The Monks of Samtenling

Tibetan monks devote a day to celebrating their precious, yet dying, culture

The Hood River community got a rare glimpse of some ancient Tibetan art forms on Monday, performed by Tibetan monks visiting the United States from Nepal.

The monks, from the Samtenling Monastery in Kathmandu, demonstrated the centuries-old arts of sand mandala and butter sculpture during a day-long celebration of Tibetan culture at the Columbia Art Gallery.

The monks were visiting along with Geshe Kalsang Damdul — or Geshe la — a teacher at the Center for Tibetan Buddhism in Portland. Geshe la was formerly the assistant director of the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics in Dharamsala, India, under the direct administration of the Dalai Lama.

After an opening ceremony near the fountain at Overlook Memorial Park, where the monks played traditional Tibetan long horns and other instruments to a crowd of about 70 people, the sand mandala and butter sculpture demonstrations got underway at the gallery.

In the main gallery, two monks sat on the floor with their tools over a detailed outline drawn on a board. They scooped sand into metal funnels — called Chakpur — and rubbed the funnels with the handles of knives to control the flow of sand through the funnels’ small openings. The harder they rubbed the funnels, the heavier the flow of sand.

In the gallery annex, a monk demonstrated butter sculpture, using butter dyed all different colors to create elaborate designs on wooden boards.

“You’re seeing a precious art form that’s tens of thousands of years old,” said Joan Yasui Emerson of Hood River, who is involved in the Northwest Tibetan Cultural Association and organized the monks’ visit. “But it’s also a dying culture. So it’s a happy moment and a sad moment.” Geshe la spoke to more than 40 onlookers at noon, during a break in the demonstrations, about the art forms.

“There’s no religious freedom in Tibet,” he said, noting that practicing these art forms — which are intricately tied to Tibetan Buddhism — is forbidden in Tibet. Tibet, a formerly independent country, was invaded and taken over in 1950 by China, which has systematically repressed Tibetan culture and religion, leading to the imprisonment, torture and death of more than a million Tibetan Buddhists. Many more Tibetans have escaped their country and live in exile in Nepal and India.

“The only hope for preserving a dying, rich culture lies with a handful of monks and nuns who live in exile,” Geshe la said. The art forms of sand mandala and butter sculpture teach monks focus and concentration, he said. Monday’s demonstration lasted only a few hours, but normally monks work on sand mandalas for days at a time.

As soon as the mandala is completed and consecrated, a “de-construction” ceremony takes place and the mandala is dismantled.

“This teaches a wonderful lesson in impermanence,” Geshe la said. He added that in Tibetan Buddhism, “everything must be seen as impermanent.” After the mandala is dismantled, the sand is taken to a flowing body of water and thrown in.

“We let the sand mix into the ocean or river where we believe the species that live in the (water) receive the blessings,” he said. On Monday, the monks planned to dismantle the sand mandala and carry it to the shores of the Columbia River where the sand would be dispersed in a ceremony. (The ceremony was to take place after the Kaleidoscope press deadline.)

Kids and adults flowed in and out of the gallery all day to observe the art demonstrations and peruse a table of traditional Tibetan goods for sale. Many visitors tried their hand at butter sculpture and visited with Geshe la and the monks, whose melting smiles made up for their halting English.

“The warmness we get from the Hood River people is incredible,” said Geshe la as he took a lunch break. “We are so much touched by the warmness shown.”

For more information about local activities celebrating Tibetan culture, e-mail the Northwest Tibetan Cultural Association at or go to

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