The Sand Mandala

In Buddhism, the sand mandala is an ancient tradition once reserved for monks. The Keydong nuns are among the first Tibetan women monastics to learn this sacred art practice. At Trinity College in 1998, they were the first Buddhist nuns to create a sand mandala in the United States. Keydong nuns returned to Trinity to create a second mandala in February 2005.

On Thursday, September 13, a day deemed auspicious on the Tibetan calendar, four nuns will start creating a third mandala in the Austin Arts Center’s Garmany Hall, from brightly colored sand they are bringing from Nepal.

In the Himalayan valley where the Keydong nunnery is located, the monastic women collect nuggets of white marble that they crush, wash, and dry it in the sun. The sand is divided and dyed in five colors—red, blue, yellow, green, and white—representing the five “Buddha families,” which contain multiple levels of meaning.

The mandala will take one month to complete, and will measure approximately eight by eight feet, according to Ani Ngawang Tendol, a Keydong nun who serves as the group’s leader and interpreter. (“Ani” is the honorific prefix given to a nun’s name in Tibetan Buddhism, and means “Nun.”)

Both graphic and abstract in design, the intricate forms and spiritual symbols of a mandala can be “read” by the initiated. At the center is a square diagram of a palace inhabited by an enlightened celestial being. In this case, it is Avalokiteshvara, the Buddhist deity of compassion. Multiple circles surround the deity’s palace.

“Mandala: The Sacred Art of Sand” opens to the public on Friday, September 14. Visitors should be prepared to take off their shoes before entering Garmany Hall. That day, public viewing of the mandala making is from 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m., and is followed by a keynote lecture entitled “Tradition Changing Women, Women Changing Tradition: The Interface of Tibetan Nuns and the Sacred Art of Sand Mandala Making” by Melissa R. Kerin, Assistant Professor of Art History, Washington and Lee University, which will take place at 4:30 p.m. in the adjacent Goodwin Theater.

Thereafter, observers are welcome on weekdays from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and on Saturdays from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. through October 13. There will be occasions when Garmany Hall must be closed for the nuns’ religious observances, so if you are travelling from a distance, you are welcome to call ahead of your visit: (860) 297-2199.

On Sunday, October 14 at 12:00 noon, the nuns will ceremoniously dismantle the mandala and disperse the sands into the Connecticut River at Charter Oak Landing in a gesture signifying the impermanence of life. The public is invited to observe these rituals. School buses on Summit Street, adjacent to Mather Hall, will provide free, round-trip transportation to the public. Seating is first-come, first-served.