The sands of compassion |

The sands of compassion

Wren Wertin

A group of Buddhist monks, refugees from the Chinese rule in Tibet, spent a few days in Vail last week, creating a sand mandala in honor of world peace. The Rocky Mountain sojourn was part of an 18-month tour in which they help raise awareness for Buddhism, as well as raise funds for necessary improvements to their monastery in India.

Hosted by the Vail Buddhist community, part of the Summit Dharma Center, the monks from Gaden Shartse monastery in used more than 35 dyed sands to make the intricate sand work. The work was the Chenrezig mandala, named for the buddha of compassion.

“We buy rocks, and grind them according to how coarse they need to be,” said Tsering Dhondup, a Tibetan interpreter who travels and lives with the monks. He’s a Buddhist, too, though not a monk. “Then we wash and dry it, and later we dye it. We do all this in India, and bring it with us.”

The sand was so heavy, they had to leave a few bags behind – including all of Dhondup’s clothing. Doing so didn’t faze him. As he explained, no matter how fine the garment, it has nothing to do with true happiness.

The monks began working on Wednesday in Plaza Gallery, creating the mandala on top of a table. After making a chalk outline, or blue print, of the Chenrezig, two to four monks bent over the table with their chakburs. Made in various sizes, the conical metal chakburs hold small amounts of sand. When the monks rub the outside ridges, producing a washboard sound, the sand comes out of a small nib, or hole, at the end. In this way, the monks can control exactly how much sand they place on the mandala. It’s painstaking work.

“We have lots of emphasis on discipline,” said Dhondup. “It’s part and parcel of our everyday life. We’re human beings, with all the feelings human beings have. But when you’re committed, you do it. We’re in the process. Everybody is.”

But he’s quick to dispel any false perceptions about themselves. When they’re traveling in America, they’re more than pleased to chow down on the pizza and hamburgers that are inevitably offered.

Becoming a Buddhist in Tibet is a life-altering event. Though the Gaden Shartse monks long for their home, it’s unlikely they will return in the near future.

“The Chinese are communists, and don’t believe in religion,” explained Dhondup. “They think we should abandon our religion.”

As it is, Buddhists remain in the country under penalty of death.

“But I’m comfortable,” he continued. “For me, Buddhism is reality. Things will change. The reality is impermanence. Things are changing a lot with the students now. We are certain China will change, and then we can go home.”

In the meantime, being in Colorado is reminiscent of the mountains of Tibet.

Because of the reality of impermanence, an integral part of the mandala is the dissolution ceremony. Without flinching, a monk will sweep the whole thing up in mere moments, destroying days of work.

“There were so many people trying to cram into the gallery and looking in

every window and climbing in windows,” said local Susan Mackin Dolan. “Maybe 200 people followed down to the creek.”

With the accompaniment of a horn more than nine feet in length, the ceremony began at the gallery with chanting and music.

“People’s faces were in every window,” said Mackin Dolan. “This was during the first part of the ceremony, when they were preparing to sweep up the mandala. The monks were chanting, and then they’d play the instrument, and then they’d chant some more and play more music.”

The group of specially garbed monks lead people down to Gore Creek. While the monks continued to the smaller foot bridge, the onlookers remained on the International Bridge.

Everybody got a little bit of sand from the mandala.

“It’s real sacred sand,” she said. “When you’re going to die, and death is imminent, you mix the sand with a little bit of butter. If you can’t do it, someone does it for you. Then, they put it on the crown of their heads, and it helps them from coming back as a lesser life – you don’t come back as an animal, but as a more evolved human being.”

After much of the sand was distributed to people, there was more chanting and prayer. Then the remaining sand was poured into the river.

“And that blesses the community,” said Mackin Dolan. “And wherever the water flows, it will bring peace.”

And so the sands of compassion raced down the river and into the world.

Wren Wertin can be reached via e-mail at or phone at 949-0555, ext. 618.

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