Tibetan monks visit to UHCL for a week of lectures, mandala construction

October 12, 2017 | UHCL Staff

Tibetan monks visit to UHCL for a week of lectures, mandala construction

In the classroom, Associate Professor of Sociology Stephen M. Cherry aims to offer students the broadest, most diverse possible educational experiences so they can develop insight and perspective into things that are often far outside the realm of their daily lives. To that end, Cherry, a practicing Buddhist, is helping to organize The Tibetan Perspectives of the Buddha’s Teachings Tour, presented by the Gaden Shartse monks and sponsored by UH-Clear Lake’s College of Human Science and Humanities, to visit the university from Nov. 6-10.

The tour includes construction of a sand mandala, in-class lectures, two public lectures, and the ceremonial destruction of the sand mandala. Cherry has spent several years attempting to bring this group of Tibetan monks from the Garden Shartse Norling Monastery in Mundgod, India to visit UHCL. Cherry said that he felt a strong personal connection to the Gaden Shartse monks because his own teacher, Geshe Yeshe Phelgye, also lived and studied in that monastery. “I know it took considerable resources to bring them here, but due to my personal connection, it was possible to negotiate this visit,” Cherry said. “It means so much to me to be able to share such a unique cultural and artistic experience with students at this campus. These monks have been to Houston before, and I’ve always wanted to find a way to bring them here.”

The construction of a mandala will take place in the Atrium I of the Bayou Building. The monks will spend hours chanting and meditating as they assemble each complex component of this symbolic structure.

The mandala, Cherry said, can be a beautiful, cultural experience even for those who are not religious. It is a spiritual, ritually constructed symbol made of sand that represents a form of sacred architecture. “At the outer level, the mandala represents the world in divine form, and at the inner level, it represents a map that the ordinary human mind can follow to achieve enlightenment,” Cherry explained. “It is ritually dismantled upon completion, representing the Buddhist belief in the transitory nature of material life.”

Gen Kelsang Norden, a Buddhist nun and ordained resident teacher at the Kadampa Mediation Center in Houston, said that mandalas were a celebration of the purity of the universe of the Buddha. “In creating a mandala, you’re inviting the purity and holiness of Buddha into that environment,” she said. “Mandalas relate to our own potential to be pure and to create a pure world. You’re always envisioning it, inviting it, and moving toward it.”

She added that Houstonians seem to be increasingly interested in Buddhism, and that bringing the Gaden Shartse tour to the West underscored the fact that Buddhism’s core messages were deeply applicable to everybody, regardless of culture or tradition. “Everyone wants to be free from suffering and pain and just be happy,” she said. “We get confused about how to accomplish that. Buddhism is a training of the mind. We can transform ourselves and our world when we learn to control our mind. We can create happiness for ourselves and for those around us, and that’s why Buddhism fits so well in Houston. It’s not esoteric—these are universal, timeless concepts and they fit directly into modern life.”

Cherry said it’s important that students interact with diverse cultures they might not know much about. “This visit is an opportunity for students to learn about history, what it means to be a people in exile, to struggle to maintain a religion, culture and language,” he said.  “It’s important also to be able to compare religions and understand the commonalities as well as the key differences in religious groups.”

In addition to the construction of the mandala, the monks will deliver a public lecture entitled, “Climate Change and the Six Delusions: Buddhist Perspectives on the Environment” on Nov. 7 from 11 a.m. – 1 p.m. in the Garden Room of the Bayou Building. Following that, on Nov. 9 at 6:30 p.m. in the Garden Room, they will deliver another lecture entitled, “A Day in the Life of a Monk.” To conclude their visit, the monks will dissolve the mandala followed by an outdoor procession on Nov. 10 at 10 a.m. in Atrium 1 of the Bayou Building.

"The best part is hearing people gasp when the monks dissolve the mandala,” Cherry said. “They say, ‘Why destroy it?’ Because the point is to appreciate it in the moment. The more varied students’ experience can be, the deeper their education runs. We present them with things outside their experience and make them think. That’s why we’re here.”

For more information about the Gaden Shartse monks’ visit to UHCL, contact Elbby Antony at 281-283-2016, or Dr. Stephen Cherry at 281-283-3434.

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