Tibetan Monks – Sand Mandalas

In July 2000, Christina and I became the ministers of Unity Church on the Mountain, in Huntsville. We were offered the position when Rev. Doris McCafferty, retired after many years as the minister of the church. Doris only asked one thing of us, that we keep the church’s agreement to co-sponsor, with the Huntsville Museum of Art, the visit to Huntsville by a group of Tibetan Buddhist Monks.

We assumed our ministerial duties in July. The Monk’s visit was six months away and easy to push to the back burner. But, before I knew what was happening, it was time to begin planning for the two events – the building of the Mandala, which was the Art Museum’s part of the event, and the presentation of Sacred Music Sacred Dance, which was sponsored by Unity Church on the Mountain. During the initial planning, my only concern was insuring that we at least broke even on the rather sizable, by our church’s standards, upfront investment that had been made.

I won’t keep you in suspense. Financially we did better than break even, assuming you place no value on the hundreds of hours of volunteer time that were expended to pull the events off. But finances aren’t the reason that I’m writing this post. In the process of keeping our promise to Doris, we got to meet, up close and personal, one of the most awesome group of men I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.

They were funny, spiritual, and compassionate. In short, they were everything you’d expect spiritual giants to be, and a whole lot more. Their time in Huntsville extended over a two month period, with breaks to travel to, and work in, the two other cities where they had projects in progress. Seven of the eight Llamas in the picture, which, was taken at Crazy Horse Mountain, in South Dakota, created the Sand Mandala and they performed the presentation of Sacred Music Sacred Dance, which was comparable in exertion to a combination of participating in a performance of River Dance followed by playing in back-to-back football games. It takes six days of painstaking work to complete the mandala. When finished it is then swept away, illustrating the impermance of life. Below is a time frame video that shows both the building and the taking down of a mandala.

At the time we knew them, there were two groups of Llamas in the country, each working the same exhausting schedule. We nicknamed our guys, “The A Team.” Third from the left in the photo, is the translator. He spoke some English, and we spoke no Tibetan, but it worked out. Standing, second from the right, is the Geshe, which translates, Exalted Master. The Geshe of The A Team was nineteen, a year older than His Holiness the Dali Lama, when he and the Dali Lama, and a small group of Llamas crossed the mountains into India, where they sought and were granted asylum. More than 400 Llamas stayed behind pretending the Dali Lama was still in residence, in order to give the Dali Lama and his band time to make good their escape. When the Chinese discovered the subterfuge, they killed everyone they found in the monastery.

Today, in order to raise funds to support their monastery in India, groups of Llamas, like the A Team, are selected to present Sacred Music Sacred Dance and perform the ceremony of the sand mandalas all over the planet. But, they do a whole lot more than raise money. They raise consciousness. They lift spirits. And they make everyone they meet smile. Here are a few of the memorable moments we shared with them:

  • Sitting on a low rock wall that ran beside the steep driveway to the church, on a chilly, mist filled night, laughing with the Geshe as we watched his young Llamas enjoying a bag of bubble gum someone at a convenience store had given them.
  • Then, later that same evening, watching one of our church members trying to load six of the Llamas into his small SUV. It was a task that proved to be as formidable as herding cats.
  • A couple of weeks after that misty first night together we visited them at their temporary quarters in Atlanta. I will always remember watching home movies of the Dali Lama with them, as they laughed and made comments in a language unlike any I’d heard before.
  • The Sunday before their performance of Sacred Music Sacred Dance, they joined us at the church, for the dedication of our new Peace Pole, a six foot tall, square, cedar pole, with the phrase, “May Peace Prevail on Earth,” in four different languages. Knowing when I ordered the pole they would be present for the dedication, I specified that one of the languages be Tibetan. The ceremony was conducted outside as the congregation gathered around the pole. We spoke, the Llamas chanted, a soloist sang, Finlandia, and everyone gushed. Later, in the activity room, lunch was being prepared when the Translator came to me and said, “The Geshe would like to speak to you.” He was outside, sitting on the rock wall, looking at the Peace Pole. I sat down beside him, and he pointed at the peace pole, specifically at the side with the Tibetan words, looked at me, smiled, and in perfect English said, “It is upside down.” It took a minute for that register, but when it did, I cracked up and so did The Geshe.
  • And I remember like it was yesterday, making an unplanned stop at their Huntsville house, the day they were scheduled to leave, because we just wanted to see them one more time. I knocked on the front door, which was immediately opened by the youngest of the group, who wasn’t surprised at all to see us. He bowed and said, “The Geshe is expecting you.” And, of course he was. He gave us gifts, and we exchanged hugs with every member of The A Team.
  • I’ve heard a lot of people say, “You changed my life.” When I looked in The Geshe’s eyes that Sunday morning, twelve years ago, I knew how they felt.

The normal tour for a group of Llamas and their Geshe is fifteen months. The A Team agreed to do a second fifteen months after their first tour was complete. Lest you think being in America was a perk, and staying an extra fifteen months was a grand reward, let me enlighten you a bit. Being in America, or any western country, takes its toll on a group of men who normally live in an almost silent environment. It’s no fun for them, to say the least. However, the Llamas dedicate themselves to making the team. That means they work years and countless hours in order to pass the examinations that determine if they will be chosen for the assignment. Understand, the trip isn’t a reward, it’s an honor. It’s their opportunity to repay the debt they owe for the simple, contemplative life they live. There is only one perk in being selected for the tour, and that is the one-on-one time they have with the Geshe, who is their teacher, mentor, and friend. He is also a man they would not otherwise have such open access to. For the time they spend with him, they are truly thankful, and so am I.

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5 Responses to Tibetan Monks – Sand Mandalas

  1. Caleb Pirtle

    Some experiences are indeed once in a lifetime and need to be captured for all times in the frozen moment they happen. You could see the Monks every year for the rest of your life, but nothing would replace the first time you were in their presence. You did not remain the same when they had gone.

    • Bert

      You couldn’t be more right on. As I wrote the post last night, or rather, as the post wrote itself, I realized that The A Team has never left left me, nor will it ever leave me. Connections with others, none of which is more important than another, is what life is all about.
      I’m sure glad I connected with you my friend.
      Yours to count on,
      Bert recently posted…Tibetan Monks – Sand MandalasMy Profile

  2. Andrew says:

    Amazing post! I couldn’t help but smile as I read it. Never met a monk myself, but I’ve read a good bit about Buddhism and try to practice it every day. I have to tell you that how you described the A-Team acting sounds a lot like the accounts of monks and Zen Masters I’ve read about in my books. Of course, meeting them in person would be so much more enlightening! These men lead lives so different than our own, even those of us who practice Buddhism here in the West, and we could learn so much from them.

    • Bert

      I’m pleased that you enjoyed the post. The A Team is an awesome group. It was most interesting to note that no matter how long they are exposed to our culture, they are not “infected” by it. They chose their path and they never question it or waiver in their journey along it.
      Very soon I’ll be writing a post about Master Cheng, my long time friend, and for seven years my Tai Chi instructor. I think you’ll enjoy it also.
      Bert recently posted…Tibetan Monks – Sand MandalasMy Profile

  3. Hi Bert,
    Saw this on Twitter last night and realised that this is the Mystical Arts of Tibet tour with the monks of Drepung Loseling Monastery. The group still tours and we see some of the same lamas on repeat tours. The possibility exists that you could reconnect with some of the members in the future :)

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