Since 9 AM last Friday four Tibetan Buddhist monks from the Namgyal Monastery in Dharamsala, India–home of Tibet’s exiled Dalai Lama–have been working undeneath a canopy on a wooden platform on the second floor of the Field Museum of Natural History. They are slowly drawing a six-and-a-half-foot-wide, exquisitely detailed circular picture–not with paint, but with 18 different colors of fine-grain sand that they carefully tap onto a horizontal board, directing the stream through long, thin metal funnels. The work requires concentration and extremely steady hands, and were any of the monks to sneeze, he could destroy days or weeks of painstaking craftsmanship.

While one or two monks at a time work on the picture, the others talk to museum visitors and answer questions. “We are not making beautiful art,” Tenzin Chogyal, one of the monks, states firmly. “We are making something quite different.” What they are is a Kalachakra mandala, part of an ancient Buddhist initiation ritual that aids the monks in their meditation and journey toward enlightenment. As C.G. Jung pointed out, the mandala is also a visual pattern that appears again and again in traditional graphics around the world, from astrological charts to Renaissance clock faces to Navajo sand paintings.

The Kalachakra mandala is the stylized representation of a roughly pyramidal building in Shambhala, the ideal world; every day Kalachakra, one of Tibetan Buddhism’s 722 enlightened beings, is invited to take up residence there by the monks, who address him in the half hour of chanting with which they begin each workday. In a painting the monks have hung on the wall at the museum near their work platform, Kalachakra, the personification of compassion, is seen passionately embracing his consort, Wisdom. This act symbolizes the interdependence of wisdom and compassion, which a Buddhist proverb compares to the two wings of a bird, each useless without the other in the effort to fly high over the ocean of cyclic birth and death.

“We believe that every sentient being can achieve enlightenment, or Buddhahood,” Chogyal explains. “Buddha was not already Buddha. He was a man like us, and he practiced and achieved enlightenment. So if we practice, we can achieve enlightenment.” The delicate work of creating the mandala is part of that practice.

In pictures of this mandala, you can clearly see Kalachakra’s building standing within concentric circles representing the spheres of Tibetan cosmology: earth, water, fire, wind, space, and wisdom. The Sanskrit initials of another 88 enlightened beings appear within the circles, along with various tiny symbols representing the rest of the 722. It takes four monks almost a month to construct this sand painting. Given a little more time, any one of them could build the mandala by himself; as part of standard monastery training all the monks have committed to memory its smallest detail, along with 17 other large and small mandalas associated with specific enlightened beings and times of the year. These mandalas and the accompanying prayers and chants have been transmitted by generations of monks over the centuries–beginning with, the monks say, the Buddha himself, who attained perfect enlightenment under a tree in Bodh Gaya, India, in the sixth century BC.

At 9 AM on June 29, when the sand mandala is finally finished, the monks will sing a few more chants, say a few more prayers, then destroy the mandala, with little brooms, sweeping all the sand into buckets and carrying it to the beach to be ceremoniously dumped into Lake Michigan. The point of the mandala is in its making; it is not so much a piece of art as a passing event, a visual prayer. Sweeping away the work of weeks serves to illustrate the futility of trying to hold on to that which inevitably passes, teaching the student that only by letting go of the ephemeral can we learn to embrace that which is eternal.

Last month the monks were building a mandala in San Francisco when an apparently disturbed woman approached the platform. Thupten Thokme chuckles as he tells the story. “We were just finishing the mandala–suddenly one woman come and jumped up and destroyed the mandala. She danced! She says, ‘It’s impermanent! Tibetan culture is dead! I am the CIA!’ And we are just looking and laughing. And it was just, What do we do now? So we say, ‘No problem.’ At that moment we are thinking this is showing impermanence. And all the outside visitors, they’re all crying and they’re weeping and shouting. They’re surprised–‘Monks are laughing; we are crying.’ But for myself, I wonder if one day I will also die like that. Who can say?”

The building of this mandala at the Field Museum is a rare chance for Chicagoans to witness a ritual that ordinarily takes place only within Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. The event is part of a sort of touring program to educate Americans about Tibetan culture, which is threatened with extinction by the Chinese, who invaded Tibet in 1950, annexed it the following year, and forced the Dalai Lama to flee to India in 1959. Among the crowd of 100,000 Tibetans who followed the Dalai Lama into exile was Tenzin Choden, the oldest of the four monks building the at the museum, and the only one of the four actually born in Tibet.

The Chinese govermnent’s record on human rights in Tibet is not good. Groups like Physicians for Human Rights have compiled accounts of beatings and torture. Photographers have documented the systematic demolition of Tibet’s ancient monasteries and places, some dating back to the second century BC. Other charges include the denuding of Tibetan woodlands, the forced sterilization of Tibetan women, the use of Tibetan wilderness as a nuclear-weapons testing range, and the deliberate resettlement of Chinese to make Tibetans a minority in their own land. These charges are disputed in some quarters, particularly among those in Washington who feel better trade relations with China are crucial.

“We are saying that the Chinese killed more than one million Tibetan people, and they destroyed more than 6,000 monasteries,” says Chogyal. “But most people don’t know about this. A number of leaders say it is not true, and also some senator says, ‘I went to Tibet and I can’t see any torture, any killing.'”

“Always visitors, Westerners, sit in the Holiday Inn,” says Thupten. “They’re eating good food and just seeing good scenery, good buildings. And the guide is a Chinese guide.”

“If the Chinese didn’t destroy the monasteries and didn’t kill any people, why did we go to India?” says Chogyal. ‘Most Tibetan people are not very intellectual–most are farmers, nomads, monks, nuns. These kinds of people, if somebody doesn’t torture them, why do they escape? It shows they face something, you know?”

Still, the monks see cause for optimism. “In five or ten years we’ll get a good result,” says Thupten. “Because old communist countries have become changed–so you see in European countries, in Hungary, Romania. And always people thought that East Germany and West Germany would never get together. So suppose now, in China, the old–like Deng Xiaoping, all these stupid things–just go down, get some younger generation come in, it will change politics. And well be just talking together, man to man, reason to reason.”

In compliance with the Dalai Lama’s insistence on nonviolence, the monks refuse to separate the religious from the political, eschewing confrontation in favor of a far more subtle form of protest: chanting and building pictures in sand. “The main mandala is inside the mind,” explains Thupten. “So, the Chinese destroy our culture in 1959. But, we memorize the tradition–all the measurements, all the significance, the texts, the ritual, everything. So we preserve and we know, and we teach the younger generation. It’s a connection. So some of the Chinese destroy the temples and structures, but inside the mind the mandala is not destroyed.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane, courtesy Samaya Foundation.