Geshe Palden Sangpo, a Tibetan Buddhist monk now based in Raleigh, spent more than 15 hours in the sacred space of Numel Lumen this week, intricately moving small grains of sand with specialized tools and creating a four-square meter square feet. Green Tara Sand Mandala.
Throughout the three days of construction of the mandala, the Elon campus and local communities were invited to view the progress of the creation of Sangpo, which symbolizes happiness, peace and prosperity. When he finally finished on September 16, Sangpo held a closing ceremony and destroyed the sand mandala.
According to Sandy Carlson, Chairman of the Board of the Kadampa Center. The slow action of gathering and then disturbing the sand – finely ground colored marble – symbolizes several Buddhist philosophies, including impermanence and the deconstruction of the ego. With each mandala there is a specific outline, design and color scheme which must be performed by the Geshe.
In the center the figure, Tara, a powerful female deity in Buddhism, is depicted. Although the sand mandala is two-dimensional, Sangpo said “the mandala is meditation”, and in creating the mandala, he enters a three-dimensional palace in which Tara is present.
This was the 10th year that Sanpo built a mandala on Elon’s campus. The Geshe teaches classes and provides ritual guidance at the Kadampa Center, but his journey began in eastern Tibet, where he was born and first decided to join the monastery.
However, due to religious persecution and the destruction of many Buddhist monasteries by Chinese authorities in the mid-20th century, Sangpo left Tibet at the age of 12. He crossed the Himalayas on foot to reach the monastery of Sera Jey Mahayana in southern India. After years of study, he graduated at age 29 and became one of the youngest to earn a Geshe degree.
Sangpo first visited Elon in 2003, when he was still living in Asia, and built a mandala with several other monks at Belk’s library. He moved to Raleigh in 2008 and began visiting Elon more regularly in 2013 after the dedication of sacred space Numen Lumen at the Truitt Center. It has returned every consecutive year except 2020.
University chaplain emeritus Richard McBride said he remembered visiting Sangpo and other monks in the early 2000s and was happy to see the Elon community become more open to this art form every year.
“I’m happy that the culture is much more open now. At first the students were open, but now the whole culture is open,” McBride said.
After the destruction of the mandala, Sangpo chants and traditional rituals of Tibetan Buddhism collected all the grains of sand and distributed them to the community members present. Some of the sand will also be transported to a body of water to be dispersed so it can spread throughout the community, drain to the ocean and share blessings with the world according to Carlson.
Sangpo has made nearly 100 sand mandalas, but recently he has been too busy to make more than one a year. He said he prioritizes Elon because of the large community and the relationship he has established with the Truitt Center. Sangpo said he received many requests from other organizations and universities, but due to other commitments he was unable to honor them.
Elise Streval, Outreach Director at the Kadampa Center, travels with Sangpo each year, coordinating the event and helping educate students about the rare and sacred art. Streval said Elon was lucky to witness the creation of the mandalas.
“He’s the only one in North Carolina, one of the few people in the United States and very few in the world who is qualified to do it,” Streval said. “The opportunity to see this is so incredibly rare. You know that. There are very few that are made.
Sangpo and Streval said they both hope to return next fall and create another mandala in the sacred space.