Buddhist monks to enlighten University

By Saleet Wolf

A community sometimes known for being cold and competitive will soon receive a lesson in compassion. Tibetan Buddhists are moving into Rockefeller Chapel to begin a weeklong festival of their culture, displaying art and discussing their practices in meditation, philosophy, and healing.

The main attraction will be the creation of a mandala, a complex and intricate design made out of colorful grains of sand.

One of the monks, Geshe Gendun Gyatso, in conjunction with Alison Boden, dean of the Chapel, put together the weeklong event, which begins on October 16 and culminates in the destruction of the piece of art on October 23.

The mandala creation is a Tibetan Buddhist tradition and is usually learned by monks during their 10th or 11th year of study, according to Gendun. While it is easy to appreciate the beauty of the design, trained monks have a richer appreciation for the artwork, organizers said.

“An ordinary person sees a sand mandala, but if you have the power, you see paradise and can communicate with the buddhas,” Gendun said.

Gendun and fellow monks will speak on October 21st through 23rd at 5:30 p.m. in the chapel, discussing their work and other religious topics. Related events include meditation every morning in the Chapel at 9 a.m., and a lecture on Buddhism and Violence on October 20st at 7 p.m. in the Divinity School by Geshe Sopa from Madison, Wisconsin. The week’s events are co-sponsored by the Center for East Asian Studies.

Boden came into contact with Geshe Gendun through a mutual friend who thought that Rockefeller Chapel would be a good location for a sand mandala.

“From the beginning Geshe Gendun was enthusiastic,” Boden said.

Gendun has created similar projects in several places, including Harvard and Boston Universities.

After Gendun lived in exile throughout India with fellow Tibetan monks, he moved to America and was helped by a Tibetian Buddhist living in Madison.

Gendun currently lives in downtown Chicago and works as a spiritual counselor at various centers, including Healing Junction and Illinois Masonic Integrated Center. He said he put careful thought into the type of mandala he has chosen to build, as is consistent with his theme of spiritual healing.

“I chose a healing mandala to create at [the University] because students’ health is very important, and this art is healing for the mind,” Gendun said.

Boden said that in the history of the Chapel, there has never been a production like this. Although it is difficult to predict the attendance at the events, several local school groups are already set to visit the exhibit. Similarly, several religious organizations and associations, in addition to college students and interested locals, are expected to visit.

Boden sees the event as a success for the Chapel and its effects as far-reaching.

“I hope that [the mandala event] will make the Chapel even more of a site for religious and spiritual growth and exploration for people of all religious backgrounds,” Boden said.

Members of the University community support the event and the implications it holds for Rockefeller Chapel.

“It’s an excellent opportunity to see a working tradition of Buddhism that may be unfamiliar to most people,” said Beatrice Lin, a professor of organic chemistry. “Regardless of the number of people that do get to see the mandala, its blessings and the merit generated by the monks creating it is a success unto itself.”

The sand mandala kicks off a string of planned programs celebrating the Chapel’s 75th anniversary. Other events on the calendar include displaying the national AIDS quilt in December, viewing the silent film Joan of Arc accompanied by the Chapel Choir and University Orchestra, an exhibit in Regenstein Library on the Chapel’s history, a play, and guest preachers throughout the year.