Tibetan Sand Painting to Be Dismantled During Public Event at UTEP

Originally published February 20, 2015

By Lisa Y. Garibay

UTEP News Service

This week, members of The University of Texas at El Paso and the wider El Paso community are invited to get a look at one of the most intricate works of art ever to come to the borderland before waving goodbye to it on Sunday.

An extraordinary three-foot-by-three-foot sand painting, or mandala as it is known in Sanskrit and Buddhism, will be dismantled according to Tibetan tradition at 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 22 inside the Bhutan Lounge of Union  Building East (second floor). The event is free and open to the public.

The completed Tibetan sand mandala can be see in the Bhutan Lounge of UTEP Union Building East until its dismantling at 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 22. Photo courtesy of Tortilla Productions.
The completed Tibetan sand mandala can be see in the Bhutan Lounge of UTEP’s Union Building East until its dismantling at 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 22. Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP News Service

The stunning work of art has been a part of the UTEP campus for more than two years, but still remains a hidden gem for most of the region. Most people never see a sand mandala up close; after this weekend, they may never have that opportunity again.

Since the mandala’s creation in 2012, UTEP instructors have taken the opportunity to get their students up close and personal with a new culture and artistic process, one so distant from their own that they otherwise might never have encountered it.

“It was an incredible opportunity to take my students to the Union and have them visit with Losang Samten while he was constructing the sand mandala,” said Director of Religious Studies Ann Branan Horak, Ph.D. “Seeing the mandala developing before our eyes, and learning about the symbols and their significance from the person who is making the mandala, was a unique educational opportunity.”

The professor has since taken more students to study the mandala.

“It never fails to amaze them with its detail and beauty,” she said.

Mandalas originated within the monasteries of Tibet and have been in existence for millennia. They serve as circular representations of spiritual truths in Buddhist tradition, intended to impart peace and healing to all beings as well as to the planet.

The Kalachakra Mandala, sometimes referred to as “The Wheel of Time,” is one of Tibetan Buddhism’s most complex works of sacred art and is the subject of the sand painting at UTEP. It represents a three-dimensional palace of which every single detail has a symbolic meaning.

In 1988, Tibetan scholar and former Buddhist monk Losang Samten – one of only a few people in the world qualified to teach the art of sand painting – was sent to create the Kalachakra Mandala at the Museum of Natural History in New York City at the request of the Dalai Lama. It was the first mandala created as a cultural offering in the Western world.

Samten began building UTEP’s mandala on Oct. 21, 2012, and finished Nov. 18, 2012. He spent up to eight hours a day carefully applying multiple colors of sand in intricate patterns. Wearing a mask, the artist sat cross-legged upon the mandala’s platform and, with the lightest touch, rubbed two narrow metal funnels called chakpu together for small amounts of sand to flow precisely where color was needed.

Before laying down the sand, Samten drew out the measurements and geometric patterns associated with the mandala.

Hundreds of students, professors and guests to the University witnessed this remarkable demonstration of craftsmanship. A time-lapse video of Samten’s entire process creating UTEP’s mandala can be viewed here.

In this age of instant gratification and bombardment by media, religious studies guest lecturer Roberta Arney felt the impact the process had on her students as they watched the artist work.

“They were amazed at how intricate the design is and how patient Losang was in making it while taking the time to answer people’s questions as they came by to see it,” Arney said.

Most students were stunned to be told that such a beautiful piece of artwork would be dismantled at some point, which gave the process even greater meaning.

David Anderson, a senior majoring in psychology, was one of those awestruck students.

“The powerful experience of witnessing the work of Losang Samten was and is for me, above all, an extraordinary testimony to the power of patience, perseverance, and dedication and devotion,” he said.

The mandala contributed to the rich tradition of Bhutanese-related artistic expression at UTEP, which began with the architecture of the University’s buildings.

Two large stone prayer wheels were placed at the entrance of the Centennial Museum when it was built in 1937. An actual prayer wheel, a gift from the people of Bhutan, arrived in 2003 and smaller depictions can be found throughout campus.

A Bhutanese altar was brought to UTEP in 2000, its 245 parts carefully reassembled by a Buddhist monk from Bhutan, who worked entirely by hand using no tools over two months. The altar now adorns the library atrium beneath a huge tapestry (known as a thangka). Titled “Four Friends” after a Bhutanese fable of cooperation, the intricate, vibrant hanging was gifted by UTEP graduate Sonam Wangmo in 2009 and joined several other tapestries hanging on campus.

Certified at the time by Guinness World Records as the world’s largest published book, Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Last Himalayan Kingdom, arrived at UTEP in 2004, weighing 133 pounds and measuring five feet by seven feet. It, too, sits in the library’s atrium.

Fifteen colorful ceremonial flags on the south lawn of the Centennial Museum wave in the breeze. The Centennial Museum periodically change UTEP’s flags, but not until they have been well worn. Buddhists believe the fraying and wear on the flags is a sign that the prayers are being listened to.

Pointed cupolas known as sertogs top many buildings on campus while mandala mosaics are embedded into exterior walls. A chorten pillar in front of the Undergraduate Learning Center is used in Bhutan to mark a site of significance and smaller chorten adorn the roofs of other buildings around campus.

Finally, there is the lhakhang. After the Smithsonian Folklike Festival in Washington, D.C., this Bhutanese building was gifted to UTEP from the people of Bhutan. Under the guidance of expert Bhutanese craftsmen, the lhakhang was reconstructed in Centennial Plaza throughout 2013 and 2014 and will be used as a cultural center.

All of these cultural artifacts join with the growing number of Bhutanese visitors to campus as well as Bhutanese students taking advantage of an educational exchange.

The mandala dismantling event will conclude El Paso’s Chenrezig Tibetan Buddhist Cultural Center Border Peace through Inner Peace series, which began in October 2012 with the mandala’s creation.

After the mandala has been swept up, attendees will be invited to take some of the sand with them. A reception will follow.