Drawing lines in the sand

Ritual: Visiting Tibetan monks are painstakingly creating a sacred sand image -- which they will cast into the harbor as a gesture of peace.

November 27, 1999|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

Ten Tibetan Buddhist monks are busily assembling an intricate image in sand on Federal Hill for a weekend exhibit at the American Visionary Art Museum.

The monks came to Baltimore Sunday to undertake the painstaking process of arranging millions of grains of sand -- almost grain by grain -- into a multicolored collage, as part of a 22-city U.S. tour to raise money for the Tibetan freedom movement and for their monastery.

Dressed in maroon and yellow sleeveless garments, the men place colored sand in a 16-inch metal funnel.

The funnel is gently tapped with a metal stick, and the vibrations slowly ease one of 25 colors of sand out of the shaft onto a flat surface approximately 4 feet square. The process sounds like fingernails scraping a chalkboard, but its intricacy leaves the audience dazzled.

"It's like expressing a prayer through art," said Adele F. Sands, 42, a visitor from Owings Mills.

The culmination comes tomorrow when the inch-thick sand image -- resembling a large, elaborately decorated cake -- will be scattered into the Inner Harbor in a symbolic water purification ceremony.

"The most important thing is the measurements," said Geshe Tsultrim Phuntsok, abbot of the Drepung Gomang Monastery in South India. "It's sacred, so we never make mistakes in measuring."

A mandala is a Tibetan art form dating back to the sixth century, created to symbolize worldwide and individual peace and "physical balance," according to Tibet's government in exile.

Every mandala, which usually takes about five days to construct, represents a distinct spiritual, emotional or political cause. The exhibit at the American Visionary Art Museum, on Key Highway in Federal Hill, is called the "Mandala of Avalokiteshvara" and symbolizes compassion.

Rebecca Hoffberger, the museum's founder and director, said the monks' work complements an exhibit on aliens and unidentified flying objects. "For me, this [mandala] talks about all those things -- angels, devils, and the spiritual realm," Hoffberger said.

But while many art forms cannot be enjoyed until they are complete, Hoffberger said, museum patrons get aesthetic joy from watching the monks draw lines of sand less than a half-inch wide.

"It's that moment of ecstasy when you see the [process] rather than when it's finished," Hoffberger said, noting that the monks immediately disperse the sand when the mandala is complete.

The dispersion ceremony will be held at 10 a.m. tomorrow at the Inner Harbor boardwalk near the Maryland Science Center, where the sand, brought from India, will be thrown into the harbor.

"We sweep the sand, take it in a jar, and pour it in the water so the stream can heal," Phuntsok said. "And when it flows, it can bring peace to the world."

While in Baltimore, the monks are being sponsored by Virginia Eanes of Highlandtown, who met them Aug. 3 at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York while she waited for her daughter's flight from the Dominican Republic.

Drawn by their spirit

"I was complaining [earlier to my daughter], `Why don't you fly to Dulles or BWI?' " Eanes said. "But I met the monks, got blessed by the monks, so I guess that's why I am here -- I was drawn" by their spirit.

Eanes had arranged for the monks to stay in a hotel, but on Sunday, after she took them for a ride on her 34-foot sailboat, the group decided to sleep on the boat all week.

On Thanksgiving, the men greeted churchgoers at the predominantly black City Temple Baptist Church in West Baltimore with their two-handed handshake and standard bow.

The monks chanted in the sanctuary during a ceremony and then spent an hour serving meals to the homeless.

"Pilgrims came here [because of] persecution, and the monks happened to be here the same day to help end their religious persecution," Eanes said. "Wherever they go, people are amazed that they are so spiritual, so persecuted and so dedicated."

There were 5,500 monks at Drepung Gomang Monastery when China completed its invasion of Tibet in 1959. But when the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan Buddhists, fled into exile, the monastery rebuilt itself in India with 60 other exiled Tibetans. Since China relaxed its grip on Tibet in 1980, more Tibetans have fled, and the monastery's population has swelled to 1,300, said Phuntsok. This tour, which required 40 tons of sand from India and is expected to raise about $50,000, will be used to defray costs at the monastery.

Raising awareness

But more important, Phuntsok said, is raising awareness of the Tibetan freedom movement. Recently at the American Visionary Art Museum, a school-age girl watching the monks complained about having too much homework.

Monastery and museum officials told the girl about the monks, who are required to learn 2,000 words of Buddhist teachings each day.

"I said, first they had to a climb over a mountain where they got shot at in order to study 2,000 words a day," Eanes said. "The girl quickly stopped complaining."

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