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Pouring Out Spirituality a Grain at a Time

Serendipity and perhaps good karma brings five Tibetan monks to Laguna Beach beginning next week to perform the sacred art of mandala sand painting in the sanctuary of the Neighborhood Congregational Church, one of only two stops by the monks in Southern California during a three month stay in the U.S.

Their progress will be open to public viewing between 10 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. from Thursday, Oct. 28, until Tuesday, Nov. 2.

“The fact that they are making a sacred mandala in Laguna is auspicious for the whole community,” said resident Paul Heussenstamm, a student of Buddhist teaching and an artist who paints mandalas.

The rare opportunity to witness this sacred creative process comes thanks to one of Laguna’s newest merchants, Tenpa Dorjee. He received a plea of help for a Southern California venue where the monks could perform their sacred art shortly after opening his shop, Tibet Handicrafts, in September. Active in Tibetan cultural activities since he came to Orange County in 1998, Dorjee targeted a community interested in cultural exchange.

He chose the right place.

Michele McCormick, a Laguna Beach resident and psychologist who studies comparative religion and has traveled to monasteries in India, stopped in to explore the new shop and learned of Dorjee’s quest. That’s all it took.

McCormick suggested NCC “would be the perfect folks to host it.” Reverend B.J. Beu and music director Pam Wicks proved equally enthusiastic. “It was really quite miraculous the way it all unfolded,” said McCormick, who hopes appreciation for the monks’ work serves to bring together the diverse faiths in the community.

Wicks’ friend, Laguna resident Robin Pierson, offered lodging since coincidentally she was departing for Nepal to teach at a Buddhist monastery. “I’ll get my monk fix there,” she said, though sorry to miss the sand painting in Laguna.

“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to see a beautiful piece of art in a community that values art,” said Beu, who explained that though his church has a Christian orientation they welcome those “who are seeking other paths.” Watching the monks will give people a different experience of spirituality, he said.

Hailing from the Drepung Loseling Tibetan monastery in South India (one of 25 “khangtsens,” or “house groupings,” at the famous monastery), the monks are touring the west coast sponsored by the Shakyamuni Tibetan Buddhist Center in Portland, Ore. They will also visit in Pasadena.

Former monk Nima Ngodup, a friend of Dorjee’s who works for a Buddhist center in West Covina, will serve as a translator during a portion of the monks’ visit to Laguna.

Mandalas are each unique to a particular Buddhist deity. The monks who come to Laguna will create the Mandala of Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion. “It is a form of meditation,” explained Ngodup. “While they are doing the mandala, it is as if they are creating a mansion for that deity.”

The process will start on Thursday, Oct. 28, with a chanting ceremony, a blessing of the grounds that seeks permission of the local spirits to commence and allow positive energy to be retained in the area surrounding the mandala, explained Ngodup.

The next step is to draw an outline or blueprint for the mandala, followed by the delicate procedure of applying the hand-dyed colored sand, using traditional metal funnels called chakpurs, to fill in the intricate design patterns.

This particular mandala is expected to take three days to complete and should be finished by Saturday afternoon. The public is encouraged to come and watch at any time between 10 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. According to McCormick, who has witnessed the process, onlookers may find themselves drawn into the monks’ meditative state. “It’s trance inducing,” she said.

For the occasion, the church will also open their labyrinth in Bridge Hall, a 15 to 20 minute meditative exercise that ought to pair well with the meditative art of the monks in the sanctuary, Beu said.

The monks are expected to participate in the Sunday church service, perhaps with their special horns or chanting.

Monday, Nov. 1, will be the last day to view the completed work of art, since the mandala will be deconstructed during a special dissolution ceremony on Tuesday. The dismantling symbolizes the Buddhist view of the impermanence of all that exists. The sand will be swept into a pile and some of it may be distributed to those present as a small blessing for their home or garden. The rest will be taken to the ocean and poured into the water, which, according to Tibetan Buddhist belief, blesses all of the living creatures within it and disperses the healing energies of the mandala throughout the world.

For more info: call Pam Wicks at (949) 573-7104, Tibet Handicrafts at (949) 715-1043, or visit the church’s web site at ncclaguna.org.

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