A Tsawa monk from India works on a sand mandala at the North Country Cultural Center for the Arts in Plattsburgh.
PLATTSBURGH — The monks sat cross-legged, bent at the waist as they created the sand mandala on the ground between them.
Seven Tsawa monks touring the United States from southern India spent more than 30 hours creating the work of art, only to later pour it into the Saranac River during a dissolution ceremony meant to pass the knowledge to the creatures in the water.
They spent nearly two weeks in the area before moving on to another leg of their tour.
“The festival has grown from a very small thing at SUNY Plattsburgh to a community-wide effort,” said Janine Scherline, executive director of the North Country Cultural Center for the Arts. “To have seven monks here from a monastery in India is pretty amazing.”
The Festival of Tibetan Arts and Rituals occurred April 5-28, and was brought to the area by the Adirondack Center for Tibet in partnership with the North Country Cultural Center for the Arts, Plattsburgh State, the Maya Center for Integrated Medicine & The Cultural Affairs Committee and Clinton Community College.
The Tsawa monks are from Gaden Jangtse Monastery in South India, and are touring America to raise awareness of Tibetan Buddhism.
Gaden Monastery, one of three major Buddhist monastic universities of Tibet, was founded in 1409 and at one point contained 7,000 monks.
After 1959, it was rebuilt in exile in south India and today houses roughly 1,400 monks.
There are 12 houses (khangsten) within the monastery that accommodate monks from different geographical backgrounds.
Tsawa khangsten is one of the largest and when Tibet was free it was home to more than 800 monks. After 1959, 10 escaped to India, and in 1960 their monastery was built to house about 100 monks. More than 500 are there today.
“They are trying to raise funds for a new prayer hall,” Scherline said.
Prior to and during their time in the region, area students and community members explored the monks’ culture through art, meditation, performances and more.
“This gives us a chance to engage with cultures that are half a world away,” said Scherline. “They are refugees that lost their homeland.”
The Dalai Lama and many of his supporters fled Tibet and took refuge in India when Chinese troops moved in and took control of Lhasa in 1959. India is home to roughly 100,000 Tibetans whose government-in-exile is not recognized by any country.
“They are amazing, lovely and gentle,” Scherline said of the monks.
The monks spent their time in the area demonstrating ritual Cham Dances, a Buddhist ceremony performed at the beginning of the year to expel or pacify evil; conducting pulse readings and prayer, the latter of which entailed deep-throated chanting and instruments; creating sculptures of colored butter in the image of deities, flowers, animals and symbols; and constructing the sand mandala.
Using ancient techniques, the monks created the sand mandala at the North Country Cultural Center for the Arts. Sand mandalas are depictions of the mansions of enlightened beings and are made with crushed stones or painted sand.
The mandala takes wisdom, and as people come and watch and sometimes pray, the colors teach peace, love and kindness, explained Dr. Geshe Dorji Wangchuk, tour leader.
It has four directions, each with its own meaning, and the five colors equal the elements.
“You want to achieve enlightenment,” Wangchuk said. “First you need to balance all elements, and your mind is always fresh.”
It is also about removing suffering and achieving liberation.
“We all have Buddhist nature,” Wangchuk said. “You practice love and kindness and your Buddhist nature can come up.”
Plattsburgh State student Katelyn McMahon found her time with the monks interesting and eye opening. She had no idea the area offered such activities.
“You usually don’t see that unless it is on Discovery or the History Channel,” she said.