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Yamantaka Mandala

A Mandala for Minnesota
By Kira Obolensky

Preserved for the future, a Tibetan sand mandala defies time and gravity to become an artistic representation of a culture in peril

Tibet has been called the roof of the world–indeed, this ancient kingdom is at such high altitude that the clouds float not in the sky but on the ground. So physically close to the heavens, it seems appropriate that Tibet should develop one of the world's most esoteric systems of spirituality.

Buddhism, an import from India, arrived in Tibet in 700 A.D. Based on the spiritual teachings of an Indian philosopher and teacher, it took hold in the remote mountain kingdom and melded with a local religion called Bon to become Tantric Buddhism. The religion penetrated all aspects of Tibetan daily life and culture, influencing everything from art to politics.

Until the 20th century, Tibet's ancient customs were preserved by its physical remoteness; its mystique filtered to the West through accounts written by poets or mountain climbers defying death on such prospects as Mount Everest. In 1950, the People's Liberation Army of China established Communist rule in the ancient theocracy. Tibet lost thousands of its magnificent temples and monasteries to the random destruction of China's so-called Cultural Revolution. Monks and nuns were slaughtered; approximately 1.6 million Tibetans were killed or imprisoned in forced labor camps. The Dalai Lama, the spiritual and temporal ruler of Tibet, fled to northern India in 1959. Monastic groups took up worship and study in the provinces of northern India. An ancient system of thought and ritual was driven into permanent exile.

For this museum, the opportunity to witness an ancient and sacred aspect of Tibetan life came in the winter of 1991-92 when a group of monks from the Gyuto Tantric University in northern India arrived in the United States. Their mission was entirely in the Buddhist tradition—to educate people about their culture. The timing was not coincidental. Two hundred Tibetan heads of families would be resettling in Minnesota later in the year. The monks would help educate Minnesotans about Tibet's rich heritage and to its plight.

Robert Jacobsen, the curator of Asian art at the Institute, learned of their visit to Minnesota, he immediately recognized a tremendous opportunity for the museum. The monks had just been in San Francisco, where they had made a sand mandala at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. Jacobsen knew that such an activity would generate a great deal of interest in Minnesota, and that it would function as an educational extension to an exhibition of Ch'ing dynasty imperial silks, which included Buddhist silks of Tibetan origin.

Made from sand, paint or even sculpted yak butter, mandalas are visual prayers, celestial renderings of Buddhist symbology. The painstaking process of making a mandala—literally grain by grain—is met at completion with a lesson on the impermanence of life. After it has been properly blessed, the mandala is traditionally swept up and deposited in the nearest body of flowing water.

When Tibet's precarious position in the world is considered, the mandala becomes a kind of rare species, high on the list for extinction. Jacobsen, along with his friend Wynn Binger, a local engineer who is involved with the Tibetan community, began to speculate about how to preserve the mandala. They had heard that an attempt to preserve a sand mandala had been made in Japan. After contacting the gallery involved with that failed attempt, Jacobsen determined that the answer might be closer to home. In his words: "If 3M can't do it, then it isn't possible."

Binger, himself an engineer, enthusiastically agreed to act as a liaison between the monks and his contact at 3M, Warren Langstraat, the laboratory operations manager for the Construction Materials division. Langstraat, acting as a facilitator, put Binger in touch with Donald Williams, an engineer in product development, and George Tiers, a senior scientist. Tiers and Williams began an intensive search for the correct kind of sand, permanent pigments and an adhesive to bind it all together.

The sand traditionally used in mandalas is made from crushed limestone, which provides a particle that is fine enough for exquisite detail. The problem with using the crushed limestone in the Minnesota mandala was that it would not hold a permanent pigment, necessary to withstand both light and the eventual onslaught of an adhesive. In the end, scientist George Tiers discovered a silicate particle perfect to the task in an unlikely place: asphalt shingles. The same technologies used to create the colored roofs for American suburban development were put to a more esoteric test: could they hold pigment, and would the color meet with the monk's aesthetic approval?

In a kind of scientific relay race, Tiers handed the silicate particle to Donald Williams, who began to experiment with bonding synthetic pigments by firing them at high temperatures. Williams's role was critical: he essentially created the palette, a range of ten basic colors which could be thinned with white sand to create the full spectrum.

By the time the monks took up residence in the museum, the materials and the method were in place. After a ceremony blessing the space, the monks began to draw a blueprint for this rendering of the schematic diagram of the Buddhist cosmos. The monks determined to make a mandala dedicated to Yamantaka, the lord of death. A mandala is essentially a diagram for the Buddhist hierarchy. Yamantaka, rendered as an abstract symbol, occupies the central position. He is surrounded by four celestial gates, which mark the cardinal directions. Various aspects of spiritual and human existence ring the celestial palace, ranked from the sacred to the profane.

There is no artistic ego at work in the creation of a mandala. Each monk might have a specialty, but this unique artistic event is ultimately a collaboration. The Gyuto monks worked for four weeks on the Yamantaka mandala. The monks marked its completion with a consecration, and then the mandala, though a sacred object, became once again the province of science.

Curator Jacobsen and Binger had been experimenting with spraying small sand paintings with adhesive. The sand surface is so delicate it shows the tracks of an insect, and Jacobsen discovered that the adhesive, when it is applied in too thick of a stream, pitted the sand. A fine mist of adhesive was in order, and Institute facilities staff Al Silberstein and Ed Peterson began to construct a tent over the mandala to contain the spray. The initial spraying was a success—the adhesive hardened the sand, bonded it to the base and dried without leaving a shiny surface. But all of the three-dimensional surfaces needed more glue. At this point, Ed and Al (both artists themselves) took to the surfaces with an eyedropper, meticulously reinforcing the initial layer of adhesive.

Beginning June 6, 1992, the sand mandala defied both gravity and time. Featured in an exhibition, "In the Shadow of Everest: Buddhist Art of the Himalayas," a sand mandala was hung like a painting on the wall for the first time. This extraordinary event became an artistic representation of a culture in peril.

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