Tale of Gondo Monastery
by T. S. Caladan
Long before more modern monasteries such as Sera or Ganden, a peculiar sect of Tantric Buddhists carried on an odd tradition of sacred practices. Monks of Gondo were allowed to marry and encouraged to procreate to their fullest. The monks’ uniqueness did not stop there.
Male and FEMALE children of the monks were given the choice to join the Monastery or leave Tibet and seek their life elsewhere. For those who chose to remain loyal to ancient vows, ‘seekers’ must strictly follow the teachings of Gondo Monastery. There were no exceptions. Initiate-seekers, male and female, obeyed older Masters. Those instructions meant a complete devotion to the creation of the ‘Mandala-Universis’ or Celebration of Life.
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Sacred sand painting is a very old and exquisite art of Tibet. ‘Dul-tson-kyil-khor’ means mandala of colored powders where pain-staking care is executed to produce fabulous, colorful art of spiritual symbols. Lamas first draw a pattern and then many initiates take turns pouring colored sands out of metal funnels called ‘chak-purs.’ A metal rod is grated on the surface of the chak-pur which causes sand to flow as precisely as ink.
Gondo monks were a different sect; with very strong vows and a new view of what was known as the ‘Celebration of Life.’ The Gondo Mandala or ‘Universis’ did not end after weeks of meticulous work. It was not soon destroyed. It was not placed in a sacred urn and not spread out upon the water for ‘planetary healing.’
The monks were instructed to not terminate the mandala, ever! The seekers continued day after day, year after year, doing nothing but working on the mandala as if working directly for the Creator. Some monks procured new/brighter/more intense pigments to work with; some monks increased the efficiency of the chak-purs. Working on Universis was considered an extremely special and very rare honor.
No pattern was drawn first as was traditionally done. The monks were a unique experiment by the Creator who saw no difference in male seekers of truth and female seekers of truth. Each wore unisexual, orange robes. Married couples and members of Gondo were not allowed to touch or speak within the confines of the Monastery. No one could speak inside the holy temple. And, everyone abided by the rules.
Gondo began, legend records, with a membership of 13 Masters. They started ‘the idea’ inspired by the Creator at the exact center of the very large main temple…on a table. The work was so extraordinary that 13 Masters labored their entire, full lifetimes to produce PERFECTION!
Every granule of colored sand was in its perfect place laid down more gently than a brushstroke. ‘The gods themselves supervised the Masterpiece Mandala,’ it was believed. When the last of the 13 Masters had passed and the universe observed what divineness was achieved, the go-ahead was decreed to continue Universis with the next generation of new Masters and monks or the many descendants of the original ones.
New artists decided they will continue the work of the fathers on the raised, round platform centrally located in the giant rotunda. In other words, they started on the floor counterclockwise around the table (always remembering to never, never, ever…touch the table). The work of micro sand-pouring started again. Gondo Monastery’s purpose was reestablished with the finest of craftsmen and craftswomen.
No one believed that the new Masters could replicate the beauty and detailed precision of their fathers, but they nearly did. It was thought that if the process proceeded slower (unbelievably) with even MORE CARE…then, possibly the ‘hand of God could continue painting.’
Years passed and also female Masters were able to add to the ‘Life Tapestry’ for the first time in known history. They displayed a wonderful, subtle, colorful flair slightly lacking in male artistry. Everything; together, added to a grand representation of total LIFE and what they believed Life was about. It was all within the dimensions of the Mandala-Universis.
Monks thought the center of the rotunda had to symbolize the center of the Universe and home of the Creator. The counterclockwise direction, as was done with the original Table-Masters, could only reflect cosmic bodies in their orbits.
What was the sand work itself? What did it mean? It truly represented LABOR, the struggle of LIVING and the effort in carrying out one more day and the continuing of endless days afterward… But, was Life a positive or negative thing? Gondos believed it was not both; only good.
Monks to Masters found great beauty in the toils of Life as expressed in the granule Tapestry. Gondo was not Yin/Yang and did not support the Philosophy of Death or termination. The ‘different view’ was one that Life Continues, which is a Spiritual Truth….so, celebrate your living and your soul’s eternal existence!
Two generations thought they understood why the Gondos were unique and what the supreme focus of their lives (Universis) was really about. Gondo rebel monks did not celebrate the IMPERMANENCE of Life as other, conventional monks did. There was no mandala-deconstruction. They were the ‘ideal’ and they thought they were infinite; like the Creator. The monks were completely wrong (just about).
Fifty-one years had passed since the transcendence of the last Table-Master. The raised, circular platform was completed by 117 descendants who decided to continue the work of Gondo which was the work of Universis. Not a grain of poured sand had been moved in all that time.
