The table was just the right height for the monk, who stood bent at the waist, head bowed, each hand clasping a slender 10-inch-long brass funnel that narrowed to an opening so small it could release only a few grains of sand at a time.
He was dressed in orange and deep red robes with a swath of fabric draped over his left shoulder, his right arm bare. Using a whittling motion, he gently rubbed the funnel in his right hand againt the one on his left, creating just enough vibration to jar the brightly colored sand through the narrow hole onto a pattern drawn on the table. The strokes along the funnel's serrated side filled the air with a buzz similar to the sound of locusts on a hot, dry day.
This is Tenzin Yignyen, a Tibetan Buddhist monk now living in Geneva, N.Y. Yignyen, who has constructed several mandalas for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, led construction of the Chenrezig Mandala at Simmons Hall last weekend, with assistance by Tenzin L.S. Priyadarshi, MIT's Buddhist chaplain who is also a disciple of the Dalai Lama and is affiliated with the Namgyal Monastery, the personal monastery of the Dalai Lama.
The mandala they laid out is an intricate image of colored sand designed in accord with instructions found in an ancient Buddhist text written at least 1,000 years ago. Its construction symbolizes creation of the universe in a three-dimensional circular pattern where everything finds it proper place. The Chenrezig Mandala is designed to bring compassion, acceptance and peace into the world, and to encourage an appreciation for diversity in the MIT community.
"If you're lacking compassion in your practice, you're missing one of the central ideas of Buddha's teaching," Priyadarshi said at an evening ceremony on March 3. "We want the community to take an example about diversity from the mandala. No grain of sand is uniform, but in this mandala, each grain has a place. The creator tries to lay down sand grain by grain and bring into being a world of compassion and beauty. While building it, we will think about what it is that makes us unique as human beings. Harmony and peace begin in us."
The monks began their highly disciplined work on Wednesday, March 2 and on each of the next four mornings by chanting prayers. Despite the importance of the intricate detail in the mandala ("We are very orthodox about the details since everything that appears on the mandala is a symbolic representation of something; you cannot mess them up," said Priyadarshi), their concept of ceremony welcomes the imperfections of humanity. They were so welcoming, in fact, that the room in Simmons Hall had more than 1,500 visitors from Friday through Sunday, according to Professor John Essigmann, housemaster of Simmons.
The mandala took about 50 hours to create and could have been destroyed by a clumsy kick of the table or a well-placed sneeze, but the monks invited the public to observe its construction anyway. For a couple of hours on Friday afternoon, photographers from The Boston Globe, The Boston Herald, the Associated Press and Boston-area Buddhist communities crowded around the monks working at the table, vying for the best shot, while reporters from WBUR's "Here and Now" show and WMBR (MIT's radio station) walked around with audio equipment. Parents brought their young children to see the spiritual work of art and Simmons residents stopped by periodically to check its progress.
The monks worked on, untroubled by the hubbub around them. They moved to the Simmons dining hall on Saturday to teach children how to create their own sand mandalas. The next evening, Priyadarshi screened a film on the significance of the tradition and discussed it with the audience.
On Monday morning, the two monks dismantled the mandala they had worked so hard to perfect. Following a short ceremony, they scooped the sand into a clear glass vase.
"We will pour it into the Charles River, hoping that the energy these grains of sand have absorbed through all our prayers and aspirations of creating a peaceful world will be carried on wherever this water flows, thereby highlighting the Buddha's teachings on impermanence and compassion," Priyadarshi said.
The monks strode at a brisk clip through the wind-blown snow, trailed by about 30 people struggling to keep pace. The two were identical from the back--coatless, their bare heads shorn, wearing sensible boots and identical robes--except that Priyadarshi stood head and shoulders above Yignyen, who carried the vase.
The trek from Simmons to the bridge took less than 10 minutes. Priyadarshi blew on a conch shell before he and Yignyen chanted prayers, paying no mind when a cyclist rode through the crowd shouting, "Clear the way. This is a throughway, not a parking lot."
Tenzin Yignyen poured the sand, now a greenish-blue mixture, over the railing into the river, stopping intermittently to pray. When the vase was empty, the two monks prayed briefly, then turned to signal the ceremony's end.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 10, 2004.