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Day four of a Buddhist sand-mandala ritual at the Mattie Kelly Arts Center in Florida earlier this year. (Photo: Lee Lawrence)

Until relatively recently, if you were not a monk in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the chances of seeing a sand mandala were slim. Today, however, opportunities abound. In July alone, monks from the Atlanta-based Mystical Arts of Tibet will create shimmering, colorful sand mandalas in New York, California, Pennsylvania and Virginia. As I discovered earlier this year at the Mattie Kelly Arts Center of Northwest Florida State College in Niceville, even more entrancing than the end result is the three-to-five-day process: A slow-paced feast of religious ritual, symbolism, performance and temporal art.

It begins with sound: Preternaturally low, vibrating notes energizing the air like the complex tones of a pipe organ. They emanate from nine Tibetan Buddhist monks dressed in dark red and golden saffron, eyes lowered. Punctuated by the wail of horns and the clash of cymbals, their rhythmic chanting dispels harmful spirits and invites the blessing of the Buddha—for it is here that they will build him a palace.

When the senior monk, or vajra master, steps forward, he visualizes the symbolic rendering of that divine abode. The chanting then drops away, the horns, cymbals and drums are stored, and the monks embark on a transfixing exercise in memory, precision and what Buddhists refer to as mindfulness, a state of being present in the moment.

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Lee Lawrence
Wall Street Journal

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