Compassion, and in this visualization you, in effect, can become the Buddha of Compassion.”
When the mandala is completed, the final step of the ritual is to sweep the sand away into a body of water, signifying the impermanence of life. Bruce Blair, the Buddhist chaplain at Yale, explained that the sand mandala is a device that teaches us how to live our lives despite our knowledge of change.
“They spend so much time building this beautiful, precious mandala, but it’s not as though they are not aware that they are going to throw it into the river,” Blair said. “It really illustrates our situation as human beings. We have an opportunity to completely give ourselves to our lives although we know that in the end we’ll die, we’ll be thrown into the river.”
Despite the apparent solemnity of the ritual and the severity of the monks’ red and orange robes, the event itself also fostered a more family-friendly, educational environment. The metal rails in the Great Hall had been decorated with festively embroidered sheets, and stepping stools were provided to help the kids see. The monks with a better command of English even fielded visitors’ questions.
“We make the sand ourselves,” said Tenzin Samten, one of the monks, in response to a question regarding the technical processes of making the mandala. “We grind the rock ourselves and then add the dyes.”
It’s this very casual attitude that most surprised people about the event.
“I was most surprised by their modernity,” Catherine Kastleman ’10 said. “During one of their breaks the monks were sipping on Starbucks coffee and talking about plans to go for a swim. It was interesting to see that they were just people, too.”
The Compassionate Mandala will be on display until Sept. 29 at the Peabody Museum located at 170 Whitney Ave. A sand mandala workshop will be offered on Saturday at 12:15 p.m., and the dissolution ceremony will take place at 3:00 that afternoon.