Mandala ceremony, yaks draw curious crowds to WCMA

On Saturday afternoon the Williams College Art Museum (WCMA) provided the backdrop for an unusual cast of characters: Vacant-eyed yaks, sagacious monks, schoolchildren perched on enormous sculptures and even wide-eyed adults attracted by scene’s anachronisms.

The procession was, in fact, part of a Tibetan sand dispersal ceremony, the culmination of a three week event hosted by the WCMA titled “The Sacred Art of Tibet: Making a Mandala.” From April 15 to May 3, two Tibetan monks worked in the museum rotunda to create a sacred representation of the residency of the Medicine Buddha in the form of a mandala, which in Sanskrit means “circle.” The mandala is a sacred diagram that symbolizes the universe in its purest form, as seen from the point of view of the deity upon which one is meditating. In the Tibetan tradition, the mandala brings peace, well-being and wholeness to all who see it, and (the point at which even the most dedicated artists balk), it is created entirely with grains of colored sand, painstakingly placed on a raised platform using tiny funnels. The intricacy of the delicate geometric patterns created through this method rivals that of even the most precise medium. To maintain the idea of impermanence no adhesive is used in the procedure, meaning a misdirected cough could ruin several hours of work.

It was with reverence and wonder, then, that a crowd of well over 100, many of whom were elementary school age children, watched the ceremonial dissolution of the masterpiece at WCMA and participated in the ritual procession in which the sand was brought to the bridge near Water Street Books and disseminated in the Green River. Drivers may have been slightly perturbed by the traffic buildup caused by the mass of people, but what they did not realize was that the sand poured into the river was an offering of goodwill on the part of the monks and that the river would spread the healing blessing of the sand throughout the local environment before being carried to the ocean for its benefits to be enjoyed by the rest of the world.

At the beginning of the ceremony, the two monks who had created the mandala expressed their appreciation for those who had made their efforts possible and spoke a few words about the meaning of the work and the process by which it came about. One noted that most of the questions he had received about the meaning of the mandala were asked by children and said wryly, “When people don’t ask it is either because they understand everything. . .or do not understand anything at all.”

He described the mandala as a sacred object; every morning the monks performed the ritual of the Medicine Buddha before they began working on it. He explained that the creation of the mandala is an esoteric art, a secret practice precisely detailed in tantric texts and reserved to those who have studied in a Buddhist monastery. He then prefaced the dissolution of the work by saying that, according to the teachings of the Buddha, even a representation of a perfect universe is dependent on causes and is thus temporal.

“It is the same for those gathered here,” he said. “When the ceremony is over we will disperse, and spread our knowledge.”

The monks proceeded to say a prayer invoking the spirit of the Medicine Buddha before using metal instruments to push the sand inward along the radii of the mandala. Those gathered winced slightly as the monks finally picked up large brushes and began to sweep the creation into an urn. Small quantities of sand were collected in plastic bags and distributed among the crowd before two young girls bearing the American and Tibetan flags led the audience outside where they discovered that yaks actually do exist outside of the Playboy mansion and coats worn by rappers. In fact, though they have no religious significance, yaks are important to Tibetan culture, specifically as a means of transportation. The yaks joined the procession, somewhat willfully, as a kind of celebratory accoutrement orchestrated by the museum and seemed to go over well with the children.

After reaching the bridge, the monks and members of the crowd dropped white flowers into the river as a sign of auspiciousness to the environment and its inhabitants. The group said another prayer as an invocation of the Medicine Buddha, then the monks poured the sand from the urn into the river and the river carried it downstream past onlookers on Water St.

According to Georges Dreyfus, professor of religion at Williams and author of “The Sound of Two Hands Clapping: The Education of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk,” thousands of different types of mandalas exist, each honoring a different deity. The decision to use the mandala of the Medicine Buddha was arbitrary, he said, except for the fact that its creation is a ritual performed “most importantly for others, rather than for personal reasons.