Lobsang Jamyang sat cross-legged, hunched over the outline of a mandala, pouring a radiant red sand, grain by grain, out of a hollow metal funnel as part of a centuries-old tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.

A mask covered his mouth and nose, as the smallest sneeze or slightest breath could disrupt his control.

For the last year, Jamyang has toured the United States with monks from the Drepung Gomang Monastery to raise support for a community of refugee monks living in southern India. On Monday, the group arrived at Hancock College for a four-day visit — their fourth since 2013 — to share Tibetan Buddhist teachings and authentic traditions through chanting, sacred performances and construction of the intricate sand mandala.

"[The monks] have a message of peace and compassion that they are spreading, and it's beautiful to be able to bring that to the college," said Laura-Susan Thomas, director of the college's Ann Foxworthy Gallery."This is something I think can connect [to] our students. We have stressful lives — our students have testing — so [we wanted] to bring something that has an aspect of mindfulness and well-being to our college."

The Drepung Monastery was founded in 1416 near Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. The communist People's Republic of China invaded the country in 1949, integrating the once-free nation into their country by 1951.

"We were a free country before — there were no soldiers and no armies," said Monlam Gyatso, one of Drepung monks on the tour. "Now the Chinese control everything."

Prior to the 1959 Tibetan Uprising, which left thousands dead and prompted the Dalai Lama to flee into northern India, the Drepung monastery was one of the largest in the world, boasting more than 10,000 monks. It has since been re-established in Mundgod, India, as part of a larger Tibetan refugee colony.

"The donations help our students," added Gyatso, who estimates roughly 1,700 monks live in the southern India monastery. "Everything — housing, food, medical treatment — is provided by donations to the monastery office."

Featuring powerful guttural chants, hand gestures, cymbals, drums, horns and flutes, Monday morning's opening ceremony brought chants and prayers for peace, prosperity and healing to the gallery. Thomas said the ceremony consecrates and purifies the space in preparation for the mandala.

Over four days, the monks follow the geometric outline on the board and place the sand one grain at a time using chakpur, the pair of metal funnels traditionally used as tools. By Thursday afternoon, the once-empty board will be transformed into a complete Green Tara mandala, a representation of one of Tibetan Buddhism's sacred deities.

According to Thomas, the monks will destroy the mandala on Thursday afternoon as part of their dissolution ceremony. Sitting in a circle around the completed mandala, chanting prayers to devote and bless the symbolic artwork, the monks will take a brush and sweep the sands — a visual representation of life's impermanence.

People in attendance will receive a bit of the sacred sand to take with them. The rest will be poured into a nearby river or stream to carry the mandala's healing energies throughout the world.

"Nothing is forever in our lives, and we just need to remind ourselves of that," Thomas said.

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Lobsang Jamyang scrapes hollow metal tubes to release colored sand onto a blank canvas, beginning an intricate sand mandala at Hancock College’s Ann Foxworthy Gallery.

Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga


Education Reporter

Mathew Burciaga is a Santa Maria Times reporter who covers education, agriculture and public safety. Prior to joining the Times, Mathew ran a 114-year-old community newspaper in Wyoming. He owns more than 40 pairs of crazy socks from across the globe.