News and Tribune

July 12, 2013

Labrang Tashi Kyil monks construct sand mandala at Carnegie Center in New Albany


NEW ALBANY — Underneath the hum of a traditional singing bowl, gentle taps and scrapes could be faintly heard at the Carnegie Center in New Albany this week.

Seven Tibetan Buddhist monks sat hunched over a wooden canvas, their minds focused on funneling colored sand into intricate designs.

Since May, these men from the Labrang Tashi Kyil Monastery in India have been touring the United States with a goal of educating communities about peace, Buddhism and the Tibetan way. Based out of the Tibetan and Mongolian Cultural Center in Bloomington, the group relies on the kindness of the support of people from the towns and cities they visit. Any donations or other funds made from their visit will go back to help with some much-needed repairs to their monastery.

While the Carnegie Center provided the building for the sand mandala’s construction, New Albany residents Keith and Anne Schmidt have sponsored their stay while in the river town. About a year and a half ago, the Schmidts traveled to India and went to this monastery where they met some of the monks. When the opportunity arose to host them in Southern Indiana, they welcomed the chance.

“Anytime they can come into a community and broaden people’s understanding of who they are and their culture and the situation that they come from, I think that’s a great thing,” Anne Schmidt said. “I think we all just feel better when we have a chance to branch out and know people from places we’ve never even dreamt about.

“Suddenly, the next time you hear something going on in that part of the world, you can relate it to something that you’ve experienced.”


Buddhist monk Tenpa Phuntsok has had quite a few experiences himself traveling around America. At the age of 8, Phuntsok began his Buddhist training.

Unlike some of the other monks, the 25-year-old was born in India as a Tibetan refugee. His grandparents, like many others, escaped Tibet after the Chinese occupation. Through his work, the young monk continues to bring awareness to the history and culture of his family’s native land. 

Not every Tibetan monk can construct mandalas. Like any art form, it’s a specialized skill. Still, errors do occur. And monks, even those with a tranquil mind working on an artwork about peace, can still sometimes get tired and discouraged.

“We do sometimes make mistakes like the tool will fall on the mandala or sometimes the fold of our clothes,” Phuntsok said. “It’s difficult. You have to focus…. every line. You have to choose the right color.”

Eventually on the wooden board in the Carnegie Center, the earth would form from the fine particles laid by Phuntsok and his friends. Then, a grouse, a hare, a monkey and an elephant started to take shape. According to the center’s curator Karen Gillenwater, the animals symbolize the tale of the Four Harmonious Brothers — a lesson she hopes those seeing the mandala will understand.

“They have a story that they are sharing with the people who come about those brothers and how they’ve learned how to respect each other and create this harmonious community,” she said. “I hope that message comes across to all the visitors too.”


Continuing the message of tolerance, emblems from various religions also surround the circular creation. Phuntsok said he believes all world religions have similar goals of love, peace and compassion as well as the quest to help others. Each, he said, just has different ways to achieve these objectives.

In his own faith, impermanence and constant change are major tenants of the Buddha’s teachings. This mandala is not immune. Once each piece of sand is specially placed and the design is finished, the monks will destroy their finished product after having worked on it for more than five days.

Clarksville resident Jeannine Anson and her daughter Carol White watched the monks construct the mandala Wednesday. White said everyone could learn a thing or two from the experience. After commenting on the monks’ patience and nerves, Anson drew a similar conclusion about the destruction of the mandala, likening it to another religious order’s practices.

“It reminds me of the tradition of the Amish and the quilts. They always make a humility square to prove only God is perfect,” Anson said.

Instead of being preserved in the museum like an exhibit of quilts on display now, this work of art will find its way into the homes and pockets of onlookers. The remaining sand will be swept away and deposited in the Ohio River by the monks.

“At the end when they do the closing ceremony, they sweep up the sand and let people take some so they can have some of the healing,” Gillenwater said. “But then they put the rest of it in the river so that it will travel out to the rest of the world, which is cool to think about it starting here and then traveling on.”


• The word “mandala” is from the classical Indian language of Sanskrit. Loosely translated to mean “circle,” a mandala is far more than a simple shape. It represents wholeness, and can be seen as a model for the organizational structure of life itself — a cosmic diagram that reminds us of our relation to the infinite, the world that extends both beyond and within our bodies and minds.

Describing both material and non-material realities, the mandala appears in all aspects of life: the celestial circles we call earth, sun, and moon, as well as conceptual circles of friends, family, and community.