Monks add healing power of art at med school

A monk from Gaden Shartse Monastery works on a sand mandala in the atrium of the Andrew E. Lee Memorial Medicine and Science Building. (Photo by David Lias)

A monk from Gaden Shartse Monastery works on a sand mandala in the atrium of the Andrew E. Lee Memorial Medicine and Science Building. (Photo by David Lias)

By Travis Gulbrandson

The USD School of Medicine has been home to some unique visitors for the past week.

Since Monday morning, a group of six monks from Gaden Shartse Monastery have been working to create a sand mandala in the atrium of the Andrew E. Lee Memorial Medicine and Science Building.

Mandalas are a two-dimensional painting made from colored sand. The one being made now at USD represented the Buddha of Compassion.

Lobsang Wangchuk, a former monk who is acting as the Gaden Shartse members’ tour manager, explained that the painting begins at the very center with just some bare lines as a guide.

“There’ll be hundreds of details that have outer, inner and secret meaning, so it actually shows how to become enlightened if you can read the full mandala,” he said. “Every part has some specific meaning. It’s primarily a sky view, but we’ve also pulled some things in and out so you can see the full architecture of the building.”

The monks are from Gaden Shartse Monastic College, of Mundgod, India, which was founded in 1969 as an effort to re-establish the monastic Tibetan traditions.

The monks originally were going to visit a meditation center and Morningside College in Sioux City, but the school is currently under construction.

“They were looking for a new university to visit,” said Corey Knedler, chair of the USD Department of Art. “Since they work on sand mandalas, which are art-based, they called the art department, and I jumped at the chance to work with them.”

Knedler said the other departments did, as well.

Jerry Yutrzenka, associate professor of medicine, said the med school was glad to be able to lend the use of the building during the week.

“The building kind of lends itself to being (a host site) because of the atrium,” he said. “Beyond that, though, I think it’s the interaction between the science and meditative elements of healing. …

“This is just a great opportunity for us to be able to hold this in a very public space,” he said.

In addition to making the mandala, the monks also have visited 16 different classes and spoke to students on such topics as art, medicine, meditation and world peace.

“We want to transmit these teachings to the West, and hopefully they’ll be useful here,” Wangchuk said. “We never try to convert people, proselytize. Only when people ask do we answer questions. …

“We try to fit in with any particular class, what they’re studying,” he said. “We try to find a way to bring our teachings into that class so that we’re useful to them.”

USD officials said they were glad to give the students and the monks the opportunity.

“It’s great,” Knedler said Monday. “It’s going to give (students) the opportunity to mingle with other cultures, understand the Tibetan culture much more in-depth.”

It also gives the monks a chance to learn about the United States. One of them, Jamba, has been a monk for 25 years, and this is his first time in the U.S.

“It’s a very good experience,” he said. “It’s a very big cultural difference in India, Tibet and the United States, and also a big gap in food.”

Jamba was born in India, but is Tibetan. On the tour he acts as the master of the mandala, and also as interpreter.

On Monday he said he was looking forward to interacting with USD students and answering their questions.

“They usually ask about the monk’s life, how we become monks and the purpose of being a monk,” Jamba said.

Work on the mandala began Monday following a purification ritual that involved chanting and the sprinkling of water in the area where the monks would be working.

“We’re asking the permission of the local deities to build this mandala here,” Wangchuk explained when the ritual had concluded. “We believe that in ever river, mountain, tree and field there are actually local deities that watch over the environment. So, if we harm or disturb these deities’ homes, we believe that it has dramatic effects on the weather, the quality of the crops, the water, things like this.”

According to the Buddhists’ beliefs, the water that is used in the ritual is transformed into a radiant nectar that induces bliss in whomever they touch.

“Then the deities become pleased with our presence, and they allow us to build the mandala,” Wangchuk said.

The mandala will be completed today (Friday), and purposely destroyed in a closing ceremony at 3:30 p.m. in the atrium of the Lee Memorial Medicine and Science Building.

Once the mandala is destroyed, the sand will be collected, and then placed in a river to help purify the surrounding environment.

Jamba said the destruction represents impermanence.

“We believe everything is impermanent,” he said. “In the end, we leave everything behind, so building the sand mandala for five days, in the end we destroy it.”

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