by Steven Bodnar
In a ceremonial gesture, The Venerable Tenzin Yignyen, instructor of Asian languages and cultures, pours sand from a glass vase into the water of Seneca Lake.
Encircled by students, Yignyen concludes the sacred practice of creating and dismantling a Tibetan Buddhist sand mandala, an ancient tradition that symbolizes life’s unwavering march from beginning to end. For centuries the ceremony was shared only among Buddhist practitioners.
The lakeside ceremony, which was conducted during one of Yignyen’s much sought-after “Tibetan Mandala Painting” classes, was a consequential moment that captures the essence of the Tibetan-born monk’s important educational work at Hobart and William Smith.
“I don’t teach ‘Mandala Painting’ strictly as a religion course or strictly as an art course,” says Yignyen, whose lectures also focus on Buddhist philosophy and meditation. “It’s about beautifying yourself through ethical disciplines. It’s a spiritual practice which helps one learn how to develop or grow internally through compassion, love, responsibility, kindness, respect and self-discipline.”
Ordained as a Buddhist monk by Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, Yignyen is a member of the Dalai Lama’s personal monastery. Yignyen has been invited to construct and lecture on mandalas across the country and holds a “Master of Sutra and Tantra” degree with highest honors, which is equivalent to a Ph.D.
At the Colleges, he has taught Tibetan mandala painting and Tibetan Buddhism for more than a decade during which Yignyen leads students on the collaborative creation of a vibrant and colorful sand mandala. Each semester, the sand art is produced on a platform in the atrium of the L. Thomas Melly Academic Center where it remains on display until the dismantling ceremony held at the Seneca Lake shoreline.
Yignyen says students who take the mandala course learn much more than Buddhist history, art, and philosophy. In the classes, Yignyen shares the principles for living a balanced, peaceful, compassionate, and loving life.
“The education of the mind must coincide with the education of the heart,” he says. “We want to be happy and healthy, and we should seek balance. The ultimate happiness of life can be achieved through developing a good heart and a good brain. Unifying these two is essential.”
Yignyen extends that philosophy beyond the mandala class and even beyond his work at the Colleges, bringing his spiritual beliefs into his everyday life.
“All of life is precious,” he says. “It is wonderful to have a happy life, but we can break it down to happiness in the second, the hour, the day, the week, the month and the year, as well. Living in the present moment is important because it is a gift.”
Through his teachings on campus, Yignyen demonstrates the importance of seeking peace and relaxation outside of the classroom and work. He says that students understand his philosophy on life and are welcoming of the mandala painting experience.
“The students learn about what makes you a happier and more balanced person in your everyday life,” Yignyen says. “The class is a medium through which students can be reminded of the good qualities that make life easier and learn how to handle difficulties.”