Outside of the unusual and legendary Tibetan Monastery, monks to Masters were allowed to gather; speak; question; answer; give opinions and were encouraged to do so. In time…another generation will expand from the 117 and continue to give up their lives / and celebrate their lives while pouring colored sands in an ancient tradition.
The most famous skill-Master of Generation II was known as Metrone. He was a beloved and well respected ‘father figure.’ The great Master oversaw the still, silent proceedings and directed the privileged chronology of ‘who will add their craft next to the Mandala?’
The work continued out beyond the raised, round platform and spread in counterclockwise square sections on the first floor of the rotunda. No monk had failed to see the significance of the 3-leveled temple.
A third generation continued the Philosophy of Gondo Monastery as the Tapestry of Sand enlarged even wider and longer. 90% of the entire two floors and table of the temple were utterly covered in perfect sand tattoos…thought to be ‘written by God.’ Not a grain had moved inside, but its perimeter constantly expanded almost one particle at a time.
What was going to happen in future when the full floor was totally covered by how many trillions of tiny sand pebbles? Walls could not be embroidered in sand. Concerns and even fears were felt and discussed outside. Monks pointed to precious art of their grandfathers somewhere on the Life Tapestry. They wondered…what would the ancestors do?
There were now 778 Monastery descendants and vigilant keepers of the vows. It was a hundred years since the ascendance of the last Table-Master and three generations of devoted followers of Gondo continue to pour sand.
The hundredth anniversary or end of the Table-Master era (Master Frigia, the 13th, died after placing the final blue grains on the Table) was anxiously awaited by the brilliant Metrone. Metrone remained alive in a very old body. He continues to direct who will add to the Universis that has grown to massive proportions. He can still be plainly understood as he often addresses (sign-language) Masters and monks of the impending crisis known as the future.
Metrone was aware of one possible answer to every question that had been voiced outside of Monastery walls. Today, Master Frigia’s Death-day, 100-year anniversary is the day he was instructed to open a drawer on the Table…without moving the Table! Metrone only knew that ‘answers are within.’ How could he open the central Table drawer and not destroy the perfection of the Mandala?
When the light was right in the rotunda, Grand Master Metrone ordered everyone out in sign language. Also with his hands, he dismissed the present artist sand-pourer. When everyone was gone, he took his usual position of prayer. The prayer was intensely concentrated meditation. His very, very old body was about to fail. But, the Metrone’s mind was never sharper or more sensitive.
He remotely made the Table drawer open without moving one grain of sand! He looked inside and found Veritas. He understood and cried. Truth was a hard truth to conceive after more than a hundred years of monastic servitude! Metrone changed. He was given new instructions. He knew that he would faithfully carry out his orders; every grain of direction will be executed. The old, devoted servant of the Creator now knew that his monks of Gondo were no different than other monks.
Metrone silently called a meeting of the 778. 776 assembled high up on the second floor of the temple which functioned as a distant balcony. Nothing from the second floor had ever dropped or caused any disruption of the Mandala’s perfection. The sight from second floor of the colorful project was stunningly incredible and mind-numbing in its entire scope. Imagine painting the whole Grand Canyon in sand and it was perfect.
He motioned to Master Benet, his second in command and second eldest. They were within one of the concave indentions on the first floor across from the Tapestry, far from any other member of Gondo. The last thing Benet expected was to hear the Metrone SPEAK.
The old man ordered his second in a confident whisper, ‘go to the other side…’
Benet nearly fainted. ‘Dieu,’ was breathed under his breath.
Metrone pointed a thin, wrinkled arm to the other side of the Tapestry on the first floor. ‘Look up to all you see…I will on this side. See who does not react, uh? Bring them to me.’
After a gasp, Master Benet was able to quietly understand and bow. He will do as commanded by his senior. He left to the other side, also knowing that the world of Gondo monks will be forever changed.
The large, balcony crowd believed the silent gathering was to honor passed on Master Frigia on the anniversary-holiday. To witness the magnificence of the art that would have immensely pleased the original Table-Masters. Big smiles of pride and approval circulated. Was it irony that a sect which did not recognize termination honors a dead hero?
Gondo Monastery, with only a recent exception, had not contained a ‘word’ of vocalized sound in more than 150 years. There had only been silence and stillness and the tireless / round-the-clock work of the faithful monks. 778 descendants of the original 13 looked upon perfection in all of its glory as if seeing GOD in front of them. Almost all were unaware they were seeing the perfection or ‘Face of the Creator’ for the last time.
Suddenly, shocking hundreds from the balcony, SCREAMS WERE HEARD!! The rotunda did not know how to function to produce an echo because the building was so unaccustomed to sound. 1556 eyes focused on a madman who entered; barged-in and ran toward the sand Tapestry!
