In Buddhism, the sand mandala is an ancient tradition once reserved for monks. The Keydong nuns are among the first Tibetan women monastics to learn this sacred art practice. At Trinity College in 1998, they were the first Buddhist nuns to create a sand mandala in the United States. Keydong nuns returned to Trinity to create a second mandala in February 2005.
On Thursday, September 13, a day deemed auspicious on the Tibetan calendar, four nuns will start creating a third mandala in the Austin Arts Center’s Garmany Hall, from brightly colored sand they are bringing from Nepal.
In the Himalayan valley where the Keydong nunnery is located, the monastic women collect nuggets of white marble that they crush, wash, and dry it in the sun. The sand is divided and dyed in five colors—red, blue, yellow, green, and white—representing the five “Buddha families,” which contain multiple levels of meaning.
The mandala will take one month to complete, and will measure approximately eight by eight feet, according to Ani Ngawang Tendol, a Keydong nun who serves as the group’s leader and interpreter. (“Ani” is the honorific prefix given to a nun’s name in Tibetan Buddhism, and means “Nun.”)
Both graphic and abstract in design, the intricate forms and spiritual symbols of a mandala can be “read” by the initiated. At the center is a square diagram of a palace inhabited by an enlightened celestial being. In this case, it is Avalokiteshvara, the Buddhist deity of compassion. Multiple circles surround the deity’s palace.
“Mandala: The Sacred Art of Sand” opens to the public on Friday, September 14. Visitors should be prepared to take off their shoes before entering Garmany Hall. That day, public viewing of the mandala making is from 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m., and is followed by a keynote lecture entitled “Tradition Changing Women, Women Changing Tradition: The Interface of Tibetan Nuns and the Sacred Art of Sand Mandala Making” by Melissa R. Kerin, Assistant Professor of Art History, Washington and Lee University, which will take place at 4:30 p.m. in the adjacent Goodwin Theater.
Thereafter, observers are welcome on weekdays from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and on Saturdays from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. through October 13. There will be occasions when Garmany Hall must be closed for the nuns’ religious observances, so if you are travelling from a distance, you are welcome to call ahead of your visit: (860) 297-2199.
On Sunday, October 14 at 12:00 noon, the nuns will ceremoniously dismantle the mandala and disperse the sands into the Connecticut River at Charter Oak Landing in a gesture signifying the impermanence of life. The public is invited to observe these rituals. School buses on Summit Street, adjacent to Mather Hall, will provide free, round-trip transportation to the public. Seating is first-come, first-served.
About the Keydong Nuns
The Keydong Thuk-Che-Cho-Ling Nunnery, originally founded in the southwest Keydong region of Tibet, today lives on in exile in Kathmandu, Nepal. Established formally in 1982, the Keydong Nunnery exists due to the perseverance, courage, and dedication of a core group of women monastics who, having fled Tibet in 1959, made the arduous journey across Tibet to found a new home for their nunnery. They first settled in the remote village of Helambu, Nepal, near the Tibet border, but it was overcome by floods in a monsoon in 1980 and so again these women moved on, determined to again reestablish their home.
They eventually arrived in Kathmandu. With its mix of world religions and culture and its intensely urban lifestyle, Kathmandu was a monumental change from the rural life these women had known. Undaunted and with the assistance of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the local Tibetan Welfare Office, friends and other lay people, the nuns settled in Kathmandu and then travelled throughout India and Nepal seeking donations to create a nunnery. Eventually, they were able to purchase a small parcel of land and an old house. This was the beginning of the impressive nunnery that exists today in the heart of the Swayambu district of Kathmandu. The Nunnery houses over
80 Tibetan nuns from Tibet, India, and Nepal.
A Center for Nuns’ Spiritual and Educational Development
Traditionally, the primary concern of Tibetan Buddhist nunneries has been to perform prayer ceremonies (pujas) for the lay community, and to cultivate contemplative practices. No women have ever had the opportunity to become a Geshe (teacher of the dharma, the highest degree of education within Tibetan Buddhism). Keydong Thuk-Che-Cho-Ling Nunnery is one of the first institutions in the Tibetan tradition to develop an educational program for Buddhist nuns. These efforts include Tibetan debate, Tibetan language, and other subjects, and special opportunities for nuns to study arts like mandala, thangka, Tibetan medicine, and traditional tailoring.
The potential is great for the Nunnery to become an important center for both religious and general education and the development of women. The three remaining senior nuns from Tibet are leaders in encouraging their younger members to take advantage of the changing attitudes and opportunities within the Tibetan community in exile.
Besides maintaining the basic structure of a traditional Tibetan monastic community, the young nuns also study English and Tibetan, mathematics, health, and hygiene when teachers are available. The Nunnery hires teachers for subjects the senior nuns cannot teach and requests other monasteries to train nuns in ritualistic arts like instrument playing.
Beyond these changes, the Keydong nuns have begun to pursue higher Tibetan religious education, a step unthought of in traditional Tibet. Beginning in 1981, the Nunnery requested Sera monastery to train nuns in Tibetan debate. A Geshe from Sera comes each year to teach theyoung nuns, and they practice among themselves as well. Eight of the Keydong Thuk-Che-Cho-Ling nuns became the first Tibetan Buddhist nuns to learn sand mandala creation. A lead monk from Zonga Choede Monastery in South India began teaching the nuns mandala in 1993 and 1994. Since then the nuns have made mandala three times each year. In 1994, two nuns also began to learn the sacred practice of thangka creation, and three nuns began training to become Tibetan medical doctors or nurses.