Grain by grain, hour by hour and day by day, the sand mandala Palden Sangpo is creating in Raleigh has taken shape.
What started out as a three-dimensional vision in the Buddhist monk’s mind has gradually become an intricate design on a flat table. With his brow furrowed and his hands clenched, he uses narrow metal tubes full of marble sand to form the lines and curves.
The mandala began with the heart of a temple in the middle, surrounded by multicolored lotus petals containing a holy symbol called a tam. Around that are walls and doors surrounded by swirling clouds.
Sangpo must be focused. One lapse can leave a few grains out of place and ruin it all. But the 44-year-old monk has been practicing this art for nearly half his life, first in India and in Raleigh since 2008.
Sangpo is a geshe, a title given to Buddhist monks who can prove their religious knowledge in a challenging debate. But on Saturday he was mostly silent as he stood over a table rubbing two metal tubes together, the vibrations causing sand to trickle out.
Sunday is the final day of the mandala creation, which began Thursday.
He will finish in one final burst of patient creation, from 10 a.m. to noon. Then, starting at 2 p.m. Sunday, Sangpo will begin a prayer ceremony called puja. Immediately after that, having reflected on his days and mentally and physically tiring work, he will destroy the mandala.
Some of the scattered marble grains will be given to attendees, having been blessed by the puja ceremony.
The rest of the grains will be placed into a body of water, in the hopes that the water carries the blessing far and wide.
“Water goes all over the world, so it will bring peace,” Sangpo said during a short break Saturday.
That is one reason behind the mandala. The other is to recognize and respect the idea of impermanence.
“Life is beautiful, the world is beautiful,” Sangpo said. “But no matter if you are rich or poor, it will end.”
Sangpo was born in Tibet but fled as a young man because the occupying Chinese government persecuted Buddhists. He crossed the Himalayas on foot into India and eventually was educated at a monastery there before coming to America. He now teaches at the Kadampa Center in Raleigh.
Saturday, he mentioned the terrorist attacks Friday in Paris as another, more macabre reminder of impermanence.
“Those people did not think they would die,” he said. “They were enjoying life.”
Donna Seese, the co-spiritual program coordinator at the Kadampa Center, said the mandala represents, in a way, what Western religions think of as heaven. This mandala is dedicated to Green Tara, a female Buddha who is associated with compassion, action and the removal of obstacles.
To prepare, Sangpo wakes at 2 a.m. to pray and bless his tools.
Seven hours later he begins to work, building his vision a few grains at a time.
There are no books or classes on how to create a mandala, he said. Everything must be learned by heart. And to learn, young monks must seek out others to pass on their knowledge. Sangpo began his training in 1996.
The creation of a mandala isn’t a regular event. Seese said Sangpo’s mandala is the first that anyone has made in Raleigh in two years.
Kevin Hopper, 48, joined the Kadampa Center around that time. When he came to watch Sangpo at work on Saturday, it was the first time he had seen a sand mandala in person.
“I think it’s pretty fantastic,” Hopper said. “The level of detail, knowing it’s going to be destroyed. The message of impermanence.”
The center had print-outs of mandala designs for visitors to practice on, using the same kind of tools and marble sand Sangpo used.
Hopper’s son Liam, 9, filled in part of one of the designs before his hand slipped and he dumped sand far outside the lines. Liam wiped it away with his hand and started over – a luxury Sangpo didn’t have.
“It’s hard,” Liam said. “I can’t imagine making a big one, standing up all day like he does.”
Doran: 919-460-2604; Twitter: @will_doran
Want to go?
What: Creation of a Buddhist sand mandala, followed by prayer and destruction
When: Sunday from 10 a.m. to noon mandala will be finished. Puja prayer ceremony followed by destruction at 2 p.m.
Where: Kadampa Center at 5412 Etta Burke Court, Raleigh
Details: Free. Visit www.kadampa-center.org to learn more.