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Monks make Tibetan art at Hammer

A monk works on the fine details of a sand mandala. Photos courtesy of American Foundation for Tibetan Cultural Preservation.
A monk following ancient instructions while working on a sand mandala. Photos courtesy of the American Foundation for Tibetan Cultural Preservation.
Monks from Nepal have come to UCLA's Hammer Museum this week to create a sacred mandala, and they're inviting the public to watch and benefit from the feelings of compassion a mandala bestows on all who see it.
 
Starting today, Oct. 26, and for a few hours each day until Nov. 7, the lamas will follow ancient instructions to transform millions of grains of colorful sand into a four-foot-square Tibetan sand mandala on a table in the Hammer's glass-fronted lobby. Because so few people have the intense artistic and religious background needed to make a Tibetan mandala, seeing one made is a rare opportunity, said Hammer curator Allison Agsten. The Hammer is doubly lucky to have hosted the monks once before, in 2002.
 
Monks work meticulously to arrange sand in precise patterns on a sand mandala. Photos courtesy of American Foundation for Tibetan Cultural Preservation."Everyone thought it was such a remarkable experience, so when we heard they were coming to town again, we jumped on it," Agsten said. "About once a year the monks journey from the Thubten Choeling Monastery in Nepal to create a sand mandala. It's believed that even just seeing the mandala can transform negativity and awaken altruism and compassion."
 
Making a mandala is a form of meditation, so the monks begin the day with prayer. They devote their work to and invoke the positive emotions and "enlightened energy" of Buddhism before chanting throughout the day without distraction or negative thoughts, explained Pema Namdol Thaye, a master of Tibetan art who is not a monk but who has made several mandalas.
 
"It affects the viewers because it is not man-made by ordinary people," Thaye said. "It's created by these divine beings with sheer compassion."
 
The compassion that flows from the monks also flows from the mandala and to the viewers, he said. It's an intense process, and one that he engaged in for two years to create a three-dimensional mandala that is also on display at the Hammer.
 
Thaye's three-dimensional mandala, a model of the Zangdok Palri mandala building. Image provided by Pema Namdol Thaye.
Thaye's three-dimensional mandala, a model of the Zangdok Palri mandala building. Image provided by Pema Namdol Thaye.
"I had to put all my other art on hold until I finished the mandala," Thaye said. "It's a visionary commitment, as much as possible to remain in that same frame of mind for two years. But I'm not saying I was praying from morning to evening. There's not enough energy. I'm not a monk. I'm an artist."
 
The 3-D mandala is also the model for the Zangdock Palri mandala building that Ari Bhöd — the American Foundation for Tibetan Cultural Preservation — plans to construct in California's Tehachapi mountains, Thaye said. Three-dimensional mandalas are the rarest, most difficult kind of mandalas, he said, and people take month-long pilgrimages just to see them in Tibet.
 
"When you see a mandala, like the ones that I normally build, the biggest would be six feet in diameter," Thaye said. "There's no way you can gain understanding compared to one where you can actually go inside. We want to build a monument that people can actually walk inside and feel. It will be completely different."
 
A larger-than-life mandala is particularly fitting because mandalas are more than abstract images – they actually do represent a place, in addition to a purpose, he explained.
 
"It is a celestial palace," he said. "The core purpose of the mandala is to help each and every being. The meditative process brings one to recognize the inner self of each being."
 
A completed sand mandala. Photos courtesy of the American Foundation for Tibetan Cultural Preservation.This week and next, museum goers can view the sand mandala at the Hammer as the monks create it, Tuesday through Saturday (Oct. 26-Nov. 7) from 11 a.m.-1:30 and 3:30-6 p.m., and on Sundays from 11:00-1:30 and 3:30-5:00. As the monks continue into the second week of making the mandala, there will also be a community table right outside of the gallery where visitors can try to make their own mandala, Agsten said.
 
"People can see the monks laying the sand over a design, and it's millions of grains of sand, and really a painstaking process," she said. "It's a profound spiritual process for the lamas, and the viewers are able to participate just by watching."
 
What surprises many people is the fate of the sand mandala. Although mandalas come in many forms, from painted to three-dimensional, those made of sand are always swept away once they are completed, Agsten said.
 
"What's intriguing to people is that you would labor over something for weeks and the moment it's done, sweep it away," she said. "It's really about impermanence, which is a key tenet in Buddhism. Nothing lasts forever – and neither will the mandala."
 
The museum is preserving the rare art form in other ways, she added.
 
"While the sand mandala itself is ephemeral, by engaging in the creation of the piece, we are supporting a lasting tradition that dates back many centuries," Agsten said. "The mandala may be destroyed, but a legacy is expanded."