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Tibetan Monks Visit Campus

One of the monks performing at the dissolution ceremony. PHOTO/David Woo ‘09




From Monday, September 15 to Friday, September 19, two Buddhist monks and a Tibetan folk singer created a sand mandala and performed ritual chants at Choate. A mandala is a visual prayer represented with patterns of colored sand. The Chenrezig mandala, also known as the mandala of compassion, is one of the many types of mandalas created by Buddhist monks. The proceeds from the event will benefit the struggling Tashi Lhunpo monastery and provide food and education for the Tibetan Children’s Foundation.



Since last spring, a host of coordinators from Choate and beyond have worked to bring the Compassionate Mandala Tour to campus. A project which began in Australia in 2003 and has grown significantly since, the Tour brings two Tibetan monks and Tenzin Choegyal, a Tibetan folk singer (and the founder of the Tour), across the globe to share their culture and spread the meaning of Buddhism.



The initiative to bring the tour on campus was taken by Charlotte McCurdy ’08. The Alternate Spiritualities Club, Students for a Free Tibet, and the Buddhist Association also helped coordinate the event. On Monday, the monks, the Venerable Lobsang Dorjee and the Venerable Lobsang Norbu, and Tenzin Choegyal, who now resides in Australia, arrived on campus. Lobsang Dorjee and Lobsang Norbu now live in exile in Bylakuppe, India. They come from the Tashi Lhunpo monastery of the Panchen Lama. Tenzin began the tour in Australia and New Zealand in 2003, and then extended it to the United States after meeting Karen Sallick, who hosted the monks at her Westport home and is coordinating their American tour.



Clad in traditional monastic garb, the monks piqued the curiosity of students and faculty alike. Many gathered in the Library Reading Room on Tuesday to watch the tour’s opening ceremony take place. At the start of the ceremony, the monks evoked the spirit of Buddha using harmonic and multi-tonal chanting. Next, they laid the foundations of the mandala, using metal funnels to slowly pour sand onto the board. Throughout the week, the mandala progressed in size as its beauty was brought to life.



During Wednesday’s all-school meeting, the visitors presented a series of Buddhist chants to heighten the school-wide awareness of Buddhism. Venerable Lobsang Norbu, the chant master, led the prayers, occasionally using deep, guttural tones, and the mandala master Lobsand Dorjee, along with Tenzin Choegyal, harmonized the chants.



Eric Schwarzenbach ’09 stated following the all-school meeting, “Granted I have a really deep voice, that is the deepest I’ve ever seen anyone sing. Before the meeting I didn’t think singing that low was humanly possible.”



The following day, a select group of students from the Buddhist Association, Students for a Free Tibet, and the Alternate Spiritualities Club were given the unique experience of learning how to create a sand mandala. Coached by Tenzin, the students were shown the technique of using funnels to channel sand.



Kyra Lammers ’10 went to the mandala-making workshop and said, “It was such a calming experience to sit there and use the same tools [that] monks have used for many years before me. It was surreal.”



During their visit to Choate, the monks interacted with students and faculty on numerous occasions. They ate lunch with students and faculty members and took the time to talk to anyone interested, using as much English as they knew, while making the mandala.



Julia Discenza ’10 said, “The monks had such an aura of tranquility that whenever I was around them I felt at peace. They have such a peaceful and friendly attitude.”



On their last day at Choate, the monks completed their mandala. A colorful array of sands brightened the library reading room and drew many spectators who admired the majesty of the visual prayer. Mr. Easton, one of the coordinators of the event, said, “The mandala symbolizes the impermanence of the universe—that everything that is created is also destroyed.” To demonstrate this impermanence, the monks performed a dissolution ceremony—a kind of closing ceremony during which they collect the sand of the mandala and erase its beauty.



Tenzin stressed the importance of nonattachment in the mandala’s teachings. He said, “One of the main messages we pull from destroying the beautiful mandala is to show that people must not become attached, because attachment causes suffering.”



The monks performed a chant, then threw flowers onto the mandala and took a pinch of sand from each of the four sides of the pattern, symbolizing the departure of ignorance, jealousy, misery, and hatred. Finally, the entire mandala was swept into jars and thrown into the Science Center Pond, dispersing compassion into the world. The goal of the dissolution ceremony was to show that kindness and compassion withstand while beauty is transient.



“The mandala teaches humans to live in the moment and to appreciate beauty. Yet at the same time, through its message of impermanence, it shows that beauty is not everything,” said Sellick. Lobsang Norbu, the chant master, agrees. He said, “We should become more human.”



After the mandala was destroyed, Lobsang Dorjee, Lobsang Norbu, and Tenzin Choegyal held a concert in the Seymour St. John Chapel. The concert began with the monks chanting refuge and compassion prayers. Next, Tenzin took the stage to perform traditional, nomadic-style Tibetan folk music and modern Tibetan songs. He played three instruments: a hybrid instrument of a Dranyen three-stringed lute which he combined with the broken neck of the guitar, a full Dranyen three-stringed, and a Lingboo. He played five songs, from improvisations to love songs to sing-a-longs. To close the concert and to bring their Choate tour to an end, the monks did a final dedication prayer.



Sad to see the monks leave, Mr. Easton said, “As a campus, we’re not in the same place we were before the Tour. I feel that the experience has moved many of us beyond ourselves in a new way, and that the monks accomplished their goals here. The experience shared culture and life lessons that all of Choate can take further.”



Sellick adds, “Everyone here really has an amazing opportunity of going to an exceptional school. Not everyone realizes how privileged they are. By being exposed to different ways of thinking about compassion and culture, students can really make a difference. This is a wonderful bridge between the Tibetan culture and the West. We hope that the students are just as committed to spread the culture further and bring peace through knowledge.”

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