Twenty Tibetan monks chanted, played music and danced at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery yesterday before beginning one of the largest sand paintings ever made in the West. Their mission: to help America heal.
The monks began work on their creation on the four-month observance of September 11. The sand painting, or mandala, will measure 7 feet by 7 feet and will take more than two weeks to complete. In December, the monks worked on a mandala in New York.
The mandala is a geometric composition that contains deities and that Buddhists believe symbolizes the universe. The painting’s lines are first drawn, then filled with millions of grains of brightly colored sand. After the mandala is complete, it is swept up to symbolize the passing nature of life, and the sands are dumped into a body of water to disperse the mandala’s healing powers.
The monks performed their ceremony before a packed house on the lower level of the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, which along with the Freer Gallery of Art forms the National Museum of Asian Art for the United States.
The room, resembling a boxing ring with its low lighting, stifling heat and people crowding in a circle around the middle, was filled with individuals from varied backgrounds, all with different reasons for coming here.
Some came out of cultural, intellectual and artistic interest, some came out of curiosity, and some came to participate in the ceremony.
With the ceremony over and the crowd thinning, Meredith McVeety sat on the ground in the lotus position, her face expressionless.
Ms. McVeety, 27, said she had been meditating but she did not know for how long. “Once everybody got up I realized I was still still,” she said.
Ms. McVeety, a religious studies and elementary education student at Virginia Commonwealth University, said she was raised a Christian but has been a practicing Tibetan Buddhist since 1999. The ceremony was invigorating for her, she said.
“It brought me back to something I’ve been drifting from. It was kind of like coming home.”
Patty Inglis, who used to work at the Smithsonian, appreciated the monks’ selflessness in light of the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1949 and its occupation since.
“I think it’s interesting that a culture that has been so [affected] by its own horrors is now trying to help us with our own,” she said.
Jeff Pinder, 31, of Hyattsville, came with his wife. He said he was fascinated by the ceremony and felt it was something spiritual that more Americans needed to experience.
“What’s so interesting is this really deep sense of ritual,” he said. “American crowds aren’t used to something like this. They’re very restless. I’m included.”
Amauta Marston, a 10-year-old who came with his Buddhist mother, said he had seen many similar ceremonies.
“My favorite thing is the little trumpets,” he said.
The monks will work on the sand mandala from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. each day until Jan. 27. On that day, they will hold a closing ceremony and promptly dismantle their work.