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At San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, monks create mandala out of millions of sand grains

Tibetan Buddhist monks from the Drepung Loseling Monastery in southern India create a sand mandala at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art.
Tibetan Buddhist monks from the Drepung Loseling Monastery in southern India create a sand mandala at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

"It’s hard to breathe near it,” onlooker Barb Thomkins said of the sand painting that six Tibetan Buddhist monks were creating before visitors to the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art.

Made of millions of tiny particles of hand-crushed and dyed river rock, such artwork could be ruined with a sneeze.

But the monks, wearing deep red robes and sneakers, worked intently and stayed calm. Each held a thin metal funnel, rasping a metal rod on its grated surface to cause tiny amounts of sand to flow out like water.

Working before a small altar featuring a picture of the Dalai Lama, one of the monks paused to wipe his face with a white cloth. Another sat aside on a break, clutching prayer beads.

Tibetan monk Ven Nawang Tenphel, speaking through an interpreter, explained that he meditates during the process, imagining he is inside the world the mandala depicts — which in this design is the palace of the Buddha of Compassion.

An informational flier distributed by the monks says of the work: “The colorfulness and harmony of the millions of sand particles in the mandala gives a powerful message that we can live in peace if each of us work in creating a little more space for others in our hearts.”

Translator Tenzin Sherab, a native Tibetan who now lives in Oregon, said the monks are traveling around the West this summer and fall to create mandalas in 16 locations, including the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco and a Google office. The monks are originally from Tibet but reside in a monastery in Mundgod, India. Monks from that city also came to San Luis Obispo in 2009.

When asked his impressions of the United States, Tenphel said he is pleased with the clean environment, and that Americans are often in a hurry.

In acceptance of the impermanence of life, the monks destroyed the artwork just after its completion Thursday in a meditative ceremony by sweeping up the brightly colored sand and distributing it to onlookers. Some was placed in San Luis Obispo Creek, which symbolizes a return of the material to its origin. It had taken 17 hours over three days to create the mandala.

See more photos of the sand painting »

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