Monks captivate onlookers at Shepherd

February 23, 2005|by DAVE McMILLION

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - During an afternoon ceremony Tuesday, a reading room in Shepherd University's Ruth Scarborough Library was transformed into a rare public display of the traditions of Tibet.

The attraction was a group of monks from the Drepung Loseling Monastery in Karnataka, India.

Participating in a tour as a way to spread world peace, the monks have engaged in past high-profile performances by performing with singers Paul Simon and Natalie Merchant.

Tuesday's performance at Shepherd included colorful music and chant ceremonies and signaled the beginning of a three-day process of creating a Mandala sand painting.


Mandala sand painting is regarded as one of the most unique and exquisite artistic traditions of the monks.

The process involves placing millions of grains of sand on a flat platform over a period of days or weeks, said Rachael Meads, director of the Performing Arts Series at Shepherd, which presented the event.

On Tuesday, the monks began to prepare a table in Shepherd's library where they will create a Mandala sand painting through Friday.

Before the painting could begin, a consecration of the site was in order.

In an attempt to "call forth the forces of goodness," the monks began a series of chants and music.

Dressed in vibrant-colored robes and wearing large head coverings with yellow crests, the monks created sounds that ranged from low chants to a loud combination of drum tapping, horn blowing and use of other percussion instruments.

At one point, another person entered the room wearing a brightly-colored outfit which included a large rim-shaped object around the person's head. Streams of fabric hung from the object and on top of it was a small white skull.

The crowd of roughly 70 people who showed up watched in silence, some clicking pictures of the event through a window on the floor above.

Meads said she belongs to a consortium of arts presenters and one time the group was talking about art performances that have been popular at other places.

One event that was mentioned was when the monks performed in Lewisburg, W.Va. People who saw the performance described it as an "amazing experience," Meads said.

When Meads suggested having the group perform at Shepherd, students who are members of her organization's board of directors "went crazy."

The enthusiasm for the group continued Tuesday.

Berkeley Springs, W.Va., resident Matthew Klein said he was not about to miss the opportunity to see the monks.

At its zenith, the Drepung Loseling Monastery housed more than 10,000 monks and was considered the largest cultural and spiritual institution in the world, according to a Shepherd news release.

"We're talking about a history of four or five thousand years," Klein said.

Matt Lewis of Shepherdstown said someone who hears the music for the first time may not realize how complex it is. To play their horns, for example, the monks use "circular breathing," said Lewis. In circular breathing, the monks never remove their lips from the horns for a breath, but instead breathe in using their nose, said Lewis, who teaches music at Ellsworth Music Supply & Repair in Shepherdstown.

"It's pretty intense to watch. I just like to see beautiful people and these guys are the kings of beautiful people," Lewis said.

To create the Mandala sand painting, the monks lay the colored sands over a period of days. Each monk holds a metal funnel called a chalk-pour while running a metal rod on its grated surface, Meads said. The vibration causes the sand to flow like liquid, Meads said.

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