The sound -- deep, resonant and otherworldly -- cut the silence in the Renaissance Sculpture Court yesterday at the Walters Art Gallery.
For about 15 minutes, nine Tibetan monks performed an opening ceremonial chant before beginning the painstaking work of creating a "Medicine Buddha Sand Mandala," an intricate tapestry "painted" with millions of grains of colored sand.
It's all in a day's work for the monks from the Drepung Loseling monastery in southern India. They're six months into a yearlong trek across North America -- including major cities in the United States and Mexico -- to increase awareness of the threats to their ancient culture.
The monks, who arrived in Baltimore on Wednesday as part of "Tibet Awareness Week for World Healing," have led workshops on Buddhism, appeared at Borders Books & Music in Towson and will perform a program of sacred music and dance at 8 tonight at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Then it's on to Allentown, Pa.
During their tour, the monks have come to appreciate some aspects of American life: eating at Burger King when they're on ** the road, and playing and watching basketball. And the tour carries some of the trappings of American commercialism, including appearances at record stores and sales of monk-related merchandise.
"It's really a bit exhausting, but at the same time we've been very happy with the success we've had and the attention," the monks' spokesman, Geshe Damdul Namgyal, said of the tour.
He added, "Those of us in exile do our best to preserve our culture facing extinctions. If we come out and share it, one way or another it will be preserved."
The monks are among the thousands of Tibetans who have fled their country since the Communist Chinese takeover in 1959. Exiles include the Dalai Lama, recognized by Tibetans as their spiritual leader.
On Friday, before a music and dance performance at Harborplace, Lobsang Tengyie, an American-born Buddhist monk traveling with the nine Tibetan monks, spoke to a small crowd about the plight of Tibet.
"Today is Tibet's darkest hour. You can't find Tibet on a map," he said. "The monks are here to keep its memory alive."
Money raised on this tour, he said, will be used to bring more
refugees out of Tibet.
The Tibetan monks shared part of their culture at the Walters Art Gallery with about 150 people who came out to see the creation of the sand mandala and listen to traditional chanting, intended to bless the sand painting.
"There's a lot of hurting people here, and it's as if these magical aliens are offering them something," audience member Phil Naranjo said of the chanting.
Four monks will spend 21 hours over three days to create the sand mandala. The sacred art is designed to promote healing on "environmental, personal and social levels," the monks' spokesman said.
While the monks poured sand through slim copper funnels, their supporters checked out the posters, T-shirts, videos, incense and other items on sale to benefit the Tibetans' cause.
"This is an essential item -- the Tibetan monk tour shirt," joked John Corame, a Buddhist from Northwest Baltimore. He added, "I think it's a miracle that in 20th-century Baltimore we've got a group of monks coming in to raise people's consciousness about Tibet."
During their visit, the monks are staying in the Butchers Hill home of Daniel Maciejczyk, artistic director for Maryland Friends of Tibet, which sponsored the monks' activities here.
Tomorrow the Tibetan monks will conclude their project at the Walters, and at 3:30 p.m. will walk to the Inner Harbor. There, they will pour the sand used in the mandala into the water.
"It's an offering to the water spirits," said Geshe Damdul Namgyal. "We want to make sure the painting, which has become sacred, rests in a clean place and is carried away so its healing power can be distributed."