In the midst of conflict at Clark College, a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks worked quietly in the Cannell Library.
Their tools were long, thin cones, and their paints, vibrantly colored sand dyed in more than a dozen colors. What started as an empty table blossomed into an intricate, brightly colored sand mandala, constructed over the course of more than 30 hours of work.
And on Friday, dozens of curious onlookers gathered at Clark College to watch it all be destroyed.
The Dharma Light Tibetan Buddhist Association of Vancouver, along with Clark College International Programs and the library, sponsored a group of monks from Mundgod in South India. The small town is a settlement for refugees who fled after Communist China invaded Tibet in 1950. Government forces have destroyed thousands of monasteries and shrines in the decades that have followed, and natural resources have been devastated and destroyed.
But Tibetan Buddhism lives on, in India, Nepal and in the United States.
“They’ve taken their traditions everywhere,” said Catherine Wilson, a student of Tibetan Buddhism for nearly 40 years who oversaw the monk’s tour.
The construction of sand mandalas is a spiritual, meditative practice for those who have undergone the rigorous training required to do this fine work. This specific design, a compassion mandala, is believed to bring blessings and peace to the region. Different components represented different deities, Buddhas, animals and spiritual teachings.
It was a timely event considering this week’s faculty strike, which ended on Wednesday with the approval of a collective bargaining agreement.
Wilson said the strike was heavy on their minds as they prepared the week’s events, which had been planned for months.
“We look upon this as a way to bring positive energy to the parties involved,” she said.
Then, there’s the hallmark destruction of the mandala, representative of the impermanence of all things. The monks first consecrated their work, raising their voices in a series of musical chants. At one point, monk Jampa Tenzin placed a lotus flower in the center of the circular mandala, walking around it as he rang a bell.
“To see this sand mandala, watching it, you’ll feel a blessing,” Tenzin said earlier in the day, speaking through a translator as he took a break from drawing the remaining fine details around the mandala’s edges.
Within minutes, hours of work in the form of sharply detailed lines became nothing more than a pile of grayish sand.
“It has to go back eventually,” said Tenzin Sherab with Dharma Light, who was helping oversee the monks’ trip.
The monks handed small bags of sand to guests before heading to the Grant Street Pier at the Waterfront Vancouver, where they threw some of the sand into the river. It’s believed that returning the sand to flowing water will bless the river, and all the beings who live in and near it.
This group of monks, who belong to Drepung Loseling Phukhang Monastery, will travel in the United States for several more weeks, first to California and then to Aspen, Colo., where they will, again, be constructing sand mandalas for an audience.
There’s a lot happening in the world, Wilson noted, whether it’s a local teacher strike or the international crises that play out in the evening news. But she hopes that, with the monks in mind, people will take a few meditative moments to “generate compassion” in their own lives.
“We need that in our lives,” she said. “We’ll all be a little better off for that.”