Red Hot Lamas

Before work even begins on a Tibetan sand mandala, there are chants and music to purify the five-foot-square site where the painting's intricate patterns will soon emerge. The preparation is an impressive sight in itself: Clad in golden robes, elaborate brocades and awesome fringed hats that rise above their heads like a flock of rising suns, a small group of monks creates a spiritual fanfare with primitive trumpets, drums and cymbals, touching a primal nerve in all who observe them. Then the real work begins.

After a geometric outline based on one of many traditional cosmograms is drawn on the surface of a flat platform, the monks crouch over it, dropping grains of brightly colored sand in delicate rows, forming the complex shapes and symbols of the mandala over a period of several days. In early times they used ground gems--lapis, rubies and emeralds. Now more mundane materials serve the same purpose, as Tibet's riches have disappeared in the wake of the 1959 Chinese occupation that left the country's ancient culture in exile.

The sand mandala is an age-old purification ritual. Once completed, the mandala is dismantled and swept into a multicolored dune of sand, then poured into a river in order to spread its healing energies throughout the world--a tall order in any time. Now, however, Tibetans --such as the monks of the Drepung Loseling Monastery, who've created a mandala this week at the Museum of Outdoor Arts and will perform multiphonic singing and other Tibetan arts Friday at the Temple Events Center Uptown--use these ceremonial folk arts to spread word of their people's plight.

"Our main objective is to promote peace and healing in the world," says Geshe Lobsang Tenzin, a scholar and lama based in Atlanta who is a spokesman for the Drepung Loseling Monastery, which now makes its home in southern India, far across the mountains from Tibet. "The spiritual culture of Tibet has dedicated itself to the practices of cultivating peace and harmony for many centuries. By sharing sacred music and art forms, we might inspire the same positive qualities that this culture represents, such as love and compassion.

"Second, we hope to raise awareness about the fragility of Tibetan culture," Geshe Lobsang continues. "To accomplish our goals of restoring human rights through nonviolent means requires support from the rest of the world. And third, we do this to raise funds for the monastery, which provides education for 2,500 monks, many of them recent refugees from Tibet."

For the monks--whose formal training, a twenty-year journey, begins at age fourteen or fifteen--the kind of diligence required to complete a sand mandala is ingrained. They typically rise at around five in the morning for a communal prayer and meditation session before settling down to their morning studies; a full slate of activities is already under their belts before nine, when they gather for morning debate sessions. A unique form of learning that is thousands of years old, the debates are formal discourses in Buddhist philosophy. Then it's time for lunch, followed by more classes, prayer and evening debates that often go on until midnight. Tibetan monks, it seems, don't sleep much.

"Life in exile is challenging, but we're successful in preserving our culture and religion," Geshe Lobsang says. Many Tibetans, he adds, are still fleeing their homeland, where an influx of Chinese nationals continues to decimate the old culture in spite of recent worldwide focus on the situation spurred by films such as Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet. Escape is fraught with dangers, from frostbite to capture. "But once Tibetans are able to make it to India or Nepal and meet with the Dalai Lama, they feel very safe."

In recent years, several groups of monks, including the Drepung Loseling contingent, have toured the world, putting on astonishing displays of music and dance and performing on stage with everyone from the Grateful Dead's Mickey Hart to composer Philip Glass and rap's Beastie Boys. It's not necessarily the most natural arena for a troupe of religious scholars. Still, they've succeeded in drawing attention to Tibet's plight, and they've also established an international following that borders on cult status. And that's not a bad thing.

"It's very rewarding to see people appreciating our work--not just in the sense of thinking we do a nice show, but also relating to something on a more personal level," Geshe Lobsang says. "We really hope that people who are able to see a mandala or performance will find something in the presentation that will go beyond mere entertainment."

--Froyd

The Mystical Arts of Tibet, September 3-30, Madden Gallery, Museum of Outdoor Arts, 7600 East Orchard Road, #160N, Englewood, 303-741-3609. Opening reception September 3, 5-7 p.m.

Sacred Music Sacred Dance for World Healing, 7 p.m. Friday, September 4, Temple Events Center Uptown, 1595 Pearl Street, $15, 303-830-

 
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