Monks create impermanent creation in GJ to offer blessing
A group of five Buddhist monks from the Gaden Shartse Monastery in southern India have stopped in Grand Junction as part of a two-year-long fundraising tour through the United States.
The monks, who arrived on Wednesday from Omaha, Nebraska, and will be here through Sunday, have spent most of their time at the Western Colorado Center for the Arts on North Seventh Street, where they are creating an intricate sand mandala for the Buddhist deity Green Tara, goddess of compassion.
Once the monks complete the mandala, they will sweep it away in a ceremony representing the impermanent nature of existence, one of Buddhism’s fundamental teachings. Then they will release the sand into the Colorado River, offered as part of a blessing to end suffering for all beings, according to the Arts Center website.
Gaden Shartse monks have visited Grand Junction’s Arts Center four times in the past 16 years, said Avery Glassman, curator of programs and exhibitions at the center.
She said the monks have “brought new life to the Arts Center” with their visit, combining religion, art, history and generosity together in the events they are holding around town and by building the mandala.
“I think that by bringing them here, we’re tying things together that would traditionally not be tied together at the Arts Center — or in Grand Junction,” Glassman said.
At only about three by three feet, the mandala appears fairly diminutive when it’s being slowly unfurled on a table in the middle of the Studio Colorado room at the center.
Its small size, however, makes the fine artisanship present in the sand work especially mesmerizing. Though the monks only began to fill the outline of the mandala on Wednesday afternoon, by Thursday most of its center was detailed with vivid colors and patterns.
From novice eyes, the mandala appears as a colorful, detailed and geometric painting, but for a trained eye, it’s a floorplan of a holy palace.
“If you look deeply, this is the pure land of the deity Green Tara,” said Shanu, one of the visiting monks. Even though it’s his first time out of India, Shanu speaks English well and has acted as a translator for his companions, none of whom had been to the United States before this tour.
Shanu pointed out the four doors of Green Tara’s palace that can be seen on the mandala, each representing the four cardinal directions and also the four noble truths of Buddhism, which concern the suffering present in life and the path toward ending such suffering.
In the center of the mandala, a “manifestation” of Green Tara is depicted, Shanu said.
Ten Tibetan symbols radiate out from the manifestation, representing the deity’s mantra: “Good health, good wealth and good fortune,” Shanu recited.
Four of the monks tend to work on the piece at once, approaching it from each side of the square table where they’re building it. They draw it according to depictions of Green Tara’s palace in ancient Buddhist texts.
Each monk deposits the sand onto the mandala with a narrow, corrugated metal funnel Shanu referred to as a “chak por” — an iron pen.
A monk scoops a mound of vibrant sand into his chak por, then runs a tool resembling a steel chopstick over the corrugated chak por to vibrate it, in turn releasing sand grain by grain from its tip onto the mandala. The process is painstaking.
“If you want to practice concentration and patience,” Shanu said, “then you work on a sand mandala.”
The sand came with the monks from their monastery in India, he said, where it was bought at local markets, washed, consecrated and blessed before being packed up with the traveling monks for the journey to the United States.
Around 1,300 monks, ages 4 through 96, are provided with food and shelter at no cost at Gaden Shartse, Shanu said, so outreach trips like the one they’re on now are vital to its existence.
“This tour is the lifeline of our monastery,” he said.
Cultural wares from Tibet, Nepal and India are on sale at the Arts Center, and the monks also accept donations as they travel.
While in Grand Junction, they stay for free with Ray and his wife Peggy Pilcher, a local couple who are passionate about Buddhism.
Ray Pilcher used to travel to Asia as part of his climate change work for the Environmental Protection Agency and the United Nations, leading him to develop his interest in Buddhist rituals and beliefs.
Around 20 years ago, he heard some monks were visiting Palisade, and he and his wife went to participate in a healing ceremony with them. It had a major impact on the couple. Afterward, they told the monks to call in the future if they ever needed anything, and over time, the Pilchers became Gaden Shartse’s primary contacts in the Grand Valley.
Ray Pilcher is now the president of the Gaden Shartse Cultural Foundation, which organizes the monks’ stateside tours, and he and Peggy were instrumental in initially aligning the monks with the Arts Center.
In Pilcher’s eyes, the tour provides not only a vital monetary exchange but also a vital cultural exchange for the monks, who have promised to care for their fellow beings.
“It’s a way for them to show their culture and art, but it’s also a way for them to do what they’ve vowed to do — to bless the people they come into contact with,” Pilcher said.