This 779th figure was a stranger; he was a paid performer; paid by the Metrone (under orders) to finally deconstruct a 150 year old Mandala! He wielded a wide Samurai sword and wore the headdress of a goat. As he ripped into gentle sands that were placed in perfect place with such grace, the Monster-Goat roared shrill screams of chaos and a violent maniac!
When he carved the precise color-patterns up over and over again with the broad sword, the devotees upstairs wailed in pain. Agony of losing three generations of such careful artistry BLESSED BY THE GODS and to end so many man and woman-hours of work…was indescribable. Some monks fainted; some screamed back in anger and some nearly fell from the high balcony. Others ran to the first floor in utter desperation in attempts to stop the madman from doing any more damage to everyone’s bleeding spirits.
Tears dropped far down to the first floor.
The monks and surprised Masters in authority stood at the edge of the vast Universis Mandala. Their efforts were in vain as they certainly could not approach the madman on the sand-painting island without disturbing the sand-painting. The Goat-man was left to attack every quadrant of beautiful placement of Order and he did…over and over again.
Within long minutes, the damage was completed; every square meter seemed to have been overturned by the Samurai sword or imbedded by footprints. Art of Ages was gone. A happy, peaceful, contented temple was turned into something comparable to a disaster of a million deaths.
The Goat ran away and was not caught by the distraught men and women of Gondo. Monks and most Masters were decimated on this holy anniversary. How was today, destroying what our holy Fathers began, a Celebration of Life?
In the Metrone’s private quarters, with the wooden door shut, stood Benet and only 5 others of the 776 monks. None of the 5 were Masters; two were female. Each was overwhelmed to hear the old Metrone speak in clear Tibetan, ‘none of you reacted…uh? While…while others wept in pain, uh? Why?’
They figured they better reply to the first words they ever heard the Metrone speak. Each told the elder in their own way how they thought the destruction was expected; the destruction was needed; seen in the oncoming, future breaking point and that IF the destruction of Universis should ever happen…it would be just fine with them.
The 5 seekers, plus 2 Masters, understood the impermanence of Life AND the eternity of the spirit. Everything recycled; some cycles were longer than others…
Last spoken words of the Metrone were, ‘we will begin again…seven of us…as new Table-Masters. I’ll go first, uh?’
Note: ABOVE IS A 99% FICTIONAL STORY
Illustration above courtesy of Tim Bromilow, Sand Mandala from Sera Monastery.
Copyright 2014 by T. S. Caladan
PS Sand Mandala
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The Sand Mandala is a Tibetan Buddhist tradition involving the creation and destruction of mandalas made from colored sand. A sand mandala is ritualistically destroyed once it has been completed and its accompanying ceremonies and viewing are finished to symbolize the Buddhist doctrinal belief in the transitory nature of material life.
Materials and construction
Historically, the mandala was not created with natural, dyed sand, but granules of crushed coloured stone. In modern times, plain white stones are ground down and dyed with opaque inks to achieve the same effect. Before laying down the sand, the monks assigned to the project will draw the geometric measurements associated with the mandala. The sand granules are then applied using small tubes, funnels, and scrapers, called chak-pur until the desired pattern over-top is achieved. Sand mandalas traditionally take several weeks to build, due to the large amount of work involved in laying down the sand in such intricate detail.
It is common that a team of monks will work together on the project, creating one section of the diagram at a time, working from the center outwards.
The Kalachakra Mandala for instance, contains 722 deities portrayed within the complex structure and geometry of the mandala itself.
Kalachakra sand mandala.
Other smaller mandalas, like the one attributed to Vajrabhairava contain significantly fewer deities and require less geometry, but still take several days to complete. Like all mandalas, these are meant as two-dimensional representations of what is supposed to be a three-dimensional environment. There is one particular case where a three-dimensional mandala can be experienced: Borobodur in Java, Indonesia.
Borobudur Temple; 2672 sculptured relief, 504 Buddha statues, 7 terraces, a giant trantric Buddhist mandala
Many sand mandala contain a specific outer locality which is clearly identified as a charnel ground.
The colors for the painting are usually made with naturally colored sand, crushed gypsum (white), yellow ochre, red sandstone, charcoal, and a mixture of charcoal and gypsum (blue). Mixing red and black can make brown, red and white make pink. Other coloring agents include corn meal, flower pollen, or powdered roots and bark.
Tibetan Buddhist Monks of Tashi Lhunpo Monastery created this stunning sand mandala from millions of grains of coloured sand.
Sand Mandala by monks from Sera Monastery
The destruction of a sand mandala is also highly ceremonial. Even the deity syllables are removed in a specific order along with the rest of the geometry until at last the mandala has been dismantled.
The sand is collected in a jar which is then wrapped in silk and transported to a river (or any place with moving water), where it is released back into nature. This symbolizes the impermanence of life and the world.