Diana Lestz ’13
This past weekend at Trinity College was marked by two major events: the culmination of the month-long project “Mandala: The Sacred Art of Sand” and Psi Upsilon’s 34th annual Tropical party. The differences between these two events and the fact that they were held within a mile from one another, less than 12 hours apart also marks a fascinating dichotomy between Trinity’s social atmosphere and its cultural counterpart.
By 11 p.m. on Saturday, Vernon Street was teaming with party-goers braving the cold weather, headed to Psi U’s backyard to hear music from Trinity’s own Stevo and Ralphy J, Wildboyz, and DJ Fareoh. Ambulances and Hartford police officers were posted at Campus Safety expectantly, as bass beats shuddered through the pavement. At 10:30 a.m. the next morning, I walked through a near empty campus in a slight drizzle to watch the final ceremony of the Keydong nuns’ month-long project: the dismantling of their sand mandala.
As opposed to the auditory overload that met my ears as I fell asleep last night in my room on Vernon Street, the next morning in Garmany Hall at the Austin Arts Center my ears were host to a different melody: that of the puja ceremonies of the Keydong nuns. The nuns chant in Tibetan, cross-legged, for over an hour with the occasional accompaniment of horns, drum, bells, and cymbals. During the ceremony, visitors were invited to sit cross-legged on the floor in observation, up until around noon when the floor was nearly filled to capacity and became standing room only.
Afterwards, when the nuns approached the mandala, visitors draped the edges with white scarves, or khatag, Tibetan offerings that symbolize purity and compassion. When the nuns began their destruction of the artwork, the only sound in the room was the mechanical clicking of camera shutters, as the air filled with sand that wisped hauntingly upward through the lights, illuminated in front of the yellow fabric hanging in Garmany.
A baby began to wail, as her mother rushed her out of the room, and the faces of the rapt visitors displayed similar tensions. The destruction of the mandala is symbolic of the Buddhist worldview: life is suffering, which is caused by attachment to things that are ultimately transitory and impermanent. It is dismantled in a ritualistic manner, first removing the deity syllables in a specific order before moving on to the total structure of the piece and then the final removal. Psi Upsilon has a similar ritual for their Tropical party, amassing a load of sand onto their property before spreading it, along with accounting for their artistic acts and outsourced stage equipment, and then soon after removing all of it and returning to their version of normalcy.
Witnessing both Psi U’s yearly ritual and the nuns’ traditional ritual drove me to contemplate the different cultural values and norms of the Trinity College community and the Keydong community from Kathmandu, Nepal. The forces of mindfulness and compassion behind the Mandala project provide, in my mind, a chilling contrast to the mindless party culture that we so readily embrace in the Western world, and in particular on Trinity’s campus. I understand the need for students to congregate and share the joys of music and dance with one another, but too often these occasions are shaded by alcohol and drug use, sometimes leading to inconsideration and abandonment of social niceties.
As a senior, I too enjoy and attend these parties, but I realize the opposing values that drive the mandala-building nuns and the party-building fraternity brothers. The mandala is a work that symbolizes the utmost love, empathy for the infinite suffering of sentient beings and compassion for their never-ending heartbreaks.
Against that, the weekly maelstrom of Vernon Street parties seems a cyclic pattern of ritualized emptiness.