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SMC students experience Mandala at Chapman Cultural Center

On Wednesday, October 2nd, Spartanburg Methodist College students left their desks and classrooms and traveled to the Chapman Cultural Arts Center in downtown Spartanburg to experience a once in a lifetime opportunity of watching and interacting with exiled Tibetan monks as they created a mandala.

Dr. Mark Gibbs, Chairperson of the Humanities Division and Professor of Religion and Philosophy, and Dr. Bethany Perkins, Professor of English, treated their respective Religion 103 and English 101 learning community classes with this educational opportunity.

The monks, of Drepung Loseling Monastery in Atlanta, visited Spartanburg and providing a transformative experience as they create a unique mandala sand painting in the Jennifer Evins lobby of the Chapman Theatre as part of the Mystical Arts of Tibet tour.  Originally established near Lhasa, Tibet, in 1416 and re-established in India after the monks were forced to flee Tibet in 1959, the North American seat of the monastery was established in Atlanta in 1990.  The tours, endorsed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, contribute to world peace and healing through sacred art, generate awareness of the endangered Tibetan culture and raise money for the Tibetan refugee community in India.

Sand mandalas are constructed in a pain-staking method of Tantric Buddhist tradition, utilizing a metal funnel called a chakpur to make large circular designs.  Keeping in the Tantric Buddhist tradition, the process of creating a dul-tson-kyil-khor (mandala of colored powders) is used as a tool of re-consecrating the earth and its inhabitants. The experience is highly artistic and spiritual for both the monks and spectators. Creating, watching, or simply looking and thinking about the mandala serves as a meditative process.

Mandalas are symbolic representations of the cosmos (sometimes called “cosmograms”).  Over the course of 30 hours, the monks will draw out the initial design, then “paint” the mandala with millions of tiny grains.  In general, mandalas are created to alleviate suffering.  More specifically, they are created for the healing of all living things and the environment.

The mandala being created in Spartanburg symbolizes the need for compassion in our present age and is devoted to Chenrezig (also known as Avalokiteshvara) who is the Buddhist Bodhisattva of Compassion.  The designs within the mandala are ancient spiritual symbols.  The mandala is a formal geometric pattern showing the “floor plan” of a sacred mansion – a Buddha’s celestial palace – populated with enlightened beings; sort of an architectural drawing from a bird’s eye view.

Monks create and then dismantle mandalas in order to demonstrate the Buddhist teaching about the nature of impermanence.  Buddhists emphasize that human attachment to permanence and our avoidance of change inevitably lead to suffering.  Thus the destruction of the mandala becomes an object lesson in the Buddhist teaching, prompting observers to notice their own responses and question their relationship to material things, to beauty, and to change.

SMC freshman April Stratton summed up the day by saying “the mandalas were exquisite and beautiful.  It was amazing to see how the monks placed the sand to create symbols from their culture.  I am grateful to have gotten this experience.”