Perhaps you’ve seen footage of Tibetan monks creating a sand mandala, or even have had the opportunity to see the ritual in person. If you haven’t, then attend Urban Dharma’s Circles of Healing: Medicine Buddha Sand Mandala and Wellness Festival, which kicks off Thursday, Sept. 4. The celebration will include the construction of a 3-by-3-foot sand mandala, as well as lectures, presentations and classes on varying wellness and spirituality themes.
While it may be riveting to observe the monks as they lay the sand and create an intricate image, placing primary attention around the creation of the actual image is mostly a Western phenomenon, says Dr. Hun Lye, a dorjé lopön in the Drikung Kagyu tradition and spiritual director of Urban Dharma.
In traditional Tibetan societies, people don’t really show up to ogle the monks as they work. “It would be like going to a house-building site to watch house building — why? You go to the house warming!” says Lye, who founded Urban Dharma in 2010. “But, being part of the team that makes the mandala, I understand that it is really captivating from our [Western] point of view. But in the traditional sense — no, you come for the empowerment.”
Lye will be one of three spiritual leaders who will create the mandala during the festival. The construction begins Saturday morning, Sept. 6, and will last through the following Thursday, says Lye. For the first two days, the work consists only of drawing and preparing the grid for the framework that will hold the sand. He explains, “It’s not very exciting for most people. … Although, technically, it’s very interesting to see.”
Lye says that it likely will not be until Monday morning, Sept. 8, that they actually start to lay down the colorful sand that will help bring the image to life.
Urban Dharma last hosted a sand mandala construction two years ago, when marking its first anniversary. Monks built what is called the Mandala of Compassion, depicting a particular manifestation of the Buddha that embodies pure compassion.
This year, they’re raising the stakes, hoping to create a liturgy that specifically resonates with the Asheville community in a way that can yield the effects and intent that traditional mandala construction offers. “Here you have to adapt,” says Lye. “It’s not a given that people will come to the sand mandala and do intensive prayers and meditation and ritual, [as is done in Tibet], because it’s a completely different cultural context. So how do we translate that whole experience?”
The “experiment” as Lye puts it, is to offer a range of activities that reflect how this community sees itself, which will take place alongside the mandala’s construction. The festival will have two workshop “tracks” — wellness and spiritual, including 10 courses that range in topic from “Tibetan Healing for Modern Disorders” to “Uncovering the Myth Within: Mysticism, Spirituality and Desire,” led by healers and instructors from the Asheville area and beyond.
“As Buddhism or Tibetan Buddhism enters into a different culture, I feel that after an initial stage of mimicking, it needs to be rooted and assimilated into the local context,” says Lye. “Otherwise it’s always going to be, at best a curiosity, and at worst, a circus.”
Engaging the community’s attention and intention, these two workshop tracks will be serving to undergird the building of the actual mandala — further empowering it as the community invests attention, care and thought into the classes. The festival elements, as a whole, aim to comprise a unique, customized liturgy that is grounded in an ancient tradition and ritual.
You may be asking, “Why does the mandala need to be ‘empowered?’” Isn’t a sand mandala just a metaphor for impermanence? A philosophical statement? A theological symbol?
Not so, says Lye. “You don’t have to go through all of that trouble to see impermanence. Just look around. It’s a common misconception, and it gets repeated ad nauseam,” he says.
The sand mandala is a community empowerment and healing ritual far more than it is a philosophical lesson. That Westerners have characterized it as such points more to the differences between two cultures rather than any explicit intent of the sand mandala ritual itself, Lye explains.
“The reason for creating the sand mandala,” he continues, “is the sand mandala becomes, you could say, the nexus for, in this case, the Medicine Buddha to manifest in the physical space. It’s the place where the enlightened powers temporarily manifest in the physical world.”
Traditionally, all of the attention and care that the monks put into building the sand mandala is a useful investment of power and intention — the more of which is invested, the more powerfully a deity can manifest in a particular mandala. In Tibet, once a mandala is completed, the monks will do 10 days to a month of intensive meditation and prayer while people from the neighboring villages come as often as possible to receive the blessings that are building around the mandala. At the end of this period, explains Lye, “There is a big empowerment to bless everyone in the community, and then the mandala is swept up. Why? Because — mission accomplished.”
Tibetans aren’t the only ones to employ this ritual. Rituals that use sand or mineral powders to create deity-invoking images can be seen in many South Asian societies, predating Buddhism. Some families construct a specific graphic, pattern or picture in or in front of their house each morning as a way to invoke a particular deity of abundance, protection or what have you, says Lye. “It’s a folk tradition, really. … So when Buddhism picked up this means of expressing its own set of values, it [was] brought to Tibet, and the Tibetans further refined it.”
In the Circles of Healing Festival, one thing not to be missed will be the Medicine Buddha Blessing Empowerment on Friday, Sept. 12, at 7 p.m. “That’s when the enlightened powers from the 10 directions all descend into the mandala, [which is] a bird’s-eye view of the palace, the divine mansion of this Buddha,” says Lye.
Whereas some wealthier monasteries have used crushed semi-precious stones for mandala construction, the reason for using pulverized rock goes beyond just the potential to accommodate a valuable physical investment. Indeed, why not just use paint to create these mandalas? “You can see, psychologically, the more you invest in it, as everybody starts participating, you reach this climax whereby power and blessings are distributed to the whole community,” says Lye.
Not only does using sand allow for plentiful, meticulous investment from the builders and community, but it also offers a unique potential when it is dissolved — each grain of sand carries the power of the monks’ blessing, the community and the invoked deities.
“We believe that through the empowerment, every grain of sand becomes an identical copy of the mandala. So in a way, there isn’t just one sand mandala — as many grains as there were used to create it, in each one there exists a complete mandala. And so this holographic effect happens.”
In the traditional fashion, when the palace of the Medicine Buddha sand mandala is swept up at Urban Dharma at the end of the empowerment blessing, the sand will be taken down to the French Broad River, back to the water, the source of life, which will carry the blessings onward.