The Mystical Arts of Tibet

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The video above shows images from the Tibetan monks' visit as part of the Mystical Arts of Tibet tour. (Video by Cliff Hollis)

Pictured below are images from the final day of the Mystical Arts of Tibet tour at East Carolina University, including the closing ceremony in which the sand was dispersed into the Tar River. (Photos by Cliff Hollis) The time-lapse video below shows progression of the work as the sand mandela neared completion. (Video courtesy of Marketing and Communications for Academic and Student Affairs)

Pictured above are images from work on the mandela March 17. The time-lapse video below shows Tibetan monks at work on the sand mandela at ECU's Mendenhall Student Center. Their work is part of the Mystical Arts of Tibet tour on campus. (Video courtesy of Marketing and Communications for Academic and Student Affairs)
Below, a time-lapse video shows the monks' progress as they work on the mandela. (Video courtesy of Marketing and Communcations for Academic and Student Affairs)

Monks’ sacred art draws curious, reflective

By Mary Schulken

A stream of onlookers watched a piece of sacred Buddhist art take shape in Mendenhall Student Center, the focal point of a week-long event encompassing healing, an endangered ancient culture and world peace.

As visiting Buddhist monks from the Drepung Loseling Monastery placed the first few grains of a sand mandela painting into place on a wooden table, the faces of bystanders alternately reflected amusement, curiosity and concentration. Many were East Carolina University students and staff, caught by surprise on a chance walk through the student center, to find monks in burgundy robes drawing a picture with sand.

Others, such as C.J. Locarro of Oriental, came to campus to experience something they had never seen before, but wanted to learn about.

“I am interested in energy and in healing,” Locarro said. “I am losing my hearing so it’s a thing I am interested in exploring.”

The construction of the sand mandela itself is meticulous work. Each day, the monks bring in their tools and supplies in plastic bins.

Quickly, without conversation, they set up palm-sized polished metal bowls and fill them with sand. The cups are arranged by hues: pale green to emerald, pink to magenta, baby blue to cobalt.

The men also lay out the ribbed, cylindrical tubes and the pencil-like wands they rub across those tubes to coax the sand into place.

On Tuesday, the monks worked in silent teams; two at a time, then four at a time, bent and kneeling in place for minutes at a time. Their chins are inches away from the table, tubes of sand poised in an upturned hand while the other hand rapidly works to force the grains of sand into their precise places.

As they work, the sound rises like the noise of cicadas, building in intensity, reaching a peak then dropping to a gentle rattle. It has a uniform cadence, yet each individual tube makes a sound all its own.

“You can close your eyes and feel like you’re in the woods,” Locarro said.

As the monks work people trickle in to watch, one or two at a time. Some stay a few minutes; others stand and watch for long periods, moving from one side of the table to the other to follow the intricate process.

A mandela, according to Tibetan tradition, is a symbol of the universe in its ideal form. The sand painting is one of many activities at ECU this week intended to raise awareness of Tibetan civilization, focus attention on world peace and raise support for the Tibetan refugee community in India.

Each day the monks add millions of grains of sand to it. On Friday, a ceremony at Mendenhall will mark the completion, followed by a procession to the Greenville Town Common. There, the mandela sand will be dispersed into the Tar River as a sacred blessing.

Locarro, who was making her first visit to ECU’s campus, said she found this week’s events educational and an opportunity for self-reflection. The sacred music dance performed by the monks on campus Monday was particularly intriguing, she said. It blended drums, traditional horns and chants in rhythms that rise and fall.

“It was very moving, very inspirational,” she said. “You could feel the vibration and energy that was going through you.”

The monks have created mandela sand paintings in more than 100 museums, art centers and universities in the United States and Europe.


Join a live chat at East Carolina University guests will include Derek Maher, professor in Religious Studies and Tibetan Monk expert, Alan White, dean of Arts and Sciences, and John Tucker, professor in Asian Studies and university historian, and Student Activities board members.

Chat schedule: Tuesday, 2 - 3 p.m.; Wednesday and Thursday, noon to 1 p.m.

Live Streaming Video: A time lapse camera will capture the monks' progress on creating the sand mandela. View the video at

LISTEN TO CHANTS and music from the opening ceremony March 14.