Nepali Times
Dust to dust


The novice monks from the Great Compassion Monastic School in Lo Monthang drew outlines on the floor of the Ambassador Hotel's conference room in Kathmandu. They framed the sand mandala, offered amid prayers, which they were to destroy in the course of three days. It was not evident, from the stark frame and from the worldly surroundings, the immense beauty that was to unfold.

Bent over for hours, their sure, steady hands powdering the floor with brilliantly dyed ground marble, the monks filled in a mandala that became increasingly exquisite with each passing moment.

What emerged from their effort was the Kuenrig Kiylkhor mandala, which adorns the Jhamba Gompa in Lo Monthang, dating back to the 15th century. The mandala depicts the home of Vairochana, the Buddha who dispels ignorance through the mirror-like wisdom of ether. Vairochana's place was a raised white circle at the center.

This circle was surrounded by the seats of the four remaining Enlightened Buddhas, facing the four directions. To the east, in blue, was the seat of Akshobhya, the Buddha who eliminates anger through the all-encompassing wisdom of space. To the north, in green, was the seat of Amoghasiddhi, the Buddha who cuts jealousy with the all-encompassing wisdom of air. To the west was the seat of Amitabha, in red, who cuts attachment with the discriminating wisdom of fire. To the south, in yellow, was the seat of Ratnasambhava, the Buddha who eliminates pride using the equanimity of earth. Those familiar with Buddhist iconography could contemplate these five deities, who transform the mind's mental poisons into perfect wisdoms.

On the final day, Sunday, Khenpo Tashi Tenzing, the Abbot of Lo Monthang's Chhoede Monastery, which houses the monastic school, led his students in a prayer as the mandala came to completion. The mandala was ringed by the outer walls of the protective deities, and with a ring of flowers and offerings of water, butter lamps, incense and torma (a decorative sacrificial cake).

The worldly conference hall transformed into a sacred space as the monks finished their prayers, holding mudras with the vajra, symbolising the indestructible state of the enlightened mind, and ringing bells that symbolized the perfection of wisdom. Then the offerings beside the mandala were removed, and two monks, briskly-without any cherishing-swept up the entire mandala as the audience looked on.

The luminous colors, when mixed together, turned ashen as this vivid teaching on impermanence came to an end. The dust would be immersed in the Kali Gandaki river as the monks returned home at the end of the winter.

More than one demonstration of Buddhist ethics had taken place in the making of this sand mandala. When Khenpo Tashi Tenzing first decided to open the Great Compassion Monastic School in 1993, his idea had sounded frankly improbable. The Chhoede Gompa, housing 80 monks at the time, could not afford teachers for secular classes. Nor did it have rooms for dormitories or classes.

Undaunted, the Khenpo gathered funds privately and from the Annapurna Conservation Area Project, building a few classrooms and hiring a teacher from Kathmandu, a rongba who to the amazement of the monks was a devout Buddhist practitioner. In the subsequent years the monastic school attracted funding from the American Himalayan Foundation, the Australian government, and from other private funders within and outside of Nepal. The school now houses and educates 55 boys and young men, instructing them not only in dharma but also in secular subjects, making it among the best schools in Mustang District.

What began as a dream in Khenpo Tashi Tenzing's mind has turned into a thriving school, ten years later. To all those present, the sand mandala was thus also an instruction, on the Khenpo's part, that we must undertake right action, though we know our lives will end in dust.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)