Since the beginning of the Tibetan diaspora in the late 1950s, ritual specialists from “the land of snows” have introduced the wider world to powerful religious practices previously little known outside of Asia. One example is the kinetic art of the Tibetan “sand” mandala (actually made with powdered minerals instead of sand). Public demonstrations have gained worldwide attention, and Vassar College is pleased to host the creation of a sand mandala in the Villard Room of Main Building, April 21-26. This event is sponsored by the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life.
The creation of a mandala often accompanies an auspicious event, such as a special teaching by the Dalai Lama or the opening of an exhibition of Buddhist art. The Vassar mandala follows this tradition, as its creation is tied to the opening of Embodying Compassion in Buddhist Art: Image, Pilgrimage, Practice, an exhibition at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, which begins April 23. The exhibition includes an example of a painted mandala that was commissioned to commemorate the Dalai Lama’s 1991 visit to the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art in Staten Island.
Tibetan Buddhist lamas of the Drikung lineage will construct the mandala in honor of the figure Avalokiteshvara, or Chenrezig (as the bodhisattva is known in Tibet), the embodiment of compassion in Buddhism and the focus of the Art Center exhibition.
The mandala makers will travel many miles from different locations to participate in this event. They include: Ven. Khenpo Choephel, spiritual director of the Three Rivers Dharma Center, Pittburgh, Pennsylvania, and originally from Drigung-til Monastery, Tibet; Lama Konchok Sonam Karushar, spiritual director of Drikung Meditation Center, Boston, Massachusetts, and originally from Katsel Monastery, Tibet; and Dr. Hun Yeow Lye, founder and spiritual director of Urban Dharma North Carolina, Asheville, North Carolina.
Karen Lucic, curator of the exhibition and professor of art at Vassar, says she had specific reasons for inviting these particular lamas to construct a mandala at the college. “I had gone to the Asia Society Galleries last year to see an important exhibition of Tibetan art and stepped into the space where these lamas were constructing a mandala; I only intended to spend a few minutes watching the process. Two hours later, I was still there,” says Lucic. This is a common experience among Western observers, who often watch the creation of mandalas with rapt attention. Lucic continues, “The lamas’ work showed incredible skill and consummate artistry. I was particularly impressed by how they gracefully shifted positions without having to consult with one another, and how they graciously responded to questions, yet never showing a break in concentration. To me, they beautifully displayed the open yet focused awareness that it is the result of Tibetan Buddhist practice.”
Traditionally, in Tibetan monasteries, laypersons would not see a mandala until its completion. “The fact that makers now generously make this tradition available to the general public is one instance of the way Tibetan Buddhism has adapted to and enriched its host countries,” Lucic points out.
The college’s Office of Religious and Spiritual Life (RSL) sees this event as a unique opportunity for both the campus and the greater Hudson Valley community to witness a special Buddhist practice. “When I heard about the Embodying Compassion exhibit that Karen Lucic was preparing, I knew my colleagues and I in Religious and Spiritual Life would want to support this remarkable project. It is a great honor—truly a blessing—to be able to host this event,” says Rev. Samuel Speers, director of the RSL Office and assistant dean for Campus Life and Diversity. “The lamas’ visit is part of my office’s initiative to make vibrant, challenging spiritual practices available to students and the wider Vassar community. When so much is in turmoil around the globe and close to home, it is an opportune moment to welcome the wonder of this prayerful practice for bringing harmony and peace into the world.”
The mandala-making will be available for daily viewing Tuesday-Sunday, April 21-26, 10:00am-12:00pm and 1:00-5:00pm daily in the Villard Room of Main Building. Dr. Hun Yeow Lye will give an informal illustrated talk, “Mandalas—Circles of Awakening: The Meaning, Uses, and History of Mandalas in Buddhism,” on Tuesday, April 21, 5:00pm. Details are below.
A dissolution ceremony will take place on April 26 at 1:00pm. After working on the mandalas for days, the lamas brush them away upon completion. Carried in a colorful procession, the dismantled materials of the mandala are then poured into a body of water that flows to the sea. “Tibetan Buddhists believe that those fortunate enough to view the mandala gain enormous benefits, and the scattered materials extend those blessings throughout the universe,” Lucic explains.
Tuesday, April 21 – Sunday, April 26; 10am-1:00pm and 2:00-5:00pm (Note: The dissolution ceremony will begin at 1:00pm on the 26th—see below.)
Main Building, Villard Room
Tuesday, April 21, 5:00pm
Dr. Hun Yeow Lye, “Mandalas—Circles of Awakening: The Meaning, Uses, and History of Mandalas in Buddhism”
Main Building, Villard Room
Dr. Lye holds a PhD in religious studies from the University of Virginia. His presentation will illuminate the process of mandala-making and will also provide details about the history of mandalas.
Sunday, April 26, 1:00pm
Main Building Villard Room
Video: Dr. Hun Yeow Lye speaks at Hendrix College about the history and symbolism of sand mandalas. Click here to watch.
Vassar College strives to make its events, performances, and facilities accessible to all. Individuals with disabilities requiring special accommodations must contact the Office of Campus Activities at least 48 hours in advance of an event, Mondays-Fridays, at (845) 437-5370. Without sufficient notice, appropriate space/and or assistance may not be available. For detailed information about accessibility to specific campus facilities, search for “campus accessibility information” on the Vassar homepage (http://www.vassar.edu).
Directions to the Vassar campus, located at 124 Raymond Avenue in Poughkeepsie, NY, are available at www.vassar.edu/directions.
Vassar College is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential liberal arts college founded in 1861.