A wheel of jewel-like beauty

Tibetan Buddhist monks construct a mandala from multicolored sand at the Crocker Art Museum this week. And you can watch. And, best of all, it’s free.

Monks from the Gaden Shartse Monastery, at home in India.

Monks from the Gaden Shartse Monastery, at home in India.

They drove into town last Friday.

That evening, eight Buddhist monks, who inhabit a monastery in the south of India and who are on the final leg of a 15-month tour around America, were relaxing at a private residence in Carmichael. The informal potluck supper, given in their honor by their gracious local hosts, provided a gentle expression of the type of East-meets-West cultural exchange that, at least in 21st-century California, seemed natural, comfortable and altogether non-alien.

A man who looked like he might be a local was seated on a leather couch next to a fireplace; next to him sat someone obviously not from around here—a monk, wearing a crimson sash and robe. They were talking about how a person might pursue enlightenment in a world filled with so many material distractions. Desire, of course, is at the core of the Buddha’s first of four noble truths—it is the root of all suffering. The American wanted some sound practical advice on how to minimize its assaults.

“Is there a specific technique you use?” he asked.

The monk, a compact man in his late 30s, didn’t hesitate.

“Contentment,” he answered. “I try to practice contentment during every waking moment.” He paused, then continued. “I accept what I have,” he said, “with gratitude.”

Talk about hitting a typical Westerner’s blind spot.

Of course, when sitting around shooting the breeze with a bunch of guys with close-cropped hair and red robes, you don’t reach for the usual reference points to establish common ground. It’s highly doubtful that these eight monks from the Gaden Shartse Monastery in Mundgod, which is in the state of Karnataka somewhere between Goa on the Malabar Coast and Bangalore in the interior of southern India, would know Chris Webber from Peja Stojakovic. Tibetan history, yes: Gaden Shartse, founded in 1415 by Great Master Tsongkhapa, is part of the Gelupa order of Tibetan Buddhism; the monastery itself was destroyed by the Chinese Communists mid-20th century, its monks driven into exile. The monastery was re-established in Mundgod in 1969.

Because the minutiae of American life seems like more of a distraction than a fascination to these monks, it is easy to lapse into hagiographic cliché when attempting to describe them—one shines with an inner radiance, another beams beatifically, triggering cynics’ alarm bells all over town. But the old line about chopping wood and carrying water, before and after reaching a state of enlightenment, seems to apply. Spending some time around them, experiencing their incandescent lightness of being firsthand, and your spirits cannot help but be lifted somewhat.

And you can spend some time around them this week. The monks began creating a mandala from colored sand in the Grand Ballroom at the Crocker Art Museum, 216 O St., on Tuesday; they will complete it on Saturday. Normally it costs $8 to get inside the Crocker, but if you tell them you’re there to watch the mandala take shape, they’ll let you in for free.

The mezzanine above the Grand Ballroom will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, and on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2:45 p.m., for anyone who would like to observe. (A special event at 7 p.m. on Thursday, January 10—a chanting ceremony and healing blessing—has also been prepared by the monks.)

What you’ll see is an exquisitely detailed circular form, about four feet in diameter. An outline for the dul-tson-kyil-khor, or mandala of many colors, was sketched out on the first day, after an opening ceremony that involved chanting. According to Lobsang Wangchuk, the one American-born monk in the group, the monks will have decided on the most appropriate mandala design via the time-honored vehicle of debate. Sacramento may have special needs, which necessitate a particular design.

A mandala, created with multicolored sand.

Over the four days that follow, the mandala’s details will be filled in slowly. Monks, four at a time, each using a chak-pur, or ritual funnel, will painstakingly distribute the various colored sands onto the outline. Starting in the center, then moving outward, an ancient design will come to life—in vivid color.

Wangchuk suggests that the mandala works on four levels: outer, inner, subtle and secret. “Just to see it, it makes an imprint on the mind,” he says. “It has the power to extract negativity, collected over many lifetimes.”

Certainly, gazing at a work of art—in an open-minded, unguarded way—can facilitate some measure of inner transformation, as any student of the esoteric will tell you. By visually drinking in its nectar-like attributes, the viewer can find a kind of healing. And, given the past year we experienced, we all could use some of that.

When the mandala is completed on Saturday, the monks won’t be reaching for a spray can of fixative to leave their masterpiece behind for posterity. Sure, they’ll invite the Buddha and his or her entourage into the mandala, which according to Wangchuk can change the character of the sand—"Buddhist substances have their own taste, for some reason,” he says.

But after that, the sand will be swept off the table, gathered and carried to a river for disposition. Some Buddhists claim that putting sand from a mandala into a river can cause it to rise.

“Wherever it’s put in a water source, usually it increases the living beings in the environment—like animals and birds,” Wangchuk says. “It also has the potential to generate more water. In Tibet, the water levels of the rivers would always rise; the lakes would always rise whenever the sand was emptied into the water.”

This might be a great idea during a drought year. However, in mid-January of what’s shaping up to be an El Niño-style wet one, prudence may be advised.

It’s something the monks are aware of. “We can give it away, so that it goes throughout the community into everybody’s homes,” Wangchuk says, “so this energy goes throughout Sacramento.”

Many Americans’ impression of contemporary Buddhism comes from two films—Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha in 1993 and Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Seven Years in Tibet in 1997, both of which focus on the religion in its Tibetan form. Rock/hip-hop group the Beastie Boys have done a lot of work, both with their Milarepa Foundation and their big multi-artist concerts, to raise the profile of Tibetan Buddhism. And it goes without question that the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan Gelupa school of Buddhism and titular head of Tibet’s government in exile, is the highest-profile Buddhist in the world.

It is the Dalai Lama whose ubiquitous red-robed form helps to make these monks seem so comfortingly familiar. Like the Dalai Lama, most of the monks are exiles from the Tibetan diaspora—India, Bhutan, Nepal.

In Lobsang Wangchuk’s case, he was living around Big Sur, like many of his generation, as a seeker. A Tibetan Lama had appeared in his dreams, and he traveled around looking for him. Then, when he helped a woman, whose teacher was about to arrive, clean her house, the teacher turned out to be the Lama in Wangchuk’s dream. “The teacher had somehow arranged for me to meet this woman and clean her house,” he recalls. Wangchuk followed the teacher back to India, to the Gaden Shartse Monastery.

When the monks finish their Sacramento sojourn with a sacred dance performance Saturday, January 19, at Christ Unity Church, 9249 Folsom Blvd., Wangchuk will drive them to Grass Valley, where they will construct a mandala inside St. Joseph’s Hall, and then to Mills College in Oakland. Then the monks will return to Gaden Shartse, and Wangchuk will proceed to Long Beach to await the arrival of another group of monks.

The sand from the Crocker mandala will most likely be in a riverbed somewhere, and a group of local peace activists will be massing to form a human mandala somewhere in town; they just haven’t figured out where yet.

And life will go on.