November 18, 2017

Drepung Gomang Monastery brings traditional mandala art to Webster University

The University Center was silent, but for the sounds of meditative chanting. A handful of scarlet clothed Buddhist monks sat around a table, upon which sat a colorful circular symbol. The symbol was intricate with different designs and icons made entirely of sand.

A group of Tibetan Buddhist monks travel through the U.S. every year to fund and promote their monastery. Webster University hosted them on one of their stops this fall.

Monks from the Drepung Gomang Monastery, one of the “great three” Gelug university gompas (monasteries) of Tibet, made the University Center (UC) their workspace from Oct. 10 – 12. Over the course of three days, for around eight hours each day, the monks created a large sand mandala.

St. Louis resident Patty Maher coordinates the annual visits of the Tibetan monks. She said she reached out to Webster as well as a few other universities to see if any were interested in hosting the monks. Part of her reasoning for reaching out to universities was to expose students and visitors to Tibetan culture and, specifically, to recognize the Tibetan flag. She said the knowledge of the country has increased over time.

“Five years ago, people are like where’s Tibet and what’s a mandala,” Maher said. “I don’t know what’s happening but it’s becoming more understood and more accepted. So now it’s almost popular.”

Maher said she first came into contact with a monk from Tibet through yoga and meditation classes she took. A group of monks from his monastery were planning on coming to St. Louis for the annual Festival of Nations and needed a place to stay.

“I have a big house by the park [Tower Grove Park], so they stayed with me,” Maher said. “And then the next year, they asked me to start coordinating events with them, and now I do it every year.”

Maher originally contacted Director of Student Engagement Jennifer Stewart in 2016 to bring the monks to Webster and arrange a more hands on experience for students. Stewart said she remembered a mandala creation at Webster when she was a college student in 2001 and immediately agreed to host the monks. However, the event had to be postponed until this year instead.

“We planned to do it and then their visas didn’t come through in time to do it,” Stewart said. “So I think they missed their whole St. Louis journey last year.”

Stewart said the monks typically perform a mandala creation and a meditative ritual at each one of their stops. A mandala is a ritual symbol in Buddhism and Hinduism representing the universe. Maher said the mandala is also a visual aid for meditation and different types of mandalas exist.

The mandala created in the UC was called a peace mandala. Maher said peace mandalas are the most commonly created type of mandala.

“As a westerner, we can relate to a dove in the middle, we can relate to religious symbols,” Maher said. “It’s a simpler mandala.”

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The peace mandala features a white dove at the very center of the circular symbol. Religious symbols like a crucifix and a Star of David adorn the next layer surrounding the center. The following layers contain images of the four seasons and abstract depictions of nature elements.

Stanzin Dawa, a monk with the Gomang monastery, said there are mandalas which hold meaning for all kinds of situations like health, education and security. He said he and the other monks have created 35 to 40 mandalas

around the U.S. He also added Webster was a welcoming host.

“We are very happy here,” Dawa said. “Very nice people and very great university.”

When the mandala is completed, with all of its layers detailed and ornate, the dissolution ceremony begins. Continuous meditation eventually gives way to an ordered deconstruction of the mandala in which the symbol is dissected and swept up into an urn. Maher said this part of the ritual is most jarring for people to watch.

“They sweep it up to show the impermanence,” Maher said. “That’s what jars Westerners. ‘Why don’t you keep it? It’s so beautiful.’ Well, you’re beautiful, but you’re not going to last forever.”

The ceremony ended with the sand, now fully mixed together into a rainbow of color, carried in the urn from the UC to the Natural Area and poured into the pond. Ritualistically, this imparts the blessings gifted by the mandala back into the natural world from where everything came.

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