Separation of mandala and state?

mandalaThe Buddhist monk who blessed Baltimore City Hall with a worship aide traveled to Detroit to do some outreach on a community college campus. Terry wrote earlier in the week about the interesting church-state issues raised by a Buddhist doing religious work on public property.

A college campus is a less controversial venue than city hall for a religious display such as this, but it’s still interesting to consider the angle reporters use when covering the Buddhist tour. David Crumm, the prolific religion reporter at the Detroit Free Press, began his column about the Detroit stop of the tour this way:

A monk in gold-and-crimson robes labored on his knees to bring to life an ancient symbol of wisdom in a Dearborn library on Wednesday, surrounded by an ever-changing crowd of students, some in Muslim scarves, others in Lions and Pistons sweatshirts and a couple in leather and chains.

The director of religious studies at the college tells Crumm that monk Tashi Thupten Tsondu‘s visit is part of an effort to expose students to diverse cultures, and the diversity angle is thread throughout the article. The story is great and reporters have to choose one angle out of many potential ones. But I hope that as the monk continues his tour throughout the country — and if he continues to do his religious work on taxpayer-funded property — that reporters would look at the issue of state-sanctioned religious activity.

I tend to be interested in raising questions about any state support of religious activity. Terry raised the issue of equal access when he wrote about the story of Tashi’s religious work in Baltimore. What other groups are taking part in the diversity campaign? And that raises the question of how these stories would be written if Campus Crusade for Christ were working on a project in the library.

The purpose of the monk’s visit is not to make pretty pictures and head back home. It’s to share Tibetan Buddhist philosophies. A report of the monk’s visit to Michigan State University a few years ago looks at how Buddhist tenets are shared during a question and answer period following the creation — and destruction — of the mandala. There’s even a personal testimony!

One of the things that distinguishes Crumm is how he lets his subjects talk about their own faith and philosophy. This article was no exception:

Tashi, 49, explained that a mandala is an ancient practice that combines meditation techniques and sacred symbols to create vibrant, circular works of art. The overall message is that life is precious as well as fleeting.

“I make the mandala, but then I dismantle it on the last day. I sweep it up with a brush,” Tashi said. “It reminds us that, one day, we all will die. It reminds us to think of other living beings compassionately in this impermanent life we have.”

At 5 p.m. Tuesday, in a ceremony open to the public, Tashi will complete the dismantling by placing the swept-up sand into a large bowl. Then, he will lead a procession from the library to the nearby Rouge River, where he will drizzle the sand into the water.

[William] Secrest [the college's director of religious studies] said, “The Buddhist message is that we cannot cling to this life. That’s a delusion. Life is constantly flowing away like the sand in this mandala will flow into the river.”

It’s such a simple thing, but one I wish more reporters would do. Rather than trying — and failing — to characterize complex religious issues, reporters can tell a much richer story by simply quoting religious adherents as they talk about their faith.

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  • http://lamillinger.typepad.com Lee Anne Millinger

    Yes, that is Crumm’s style of reporting, and it’s what makes him one of the best religion reporters in the country. He does the same thing with his piece Friday on Easter:

    http://www.freep.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20060414/NEWS05/604140334

  • Micah Weedman

    I agree that this was great piece. I worked in campus ministry for a couple of years for a school that hosted some Tibetan monks who came for a few days and painted a mandala. Interestingly, it was CCC folks who raised a stink, and “protested” when the sand was ceremonially dumped in a lake on campus by sitting in the shape of a cross on the opposite side of the lake.
    Which leads me to wonder–exactly what kind of “project” is CCC capable of doing in a library that would count as a diverse cultural experience? I think Terry is right to draw the analogy between painting a mandala and writing an icon, but I’m not sure what cultural gravitas Campus Crusade has, nor am I sure that Campus Crusade would see themselves as contributing anything culturally like a mandala or icon. They certainly don’t have a tradition of such things (unless singing “Shine Jesus Shine” counts).

    A more serious question is whether or not painting mandalas is “state-sanctioned religious activity” or something more akin to state-sanctioned experience of religious activities being done. Given the links between Buddhism and nonviolence, I hardly think our state is sanctioning much about it at all.

  • Micah Weedman

    Are there any bands of roving icon-writers spreading a message of peace and holiness? That would make an interesting story.


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