Peace. Compassion. Empowerment. And, perhaps most of all, patience.
A group of Tibetan Buddhist monks from India will spend the start of 2019 in El Dorado County, exploring those topics and more in an 11-day cultural celebration.
As they do each year, they’ll also construct a grand, 16-square-foot sand mandala.
From New Year’s Day through Jan. 12, monks of the Gaden Shartse Monastery in India will come to Cameron Park to build their Avalokitseshvara mandala. Avalokitseshvara translates to “Buddha of Compassion.”
It’s a new location for the annual event, which took place at Placerville’s Cosmic Cafe for its first 16 years, said volunteer event organizer Bill Bratton.
That spot wasn’t big enough, though, a fire marshal told event organizers. The event moved to a venue in Diamond Springs last year, which also ended up being too small and lacked enough parking, Bratton said.
This time around, the Gaden Shartse monks will be hosted at the Burke Junction Shopping Center, 3300 Coach Lane, Building E-1.
Five monks and two geshes — the latter of which Bratton compared in status to that of Catholic cardinals — will make the trip there from Mundgod in central India.
After an opening ceremony noon on New Year’s Day, activities will include story hours, workshops, seminars and other demonstrations, running through Jan. 12, closed Jan. 7. For the duration, the general public is also free to watch the monks work on the mandala, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day.
The sand mandala serves as a beautiful main attraction. It’s made on a 4-by-4-foot square table that contains a stenciled blueprint.
“It’d be hard to get that detail into anything much smaller than that,” Bratton said. “It’s just amazing the detail they can get into that from the sand.”
Carolyn Wells, who has volunteered as a coordinator of the event for 11 years, says the stencil is a rough outline. The rest of the details are “done completely from memory.”
“It’s a beautiful and meditative practice,” she said.
All events are open to the public, and admission is free, with voluntary donations encouraged.
The traditional trek from Tibet to Northern California started in 1997, according to the Sierra Friends of Tibet website.
El Dorado County has been a stop for most of the past 20 years, thanks to a relationship between Placerville Friends of Tibet and the Gaden Shartse Cultural Foundation. In 2017, the event fell through as the monks had visa issues, Bratton said.
The cultural foundation is associated with the Gaden Shartse Monastic College, which boasts more than 1,600 students, teachers, scholars and spiritual practitioners, according to its website.
The Monastic College was founded in 15th century Tibet. Following the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1949, four dozen surviving members of the original colony fled across the border into India. The newly formed college set up a routine “combining education with physical labor,” the historical foundation website says.
Wells called the North American tours a “cultural exchange,” and called her decade of volunteering with the monks an “absolute joy.”
She says it’s a two-way street: the monks expose us to a new culture, while locals’ donations help fundraising efforts.
“All of the funds go to the monastery,” Wells said.
Bratton and Wells both spoke to cultural significance of the mandala.
“The mandala is an exercise in impermanence,” Bratton said. “They put together this elaborate, beautiful piece of art. And then the last ceremony is the dissolution ceremony. They brush the mandala away and then they put it into small bags and they give it to everybody in attendance. That is blessed sand and you can do whatever you want with it.”
Many guests put their sand in their garden or keep it for good luck.
One to four monks work on the mandala at any given time, Wells said.
The mandala is among artistic exhibits that will be showcased at Cameron Park, which include calligraphy workshops.
“This is family-oriented and children are encouraged to attend,” Wells said. “Of course, empowerments that are more meditative may be too much for small children, but they are allowed to attend.”
The Cameron Park ceremonies kick off the foundation’s tour of the U.S. West Coast, which runs through April 14 and concludes in Sedona, Ariz.
If you go
Where: 3300 Coach Lane, Building E-1, Placerville
When: Jan. 1-12, except Monday, Jan. 7. Mandala observation from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Check out the full schedule of events on Placerville Friends of Tibet’s Facebook page.
How much: All events are free, though some require pre-registration. Voluntary donations are encouraged.