View from the Pew
GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARBULLETIN.COM
A Bhutanese monk put a finishing touch Thursday on a sand mandala, the intricate circle of symbols made with brilliantly colored sand placed grain by grain on a glue surface, created in the Altar Room of the Academy of Arts exhibit.
Fleeting beauty gets rare show
Buddhist monks bring their sacred art style and items from monasteries in Bhutan to a local exhibit
The giant prayer flags whipped by the wind outside the Honolulu Academy of Arts are more than a promotional device to call attention to the exhibition of Buddhist art there.
Although visitors line the walls of a first-floor altar room while monks chant prayers and present offerings, it's much more than an educational audiovisual program tied to the current show of Bhutanese treasures.
The Bhutanese monks believe that the material world and the spiritual realm converge at the show -- and in all aspects of life. They pray to cleanse the exhibit of negative influences and to keep the sacred art safe. The flags bring blessings just by fluttering.
More than 100 items were brought out of remote monasteries in the Himalayan country to be displayed in "The Dragon's Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan." Gilded statues, paintings and ritual implements are on view in the show, which will continue through May 23. The art academy worked with the Central Monastic Authority and the Department of Culture of Bhutan to bring out the rarely seen items.
Religious and secular authorities share power in Bhutan, which has held Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism as its official religion for centuries. The religion is woven throughout the country's culture; one particularly colorful aspect is folk dance that combines spiritual practice with storytelling. It is shown on video screens throughout the art exhibit.
"I'm lucky to have seen this art," said Sherab Dorji, who came with four other monks from a monastery in his country's capital city, Thimphu. "By seeing it, I can get blessings from it."
With him are Phub Tenzin, a leader in the chanting, and Sangay Rinchen, who is learning techniques to preserve the fragile "thangka" -- paintings on cloth -- from academy experts.
Two others draw an audience when they work. Kinly Tenzin fashions "torma," waxy fan-shaped altar offerings, from grain and coconut oil. Lhab Tshering is creating a mandala, an intricate circle of symbols made with brilliantly colored sand placed grain by grain on a glue surface.
"The mandala is a major attraction," said Sherab, who is fluent in English and is an information resource for visitors. He describes the symbols in the mandala. And he tells people that it will be destroyed at the end of the show, a graphic insight into the Buddhist principle against forming attachments.
"It's sand, and the sand will be returned to the ocean," said Sherab. "The ocean goddess will collect all the sand."
GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARBULLETIN.COM
Bhutanese monks performed their prayer service in the altar room of the Academy of Arts exhibit on Thursday. The monks prayed to cleanse the exhibit of negative influences and to keep the sacred art safe.
A respectfully silent crowd watched as the monks sat chanting in mesmerizing continuity highlighted occasionally with drum, cymbal and deep tones from the "dhung," long horns. A few in the Wednesday afternoon audience sat with legs folded, palms up and eyes closed entering into the religious experience.
Sherab is always questioned about the figures on the altar, which represent saints or gods as well as historical figures including Shakyamuni Buddha, the founder of Buddhism; Padmasambhava, an Indian teacher who introduced Tantric Buddhism in Bhutan in the eighth century, and Zhabdrung Rinpoche, "who unified our country."
He's also asked about the basket of bagged snacks at the foot of the altar: "In our country, we offer cooked rice, meat and fruits. Here we have to use packaged food because of the flies."
Sherab works in the administrative offices of the Tashicho Dzong monastery, where there are more than 1,000 monks, many of whom are teachers or administrators in community schools. He joined in 1986 at the age of 16.
"Until last year I have stayed in the forest, a small one-room hut. I stayed for seven years." Sherab said, "A monk has to stay lonely from the community. Shakyamuni said we have to live like this, learn how to live lonely. Then you have time for praying and meditation because your mind is at peace."
Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism, with emphasis on using techniques and practices to reach enlightenment, differs from Japanese Buddhism, the most prevalent in Hawaii, which emphasizes understanding the philosophy of Shakyamuni Buddha.
"The goal is the same," said Sherab, whose visit to Hawaii has given him a chance to know Buddhists from other denominations.
The monks stay at the Mu-Ryang-Sa Korean Buddhist Temple and have become a familiar sight on buses to and from Palolo in their red and gold robes. They've made accommodations in their diet because their host monks are vegetarians.
They've become fans of spicy Mexican food. They've been hosted by island residents who have taken them on sightseeing trips to the Kapiolani Community College farmers' market, which they really liked, to an acupuncture treatment and to a professional surfing lesson, after which Sherab went back for more.
"I have learned from this," he said. "I like the atmosphere in Hawaii. The people are friendly. They greet us when they see us."
And perhaps, when they share aloha with a monk, they realize they are being blessed.
Exhibit events include prayer and a memorial
"The Dragon's Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan" will be on view at the Honolulu Academy of Arts through May 23.
Admission is $20 and $15 for seniors and students. Guided tours are available.
"Puja," or prayer services, are offered daily at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. in an altar room by monks from Bhutan.
April 15 will be a special observance memorializing Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, the founder of modern Bhutan. A Buddhist master from Tibet, he unified Bhutan in the early 17th century and established the system of government shared by religious and secular authority.
The anniversary of Zhabdrung's death will be celebrated with rituals throughout the day. The monks will serve tea at 9 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. During the day the public may share in the rituals by bringing gifts of fruit, food, flowers and cash offerings which will go first to the altar and then to the monks.
Program commemorates the birthday of Buddha
Island Buddhists will celebrate Buddha's birthday with an April 13 religious service and cultural program open to the public.
The celebration from 9 to 11 a.m. at McCoy Pavilion at Ala Moana Beach Park will feature entertainment by a taiko drum group from Honpa Hongwanji Betsuin, a Korean Buddhist dance troupe from Mu-Ryang-Sa Temple and a synchronized baton-tossing matoi performance by Rissho Kosei-Kai Church. Children from several temples will sing.
Bishop Wajira Wansa of Kurtistown Jodo Mission on the Big Island will speak at the service.
The celebration marks the birth of the Indian Prince Siddhartha, who became Shakyamuni Buddha, more than 2,500 years ago.
The event is sponsored by the Hawaii Buddhist Council of the seven major Japanese Buddhist sects in Hawaii, which has invited members of the International Buddhist Association of Hawaii to participate.
Hawaii's Japanese Buddhist temples traditionally celebrate the birth of the founder of the Buddhist philosophy in April at the time of the Japanese spring flower festival Hanamatsuri. Other branches of Buddhism from China and Southeast Asia celebrate the tradition in May.