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Group of Tibetan monks to wrap up visit today at Wesleyan

by Jennifer Biller

STAFF WRITER

BUCKHANNON -- It's not every day you see a group of Tibetan monks chanting in a college library.

At West Virginia Wesleyan this week, seven monks from the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in Tibet visited the campus to share their culture.

The monks are touring North American colleges to talk about their religious beliefs and practices. The tour is an effort to get people to better understand their traditions.

"For all of us, it is our first time in this country," said translator Lobsang Dhondup. "People in America are very kind."

Crowds have been gathering all week at the school's library, where the monks are working on a sand sculpture. The artwork is called a sand mandala and is based on their ancient scriptures.

It is an age-old custom of Tibetan Buddhism to construct the mandala from thousands of colorful sand grains into a picture of geometric patterns. The group prays to Buddha to bless the mandala.

The monks place each grain of sand individually using small metal funnels. The process is exhausting and usually takes two weeks to complete.

"In the monastery we have more time; here we have to complete it in days," said Kachen Lobzang Tuskhor. "There is pain in all our joints and on the eyes, but we enjoy it."

The artwork will be finished today and then dismantled. The disassembling represents the impermanence of life, Dhondup said.

The sand from the mandala will be dispersed into the Buckhannon River, when the monks bless it today. The practice symbolizes healing and purifying the earth.

"The river is connected to all the world," Dhondup said. "The sand is blessed by Buddha, and if we place the sand in the water, then all the creatures in all the world are blessed."

Tonight the monks will be in full traditional costume for a monastic sacred dance called the Cham. It is the final event for the monks at the college.

"I think this is what education is," said Margo Davis, faculty adviser for the group Students for a Free Tibet, who helped bring the monks to campus.

"I hope the students get some kind of basic understanding of Buddhist philosophy and an awareness of other cultures and beliefs systems," Davis said. "The monks are trying to help us understand their message of compassion, peace and nonviolence."

Senior Judith Vojik was one student interested in the Tibetan customs this week.

"I saw the beginning ceremony with the chanting. It was incredible," she said. "This is definitely the coolest thing to come to campus since I've been here."

Home school teacher April Keating brought a group of elementary-aged children to the library to witness the sand sculpture construction.

"They are in awe. It's great to see them curious about the monks," she said. "We've been able to talk about Buddhism and find Tibet on the map."

The original Tashi Lhunpo Monastery was founded by the first Dalai Lama in 1447. After the communist Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959, the monastery was relocated to India.

For more information, visit the Web site www.tashilhunpo.org.

Staff writer Jennifer Biller can be reached at 626-1449 or by e-mail at jbiller@exponent-telegram.com.