The monks, who represent 3,000 monks from the Drepung Loseling Monastery in India, arrived on Sunday at the Unity North Atlanta Church, off Sandy Plains Road north of Shallowford Road.
A series of lectures and performances have been open to the public, with the biggest display being the mandala sand painting that has been meticulously constructed all week.
The highlight of the week, “A Night of Tibetan Culture” is Friday at 7:30 p.m., when the visitors will perform traditional dances, talk about Buddhist culture and the situation in their native country of Tibet, which is now a part of China.
This particular group of 10 monks is out of a center in Atlanta that is used for Tibetan Buddhist studies and weekly meditations.
Interpreter Lobsang Norbu, a former monk who now teaches and travels with the monks, said this is the last appearance by the current group of visitors, who will return to India in a couple of weeks after touring the United States for two years.
Once a hidden art, Norbu said the spiritual practice of the sand sculptures has been brought into the public to gain support for the preservation of the Tibetan way of life.
“In our tradition, it is a very sacred art,” Norbu said.
One grain of sand at a time
The design of the 5 foot by 5 foot mandala was first drawn with lines “based on sacred geometry as presented in ancient scripture,” according to large boards of information that sit on tables filled with literature in the foyer of the Unity North Atlanta Church.
Requiring three to five days of work, millions of grains of sand are poured from chakpurs, or traditional metal funnels, which when rubbed with a metal stick slowly vibrate the sand to the tip of the funnel.
One spoonful of sand at a time is placed on the thin lines of the design that fill in the entire space.
This week’s sacred design is of the Green Tara, which is a vibrant green, and, like Mother Earth, represents peace, prosperity and protection, said Norbu.
As the monks pour out each grain of sand, they meditate on writings about the deity, Norbu said.
During that process, Norbu said, it is critical to visualize the piece and memorize all the details.
“They have to have a very deep focus,” Norbu said.
Norbu said the monks train for three or four years before attempting a mandala in front of the public. The hardest part is controlling your breathing.
Without speaking a word, Norbu said the monks work for five hours at a time. Each of the nine monks building the local piece will put 30 hours into the project.
On Thursday afternoon chanting could be heard coming from a room outside the round sanctuary.
In the center of the sanctuary, the sand of bright yellow, blues, pinks and black for accents, seemed to glisten.
Unity with the church
This year is the sixth time the Unity North Atlanta Church has played host to a team of Tibetan Monks, starting in 2004.
The closing ceremony is Sunday at 2 p.m., when the mandala will be deconstructed, sweeping the sand into a pile.
Some of the colored sand will be given to audience members to be used for personal blessings.
On a broad level, the mandalas represent the world in perfect harmony and balance, but on an inner level, the mandalas transform the mind.
Norbu said seeing the mandala is a benefit to members of the church and the public who “accumulate good merit” from the design “imprinting” on their minds.
The sign outside of the Unity North Atlanta Church refers to the church as a “spiritual community center.”
Ann Armstrong Patterson, a volunteer at Unity who has been a member of the church since 1995, said the center’s teachings are Christian-based.
Patterson has been a coordinator for the monks’ visit since the program began.
“The church receives so much peace from their presence,” Patterson said.
Patterson said she learns more about the monks’ culture and how to help their cause each year.
The monks love of the environment and their compassion for others “is essential for this world,” she said.
Richard Burdick has been the spiritual leader of Unity North Atlanta Church for two years.
“Our congregation is a group of spiritual seekers looking for truth, Burdick said.
Burdick said the point of the visit is to build bridges with different faiths and find parallels.
“It is the energy connection that shows we are not so separate from each other,” said Burdick, who added that the lesson cannot be learned from a book.