Reflections on Hosting a Buddhist Monk
In early October, I had the privilege to be involved with setting up and planning the Sand Mandala ceremony, where Elon University hosted, Geshe Sangpo, a Buddhist monk from the Kadampa Center in Raleigh, to perform the ritual of sand mandala in the Sacred Space at the Truitt Center. Over three painstaking days, he used specialized tools
to pour multicolored sand onto a table that resulted in a beautiful, intricate pattern, that was rich with symbolism and meaning. This specific sand mandala was the Green Tara mandala, which is meant to invite Tara, a female Buddha, to be present. After three long days of labor, the sand mandala was destroyed. This ritual symbolizes the impermanence of the world and how we can spend our whole lives pursuing materialistic things that have no chance of lasing.
Although I was in awe of the sand mandala, I actually found myself more interested in the figure of Geshe Sangpo himself. Learning about his story was inspirational. Geshe Sangpo was born in Tibet where he lived for twelve years before crossing the Himalayan mountains on foot to escape Chinese control. He made it to the Sera Jey Mahayana Monastery in southern India where he studied for 17 years to become one of the youngest people to ever receive a Geshe degree. He currently lives in Raleigh, North Carolina where he teaches classes and provides ritual guidance at the Kadampa Center.
What stood out to me the most during my interactions with Geshe Sangpo, was how he seemed to find everything around him amusing. He was not detached from the world, as I assumed a monk would be, but I instead noticed that he was very much aware of the things around him. When we were walking to one of the lunches, he told me that the reason he enjoys coming to Elon was how beautiful and clean the campus always is. Geshe Sangpo just had this sense of humor that radiated from him and made it so enjoyable to be in his presence.
During one of the group lunches with Geshe Sangpo, we ate at the Winter Garden, which is a collection of dining options that include Biscuitville, Freshii, and Flat Out. Eager to try food from different places, Geshe Sangpo shared a pizza from Flat Out and a rice bowl from Freshii with Sandy from the Kadampa center. I watched as Sandy poured half of her rice bowl into another bowl, noticing that there was some sauce on the edge of one bowl and the other bowl looked much neater she proceeded to give the cleaner bowl to Geshe Sangpo. She explained that monks will not refuse gifts or ask for more so that puts the responsibility on the gift giver to give their best. I found this interesting because Buddhist monks are supposed to be unmaterialistic and yet here is Sandy telling me about this expectation for them to receive the best. I truly believe that Geshe Sangpo would not have cared at all if he was given the slightly messier bowl. I am sure that this action is meant to show respect to someone of his position and I would do the same, but I wonder who it is really benefiting from this? The gift-giver or the one receiving a gift? Should we be this generous with everyone? Is gift giving an attempt to repay him for spiritual guidance? How does Geshe Sangpo view this gift? Thinking about this gave me many unanswered questions about the relationship between an unmaterialistic monk and a materialistic society. I wondered how Geshe Sangpo would react to being gifted a Ferrari. I believe that he would be joyous to have received such a gift and would truly enjoy driving it. However, I also suspect that if this car were stolen or wrecked Geshe Sangpo would not despair in the same way that I would if the same thing had happened to me. It is hard for me to understand how it is possible to enjoy something while you have it but not be affected when it is gone. This is probably why he is the monk, and I am not.
It was impressive how Geshe Sangpo was able to simultaneously be this highly respected figure that you would expect from someone with his credentials but also be an approachable and friendly person. I realized that I went into that week expecting that he would be unrelatable and indifferent towards everything. These expectations were shattered by the last day when Geshe Sangpo gave me a fist bump. I was so surprised by this that for a brief moment I was terrified I had misinterpreted his gesture. But no, I really had just been fist-bumped by a Buddhist monk.
Geshe Sangpo was an incredible example of someone who dedicates every minute of their life to their worldview. It was so apparent that his belief system influenced him in everything he did. This was a reminder to me about how beliefs are not meant to be only practiced once a week or once a day. They are supposed to be lived.
Hernandez, Maria- Pictures
Tibetan Sand Mandalas - Exquisite Tibetan Buddhist Sand Art. https://www.greattibettour.com/tibetan-culture/sand-mandalas.html. Accessed 4 Nov. 2021.
Welcome to Kadampa Center! | Kadampa Center. https://kadampa-center.org/. Accessed 29 Oct. 2021.