Watching the lamas of the Depung Loseling monastery create an intricate sand painting called a mandala can be hypnotic.
The Tibetan monks’ effect on Savannahians during their last visit in 2003 proved so powerful that Murray Silver created a special term for it. “I call it ‘monk drunk,’” he says.
Silver, an author and documentarian, once worked as the monks’ tour manager. His most recent book is When Elvis Meets the Dalai Lama, which includes accounts of his experiences with the monks.
This week, the monks are creating a mandala in the atrium of the Jepson Center for the Arts. “The boys are back in town,” Silver says.
The monks have visited Savannah three times and have enchanted locals and tourists alike with their colorful -- and loud -- ceremonies. But this visit may be their last for a while.
“This is the third time and probably the last for a long time,” says Harry DeLorme, Senior Curator of Education. “We wanted to bring them back to celebrate the opening of the Jepson Center. I’m glad we were able to do it.”
“One of the reasons we wanted to bring them back was we wanted to do something very special for Diane Lesko,” Silver says, referring to the Telfair’s director, who is leaving her post. “It is partly to consecrate the new Jepson Center and also it’s for Diane.”
The city of Savannah is in particular need of the monks’ healing influence, Silver says. “We are directing healing energy to the city, in particular the mayor, and also to the continuing racial divide,” he says.
“The last time they were here, according to the police department, there was a remarkable drop in crime in the city,” Silver says. “A lot of people may point the finger to different reasons, but it was one of the largest dips in the city’s history.”
During the monks’ visit, a long drought was broken by rain, Silver says. “They always bring rain,” he says, noting that the current dry spell is expected to be broken by rain during the monks’ visit. “Apparently the universe knows something about this we don’t,” he says.”
The monks’ visit is shorter this time than it was in 2003, when they created an Akshobya healing mandala, just like one created in Washington, D.C. shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. “The last time they were here for two weeks, but this time, they are here for just one week,” DeLorme says.
“Their visit was scheduled to coincide with the Asian Festival,” he says. “This time around, the visit is a city-sponsored event, so all events are free.”
Visitors can go in and out the Jepson atrium as often as they want to observe the work in progress. On Thursday, June 15 at 7 p.m., a lecture on the symbolism of the sand mandala will be presented by Geshe Lobsang Tenzin of the Drepung Loseling Institute at Emory University.
A lecture was held the last time the monk’s visited, but the speaker, Geshe Lobsang Chogyal, a famed Tibetan healer, did not speak English and his works had to be translated by a former monk. Geshe Lobsang Tenzin, however, speaks not only English, but several other languages. “He teaches regularly at Emory and will actually do a Powerpoint presentation at the Jepson,” DeLorme says.
Tenzin is quite a unique individual, says Silver. “He was born in a remote area of India,” he says. “His father also was a Tibetan Buddhist monk.”
As a boy, Tenzin was hand-picked to join the monastery and as a young man was sent by no less than the Dalai Lama to Atlanta. “There is such a need for teachers in English-speaking countries,” Silver says.
“The sad thing is there is such a tremendous demand put on him, he could no longer honor his role as a monk and had to disrobe,” Silver says. “He has had to postpone his own development on the path to enlightenment.”
Tenzin earned a doctorate in cognitive psychology at Emory. His mission today is to bridge the gap between East and West in regards to psychology, Silver says.
“To hear him speak is a rare and wonderful opportunity,” Silver says. “Without him, the Tibetan movement in America would be light years behind what it is.”
On Sunday, June 18 at 2 p.m., a closing ceremony will be held. At its end, the mandala will be swept up and the public will join the monks in a procession to the Savannah River to disperse it.
The mandala sand paintings are created from powdered marble. The blueprints for the mandalas come from ancient Buddhist scriptures.
The monks draw the outlines of the mandala, using a compass, string and chalk. “Immediately following the opening ceremony, the monks begin drawing on a table,” DeLorme says.
To create the ornate paintings, the monks distribute the sand grain by grain by rubbing on the grated edge of a special tools called a chak-pur. This causes vibration of the chak-pur, which makes the sand flow like liquid. “It is an incredible skill to master,” DeLorme says.
While the finished mandala is finely detailed and colorful, it is short-lived. “After the closing event on Sunday, the monks will sweep the mandala up and take it to the river,” DeLorme says.
During their last visit, crowds continually broke attendance records at the Telfair Museum. So many people showed up for the closing ceremony and procession to the river, many could not get inside the museum.
“The monks really packed the house last time,” DeLorme says. “This time, we are providing overflow seating and a screen so people can watch the ceremony in the auditorium.
“Because this is taking place in the atrium, people can also look in through the big glass windows,” he says. “They can sit on the steps in front. That way we can reach more people.”
The monks’ last visit was just before the start of the war in Iraq, and at a time when crime in Savannah was on the rise. “Everyone felt the need for some kind of spiritual focus,” DeLorme says.
“A mandala represents an enlightened state of being,” he says. “It’s almost like a picture of heaven. There are different mandalas, each with a different focus.”
Sweeping up the mandala at the closing ceremony represents the impermanence of all things, DeLorme says. “It is not destroyed, it is released into a body of water to release the healing properties,” he says.
The original Depung Loseling Monastery was established in 1415 near Lhasa, Tibet. When China took over Tibet in 1959, hundreds of monasteries were destroyed, including Depung Loseling.
Although more than 15,000 monks once lived at Drepung Loseling, only 250 of its monks escaped from Tibet. They rebuilt their monastery in southern India, and it now houses about 3,000 monks.
Normally, the young monks live in the remote monastery, where there is no contact with the rest of the world. The monastery was built to hold just 500 monks, but now holds 3,000, so living conditions are anything but ideal.
Food is a scarce commodity. “They are taught to deny themselves and endure pain and hunger,” Silver says.
The U.S. government allows the monks to stay just one year, so each year a new group of monks comes to America. “Their predecessors come back and tell them about Burger King, and they understand that the very best deal is a hamburger, fries and a Coke,” Silver says. “They bring their tennis shoes and basketballs.”
During the year the monks spend in America, they adapt surprisingly well. “They will stare at the TV screen no matter what’s on it. The first thing they want to see is basketball,” Silver says. “Of the few English words they know, one them is ‘Shaq.’ They watch basketball and want to play it, although it may be the most polite game of basketball you will ever want to see.”
Food is too scarce in Tibet for the monks to live as vegetarians. However, they do say an elaborate prayer before each meal to thank the animal that has given its life, and also to ensure that it might be reincarnated to a higher level.
“They don’t like sweets or seafood,” Silver says. “They consider shrimp and other seafood ‘insects of the sea.’ When they cook for themselves, they make meat dumplings, which they eat with rice and a few vegetables.”
Wherever they go, the monks seem to generate energy and momentum, Silver says. “All they’re trying to do is plant seeds. Maybe they will plant seeds in people’s minds so they’ll become compassionate and aware.”