Pomona College Magazine
Volume 41. No. 2.
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The monks of Gaden Shartse stress that the mandala, like all things, is impermanent...
Grains of Sand


The sound echoed through the hallways of the Smith Campus Center, a siren call inviting foot traffic to investigate the spectacle in the building’s Harry and Grace Steele Forum. Monks from the Gaden Shartse Monastic College in Southern India, clad in saffron and crimson robes, were hunched over a table rubbing sticks against worn brass funnels (“chak-purs”) to apply thin, steady streams of brightly colored sand to an intricate design they had outlined within a 30-inch circle. Behind them, their palette of naturally dyed, hand-ground granules was heaped into Tupperware bowls and arranged in front of a picture of the Dalai Lama. Their week’s stay at Pomona College was primarily consumed by the making of this ceremonial sand mandala.

Emphasis on the making. The monks consider the mandala to be an act of meditation rather than a work of art. The artifact is merely a by-product—a de facto, symbolic roadmap of the creators’ inner journey from the physical world through paths of enlightenment toward a perfect balance of mind-body energies.

Groups of Gaden Shartse monks routinely leave their 588-year-old monastery, which has been relocated to India since the Chinese take-over of Tibet in 1959, to raise awareness about their exile and to offer lessons about their religion and culture.

Concern for the plight of Tibetan monks is nothing new to Pomona student Kristl Dorschner ’05. She has been involved with the Free Tibet movement since childhood, a cause she shares with her activist parents. She was dismayed, then, to arrive at Pomona and find no Free Tibet movement and, to her way of thinking, a shortage of organized student activism in general. She approached Associate Professor of Asian Languages and Literatures Kyoko Kurita, who coordinates the Asian Studies Program, and other faculty members with the idea of bringing monks to campus. Kurita agreed to seek funding, arrange the visit and work with her colleagues to integrate the visitors into Claremont classrooms. “We are bringing Tibetan monks to broaden our scope of what ‘Asia’ means to us,” Kurita said. “Our focus has been mostly China and Japan, but Asia is a very complex world within itself.”

The monks offered several demonstrations and discussions during their residency, attended by students and faculty, as well as members of the community and groups from area secondary schools. Each session began with a purification ritual. Octave intervals from a Tibetan horn filled Edmunds Ballroom; the monk behind the long copper cylinder began with seemingly impossible bass notes only to drop down to even lower tones that positively rumbled. Chanting, dancing and discussions followed, led by Lobsang Dun Don, a young Tibetan monk, and Lobsang Wang Chuk, an older Western monk who worked to secure visas for fellow monks, often remarking with wry irony that history had yet to record a war instigated by a Buddhist nation.

Interaction with the monks was respectful but often curiously distant; language and cultural barriers were a factor, and the young monks, most of whom were still students themselves, could only offer a brief glimpse into the religion and lifestyle that they will spend 25 years mastering. Pomona students seemed primarily curious about the differences in their shared experiences as scholars. Monks in the Gaden Shartse Monastic College follow a centuries-old course of study that can entail up to 18 consecutive hours of instruction followed by a ritualistic six-hour Socratic question-and-answer session that is both physically and mentally rigorous.

The monks joined Visiting Instructor Huitzu Liu’s Religious Traditions of China class to talk about Tantric teachings, inviting students to openly challenge them—an idea that is important to their belief system and a kind of discourse that had been notably absent from a week of polite exchange. A young woman accepted the challenge and questioned how one could follow a Buddhist teaching of loving all creatures equally and fully sharing in their joy and sorrow without forming “messy” emotional entanglements. The monks explained that principles of the karmic cycle meant all beings had been mother to each other. This could not go unaddressed by one of the class’s non-traditional students who—thanks to some unreliable daycare—held her young daughter on her lap. “But you’re celibate,” she offered, “how can you possibly know the bond you form when you have a child?”

Mandala—a Sanskrit word meaning circle—is a reminder of the cycle of life and death. The monks stress that the mandala, like all things, is impermanent, and its dissolution is as much a part of the ritual as its creation. Lobsang Dun Don led the closing ceremony as hundreds of onlookers gathered, filling the Forum, the stairs to the second floor and the balconies all around. The monks took small tools in hand that looked like palette knives. They cut the manadala as if cutting a large pizza. Each then took a small broom and swept a section toward the center. As the bright colors mixed, they assumed the neutral dun one expects of sand. The intricately detailed mandala, the result of days of intensive labor, quickly became a dull mound, no larger than the contents of a small sand pail.

The monks dispersed the remains among the onlookers, using Styrofoam cups and plastic spoons from the Coop Fountain to scoop the sand into small plastic baggies. The small pile that remained, per the ritual, would later be placed in a body of water, spreading energies for global healing.
—David Scott
©Copyright 2004
by Pomona College
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