Monks in Laguna: Grain by grain creating a sand mandala to spread joy, harmony and peace – and then destroying it


A grain of sand made Laguna a more peaceful community last week. Actually, it was many grains. As seven monks participating in the Drepung Gomang Sacred Arts Tour arrived at the Sawdust Festival grounds on April 14, they brought a pervasive sense of calm with them. As well as a sense of purpose.

“They’re supporting 2,000 refugee monks in the Drepung monastery in India,” publicist Barbara McMurray said during closing ceremonies on April 21. “This is an opportunity to support these wonderful scholars who are sharing with us.” Throughout the week, the monks patiently worked on creating a colorful sand mandala while people passing by offered donations and bought goods made by their counterpart monks in India.

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Photos by Theresa Keegan

The monks created the sand mandala by gently rubbing metal tubes filled with colored sand to dispense the sand onto the platform. They started in the center and worked their way outward.

It’s been five years since the monks were in Laguna and organizer Pam Wicks could not have been happier that they were able to make this stop.

“They give off such joy and peace – it just emanates from them,” said Wicks. “This whole week is the essence of that.”

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The Sawdust Festival created an immersive experience for people who came to see the monks. A full labyrinth made of stones was set up toward the back of the property.

Although based in Kentucky, the seven monks and their driver have been traveling the country to share compassion and joy. From Florida to Alabama, Kentucky, Arizona, California and ultimately Oregon they are sharing Tibetan teachings, religious performances, prayers, chanting and blessing. Their prayers acknowledge the connectedness of all humans on our one planet, and the monks also bring attention to the tragic situation of displaced Tibetans since Communist China entered the land in 1959.

“They are refugees in India,” Kherap Gyatso said in halting English of his fellow monks. “Tibet is not open for them.”

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Pam Wicks receives gifts of thanks from the monks before the dissolution ceremony began on the last day of the Sawdust Festival event

Although the monks’ English is fairly limited, Wicks said communication is not a barrier.

“Their English is not so great,” she said. “But there’s just this deep connection with hearts and eyes.”

Kathleen Masters, a volunteer midweek at the Sawdust Festival mandala building agreed.

“It’s like speaking with them without speaking the language.”

The monks’ visit included numerous talks at night at the Neighborhood Congregational Church. One focused on an introduction to Buddhism, another was the explanation of the world peace mandala while another featured Tibetan cultural prayers and dances. The monks also blessed homes and offices and prayed with people. They opened the meeting of the Laguna Beach Interfaith Council and shared dinners throughout the community.

But it’s their brilliant, sand creation that really had people in awe.

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The completed sand mandala featured numerous symbols and colors celebrating Interfaith World peace

The Interfaith World Peace Mandala was created grain by grain, with the monks using sleek tubes filled with colored sand to patiently shake out different symbols and scenes. In the center of the circle there was a white dove, flying on a blue background.

“The center is a dove of peace,” said Kenrap Chaeden, who, as head of the Sacred Arts Tour, often acts as the public speaker for the monks. (In 1998 he received his full ordination vows from the Dalai Lama before continuing his education to ultimately receive a doctorate degree in philosophy in 2010.)

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Items created by the monks in India were sold throughout the week, with all profits supporting their community which has more than 2,000 monks. Here, Kathleen Masters is shown an authentic way to ring small bells.

“Beyond the circle is religious harmony,” Chaeden said, waving his hand about the mandala, showing intricate sand constructions representing 12 religions – a star of David for Judaism, a cross for Christianity, a dream catcher for Native American, and so on. “This is really important. We create world peace in harmony.”

The next ring featured the four elements and the four seasons, all encircled with the largest and final ring, called the Ring of Eight, featuring flowing symbols of Buddhism.

And then, after 50 hours of construction, the monks prepared for the dissolution which calls for destroying the mandala and sweeping it into piles of sand to show the impermanence of everything.

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While more than 100 people gathered at the Sunday opening ceremony when the mandala construction began, more than 150 were on hand to watch this dissolution.

“There’s always a big crowd coming in for the opening and the closing,” said Wicks.

The ceremony began with extended thanks to the many local volunteers who made the event successful. Many received scarves and totes and scrolls imprinted with the words of the Dalai Lama and read them aloud to the gathered group.

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It was standing room only, with an overflow crowd, during the dissolution ceremony when the monks destroyed the sand mandala they had built the previous week

Finally, the monks sat, and the chanting began. And continued until the dissolution leader stood decisively. Donning a red hat with a fringed yellow plume, and taking a brass tool with two points, he ran it across the mandala, leaving a destructive line half way through. He went 90 degrees and the mandala was quartered. The sectioning continued. When he finally sat down, two other monks stood, and with thick handled brushes, swept the design away, converting it into a pile of sand.

Small souvenir bags were filled and handed to the many people gathered, and then the monks, with many others in tow, marched to Main Beach, returning the sand to the ocean.

“I love being a part of this,” said Masters. “It’s such a blessing.”

For more information about the Drepung Gomang Sacred Arts Tour, click here. For more information about the local event, click here.

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