The Ross School has once again welcomed Buddhist monk Lama Tenzin Yignyen to their grounds for his annual weeklong residency.
Since 2005, Yignyen has participated in his demonstration of mandala construction at the Ross upper and lower schools, in East Hampton and Bridgehampton, while also teaching the students his insights on life and the concepts of compassion and mindfulness.
After spending days meticulously creating his colorful mandala with grains of sand, the week concludes with a traditional dismantling ritual with the students, sweeping up and collecting the colored sand in jars and returning it to the ocean—imparting the transient nature of life to the children.
“I teach people how to live a happy life,” Yignyen says, his concentration on the mandala barely phased.
“What I find important,” Ross School representative Kristen Hyland says, “is that he teaches the children about meditation and mindfulness. It’s very important to expose children to these ideas. It’s not about religion—it’s about compassion, understanding themselves.”
Along with the Ross School, Yignyen has done demonstrations at other schools, colleges, yoga classes and prisons. He is also a visiting professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York, where he teaches art and Asian studies.
Set up in the Ross lower school art room in Bridgehampton, Yignyen uses the surface of a table as his canvas, slowly and precisely spreading the sand using chak-pur, the traditional tools of mandala construction consisting of ridged and tapered metal funnels that eject the colored sand when rubbed or tapped with a wooden stick.
Throughout the week, Ross students join Yignyen in art projects related to mindfulness as they listen to his thoughts on life.
“Education in Western schools is one-sided—they only teach how to be smart. They don’t teach insight,” Yignyen says. “They teach how to read a book and what the teacher knows, and nothing else.”
Through his weeklong demonstration, Yignyen shows the students the meditative act of mandala construction—not for preservation, but for the mere act of doing and to symbolize the ephemerality of life and our endeavors.
“Construction to fill our heart, to show the reality of life—that nothing lasts forever. To let go,” the monk explains. “We see this in so many relationships—that someone we once loved the most, we now hate the most. Love turns to hate. Sweet turns to sour. We must learn to let go. Practice non-attachment.”
Yignyen’s lessons fit seamlessly within the progressive curriculum of the Ross School, built on a set of core values that provide a foundation for children to grow into compassionate and mindful people.
“Our school’s motto is ‘know thyself in order to serve.’ Tenzin’s mandalas and teachings demonstrate this to the students,” says Christopher Engels, the Director of Community Projects at the Ross School.
Yignyen’s presence allows the children to witness their regular curriculum applied to the world at large, connecting it to foreign beliefs built on similar values of gratitude and respect.
“He expresses compassion and tries to explain how to have a clear mind and compassion for everyone and the five elements of the Earth,” says Julie, a fifth grader who recently moved to the East End from Paris.
Other students who are familiar with Yignyen’s words have carried his teachings with them. Carmichael, who has now experienced the monk’s teachings for the fourth year in a row, retells a story Yignyen told from one of his previous visits, about a giant mandala he and several other monks were constructing in California. After a bystander fell off a set of stairs onto the mandala, destroying it, the monks did not show the same hostility the other spectators expressed.
“Tenzin and the monks helped him up, asked him if he was okay,” Carmichael says. “The mandala didn’t matter. Tenzin would make an even better one next time. Human beings come first.”
Kristina, another fifth grader, who is learning from Yignyen for the third year, says, “Tenzin teaches us how to understand you have to let things go. That nothing lasts forever.”
It’s apparent that Yignyen has not only demonstrated the school’s philosophy and applied it to a broader sense of the world, but has truly affected the children’s outlook on their lives, expanding their minds and their hearts.
“We need more good people, more smart people, more compassionate people,” he says. “We must educate the heart to supplement the education of the brain. We must plant a seed [of compassion] in the younger generation.”