Carrboro - Eight Tibetan Buddhist monks have worked steadily this week to create art that is intended from the very beginning to be swept away.

“You will first go around three times and offer the mandala to the deity,” Yonten Gyatso explained through interpreter Dawa Tsering. “In this particular case, the mandala is the mandala of Avalokiteshvara, the deity of compassion.”

“After circling the mandala three times, it will be destroyed,” he said.

Gyatso is a Geshe Lharampa, a monastic degree awarded only after 23 years of study. He is leading the monks during their Sacred Art Tour, which arrived at the ArtsCenter on Monday.

Bent closely over their work, the monks cannot breathe without face masks for fear that they might disturb the sand art. The gallery is quiet, except for the low chatter of visitors and the steady buzz of the chak-pur, the instrument traditionally used to create mandalas.

Under their steady hands, millions of grains of colored sand form a universe: delicate, complex, harmonious. By these same hands it will be dispersed.

Kelly Cox, a volunteer present at the exhibit, said some visitors misunderstand the message of the mandala.

“One of the purposes of the mandala is impermance,” Cox said. “But people want to take photos of it; they want to somehow acquire it for themselves once the exhibit is finished. The message is that nothing lasts in life, that you have to be able to let go of your material possessions. But the monks are very understanding.”

Tsultrim Dorjee, a member of the group, said they have completed 24 mandalas before their visit to Carrboro, the end of a nearly year-long tour of the United States. Each mandala responds to the community they visit. The monks spent last week in Baltimore, Maryland – an area torn by rioting and violence – in prayer and diligent work, crafting a mandala for world peace, Dorjee said.

They come from Drepung Gomang Monastery. First established in Tibet in 1416, the monastery was displaced in 1959 by the occupation of communist China. In 1969, the monks were able to re-establish the monastery in Mundgod, South India. They remain refugees, seeking to share their culture but also to help save it.

“We need help from the Western peoples,” Dorjee said.

And they have received help. Gyatso said that he has grown to appreciate the generosity and kindness of people in the United States, as well as the freedom which the American people enjoy.

“To that extent,” Gyatso’s interpreter explained, “he has a different view of the world (now), a more appreciative view.”

In 1999, when the monastery began sending monks to America, they had no U.S. base. The Drepung Gomang Institute has since been established in Louisville, Kentucky, as a branch of the monastery. It is here that the monks’ tour begins and ends.

Today, the monks travel for a full year through many cities, sharing Tibetan culture and Buddhist teachings as they go. In some cities, the mandala is central to the exhibit; in others, cultural performances help celebrate their traditions.

But the sacred rituals by which the mandala is constructed remain the same.

“The basic consecration (is) at the opening ceremony,” Gyatso said. “At the closing ceremony, there will also be prayers. At the beginning of every day, they pray; at the end of every day, they pray.”

The finished mandala will be open for public viewing from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. Thursday and Friday and 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday in the gallery of the ArtsCenter. The final presentation and dispersal ceremony will begin at 2 p.m. Saturday.

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