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Buddhist Monks Sharing Culture At Sacramento State

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

Tibetan Buddhist monks are visiting Sacramento State University this week. They’re sharing a colorful part of their culture with students on the campus. And tonight they’ll also share their sacred music.

Inside an art gallery at the university’s library, five Buddhist monks stand side-by-side. They’re wearing bright orange robes and yellow hats.

“Good morning everybody. We are going to build the sand mandala.”

The sand mandala, or sand painting, is a sacred art form created by the monks over a five-day period. Before they build, they chant.

“My name is Geshe Gyaltsem. My monastery is based in south India. (I’m) originally from Tibet. Before we make the mandala we bless the place, also we’re praying for world peace.”

Gyaltsem explains that the mandala they’re about to create, using a vivid palette of sands, is for universal compassion.

“They are different colors, different flowers, different symbols.”

The monks start out by scooping red, blue, and yellow dye-colored sands into small cones. Then they scrape the cones with metal sticks.

Scraping the cones is how they gently move the grains of sand into intricate patterns. Gyaltstem says it’s hard work that requires many years of practice at their monastery in southern India where they live with 1,400 other monks.

“We live together, we study together, we meditate together. But all the monks cannot do this mandala.”

“The mandala’s beautiful - and tapping six hours a day, that’s very impressive. They have to have very steady hands. And they are doing a meditation at the same time they are doing the works.”

That’s Pat Chirapravati. She’s a professor of art history at Sacramento State and vice director of the Asian Studies Program.

“In the Buddhist tradition, life is only a grain of sand. So think how big the ocean is and we as human beings, we’re just little pieces of sand in the ocean. It teaches you how to be unattached, teaching about un-attachment.”

And Chirapravati says by detaching from our desires for things, people and concepts we attain a heightened perspective.

Chirapravati says the monks typically visit larger universities. But she says one reason they decided to come to Sacramento State is because 20 percent of the school’s student population is of Southeast Asian descent: Hmong, Mien, Laotian [LAH-ocean], Cambodian, and Vietnamese. Chirapravati says the new generation of students in the school’s Asian Studies Program is mostly Asian women.

“When I started seven years ago, the majority were Caucasian students, male students who were thinking of Asia as an exotic place. They wanted to learn about it. Now it’s the Asian students who want to understand about their cultural heritage, history. They want to find their own identity.”

One of those students is Pao Vang. This is her third-year at Sacramento State. She’s majoring in Asian Studies. Vang is watching intently as the monks work the sand.

“I think it’s interesting. All those different sand colors, they pour on top of the mandala. And they do bit by bit. I think the bit by bit brings them enlightenment.”

And that enlightenment, says Buddhist monk Geshe Gyaltsem, is intended to be spread.

“I can share with the young generations because the university has teenage students learning new knowledge and (have new) experiences and very good cultural exchange.”

The sand mandala should be finished by Friday. On Saturday, Gyaltsem and the other monks will disassemble it. They’ll put some of the sand into small bags and give them to people. The rest will be poured into the American River near campus during a dissolution ceremony.

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