Monks bring wisdom to Lichfield (ic Birmingham, UK)

ic Birmingham (UK): In the chapter house of Lichfield Cathedral two Tibetan monks are sitting cross-legged on chairs scooping coloured sand from pots and tapping it onto a table to create a vibrant, geometric pattern. A third is curled up asleep on the floor.

This is not the only incongruous image created by these shaven-headed, ruby-robed chaps who are visiting Lichfield this week. They have also been spotted dancing around the cathedral close and visiting children at a school in Nechells, Birmingham.

Monks from the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in Southern India are taking part in the Lichfield Festival as part of a five month tour of Britain.

“The reason for coming to England is to bring our culture to the West,” said Kachen Lobsang, though an interpreter.

“We want to show the people here about the existence of Tibetan Buddhism.

“It is important that we explain about the religious culture of Tibet because the culture is being destroyed. It is being wiped out. ”

The Tashi Lhunpo Monastery was founded in 1447 by the first Dalai Lama in Shigatse, the second largest city in Tibet.

By 1959, there were 5,000 monks there and another 2,000 affiliated to it outside Tibet. However, the Chinese occupation and Cultural Revolution of 1966 wrecked the great monasteries and in 1972, under the patronage of the present Dalai Lama, the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery was re-established in the Southern Indian state of Karnataka.

Today some 250 monks live in the monastery, preserving their Tibetan culture and monastic tradition in exile. They visit Britain every two years.

“We have found the schools and students very interested in our culture,” said Lobsang, who was also taking part in a concert with his monks in the cathedral on Tuesday night.

“People who have seen us before, come back to hear us every two years.”

Tibetan Buddhism is undoubtedly one of the more colourful styles of the religion.

Unlike some schools of Buddhism in which all that is needed is a comfortable stool upon which to meditate, the Tibetan culture is rich in hues and deities.

A good example of this is the sand mandala that the monks are creating all week in the chapter house of the cathedral.

Over a period of five or six days, the monks painstakingly pick up coloured sand in a metal cylinder and then gently tap the cylinder, dropping the sand in a particular place on the table.

The sand is made from marble, which is then dyed by the monks, though traditionally lapis-lazuli would be used to make blue sand and rubies would be used to make the red and so on.

The mandala is a geometric pattern or design enclosed in a circle, which represents the celestial mansion of one or more of the deities. Each element of the design is highly symbolic.

The mandala being made in the chapter house this week, is known as the Mitrukpa mandala. At the heart of it is the Mitrukpa Buddha, represented by a thunderbolt, which is placed on the lotus throne, attended by the sun and moon.

“The different deities are represented by symbols because there is not enough space to draw the whole figure,” said Lobsang.

“We make the mandalas as a form of prayer. They are for visualisation. When you receive the initiation of a certain mandala, the priest, or lama, is letting you visual certain deities.”

The idea is that through being able to visual the deities, the monks develop their qualities.

The two monks making the mandala in the chapter house were referring to a coloured picture to show them were to paint the sand, but Lobsang – who has the equivalent of a PhD in Tibetan Buddhism – knows the intricate pattern by heart.

Before a monk begins practising using the technique for placing the sand, he has to first learn the meaning of the symbols.

White for example, is always placed at the East side of a mandala, so he will study the East and its significance before he can put down the white sand.

“Once the mandala has been completed the head monk calls on the deities and asks them to enter the mandala,” said Lobsang.

When the deities are present, the monks ask for their help in achieving their wishes and prayers.

“Then there is a closing ceremony when the deities are asked to take their leave and the mandala is destroyed to symbolise the impermanence of everything in the world. Everything, beautiful or ugly comes to an end,” he said.

Lobsang said he was particularly delighted to be making the mandala in the cathedral.

“We are very pleased to be in such an old and big and beautiful cathedral. We have been coming to England every two years and we have seen a lot of cathedrals from the outside but this is the first time we’ve made a mandala inside.”

Doubtless when the deities are asked to arrive, they will feel just as at home there.

l The monks will be making the mandala in the chapter house until Saturday.

l For further details of the Lichfield Festival go to www.LichfieldFestival.org

Original article no longer available…

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