By Eric Crews
Staff Writer 

Monks Promote Message Of Peace


Many members of the community attended several of the events held during the Tibetan monks’ three-day stay in the area. (Times photo by Eric Crews)

When the eight visiting Buddhist monks gathered on the banks of King Creek on the Brevard College campus last Wednesday and scattered the sand from their mandala into the water, it was the culmination of a three-day ceremony, countless prayers and a unique experience for many in the community.

The cultural event was held at the Porter Center, where the public was invited to watch the progress of the monks’ work as they created an intricate sand mandala from innumerable grains of colored sand. The tedious process involved hours of work by the monks, who painstakingly arranged the colored grains of sands into the mandala, which represented peace and harmony between all religions.

For Ben Zeller, an assistant professor of religious studies and the coordinator of religious studies major at Brevard College, the event was a significant component to the classes he teaches.

“The Tibetan culture is an ancient, beautiful culture that is under a lot of stress,” he said. “Tibetans live in exile now, so to be able to experience their culture first hand is something that is becoming even more rare. Certainly we couldn’t get the entire town to get up and travel to India or Tibet to see it, so for them to be able to come here and share with us an authentic part of their culture is really great for us.”

Zeller said he believes that the cultural experience of being able to interact with the monks will allow the students to take away a greater knowledge of Eastern religions.

“What I hope the students take away is an experiential element,” he said. “It’s one thing to study about Tibet and Tibetan culture in books, but it’s another to be able to sit down with a Buddhist Geshe – a person who has spent 20 years studying Buddhism and ask him questions – and then learn about this different culture.”

Zeller, who teaches an Asian religions survey class that looks at both Hinduism and Buddhism, said this experience has enriched his students’ knowledge of these religions and furthered their understanding of how Buddhism is practiced.

“It’s increasingly important, if you think about the way the world is going, that our students understand Asia and Asian culture and their religions given the rise of China, India and Malaysia,” he said. “If a student graduates without knowing something about Asia, they are really going to be at a disadvantage in the world.”

Zeller said that the ongoing persecution of Tibetans by the Chinese government has transformed the way the monks are able to practice their religion.

“These particular monks lost their monastery in Tibet when China invaded in 1959,” he said. “They’ve been living in exile ever since, and these particular monks have never been to Tibet. The Chinese government won’t allow it. They would be arrested if they attempted to go there.

“The Tibetan monastery and the Tibetan monks that live in Tibet have been mistreated for decades. It’s a very ugly situation.”

Zeller said that he believes despite the ongoing persecution of Buddhists in China and Tibet, the religion will not only survive, but also thrive.

“Tibetan Buddhism is very resilient, and it has actually thrived in exile,” he said. “More people know about Tibetan Buddhism now than they did when Tibet was invaded. That is not to excuse or put some kind of silver lining on a dreadful event, but rather it shows just how resilient the Buddhist tradition is.”

“Buddhism has spread from one tiny corner of India 2,500 years ago, to all over the world,” he said. “I think that Tibetan Buddhism will do just fine, but of course it would be best if they could be able to practice in their traditional homeland again.”

The Mandala

What began as nothing more than colored sand and a blank blue slate gradually became a 4-foot-wide sand mandala that contained intricately designed patterns, religious symbols from across the world and natural elements depicting the beauty of the world.

Large crowds gathered throughout the week to view the mandala and to participate in the various programs that were held nightly.

Throughout the three-day ceremony, the monks prayers – often deep-voiced chants and rhythmic singing – periodically filled the room as the monks blessed each grain of sand that was used in the mandala. Gary Wells, a Pisgah Forest resident who viewed the mandala on Wednesday afternoon, said he thought the mandala was very beautiful.

“I’m impressed,” he said. “It’s just so incredibly precise and meaningful.”

Geshe Nawang Tsondu, the eldest of the monks who has spent more than 20 years studying Buddhism, said that their hope for the blessings and prayers for world peace are that when the sand from the mandala is placed into the water the prayers and blessings will encircle the world.

“The significance of releasing the sand to the water is that we believe all of the sand are blessed by deities and holy Buddhas,” Tsondu said. “We believe that when we put the mandala into the water it will spread the goodness the world over.”

Zeller said that the ceremony where the monks “released” the sand of the mandala into the creek is one of the most important parts of the process.

“The idea is that the mandala helps to teach impermanence and that all things in life are temporary and fleeting,” he said. “After spending three days making this beautiful piece of art, the sand returns to waters, where the sand came from. The idea is that it’s only here for awhile, just like us.”

Throughout the monks’ stay, donations were accepted that will be used to fund their philanthropic work. The donations will fund work with schools, medical dispensaries and care of the monastery itself, Zeller said.

The Drepung Gomang Monastic University, where the monks’ practice when they are not traveling, is located in southern India.

On this trip, the group of monks will travel the length of the eastern United States, creating sacred sand mandalas along the way.

They arrived in mid-January in New York where they created a mandala in Carnegie Hall. They will remain in the country through November.

For more information on the monks, visit


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