a couple of men sitting on top of a blue table
Tibetan Buddhist monks work on an intricate sand mandala, made from colorful fine sands, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 410 Duval St. They started work on the mandala on Dec. 31, 2023. JANET LOVELAND/contributed

By Gwen Filosa

A group of Tibetan Buddhist Monks arrived in Key West just before New Year’s Day to spread a message of peace – and create an intricately detailed, spiritual work of art from millions of grains of sand. 

And after a painstaking week’s worth of work on the sand mandala, they will sweep it up, like dust from a living room floor, and toss it into the ocean.

This ancient ritual is a sacred lesson from Buddhism.

“It’s about impermanence,” said Lucy Paige, a Keys artist and member of the Tara Mandala Key West Buddhist Sangha, which organizes the monks’ visit and public events. “You create something and then let it go. It’s OK. We have to learn that life lesson to let things go.”

The sand mandala is under construction this week at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 401 Duval St., where the monks are living this week. The church serves as the monks’ home base and is open to the public during the day to watch the Drepung Gomang monks place fine grains of colorful sands into a design while seated on the church floor near the altar. 

It’s just one part of the week-long Drepung Gomang Monks’ Sacred Arts Tour, which last visited Key West in January 2020. The eight visiting monks are holding workshops, giving daily dharma talks and blessings, and hosting events that include traditional chants and rituals, like the Snow Lion Dance which features traditional costumes. 

They’re holding a daily market at St. Paul’s where they sell handmade items, such as shawls and Tibetan singing bowls. 

While most events are free to attend, the monks accept donations which go to support their monastery and pay for materials used in workshops in Key West, such as teaching the sand mandala process. 

The monks are from a monastery in India, where 2,000 monks live in exile. 

“They’re refugee monks, they’re not allowed to live in Tibet,” Paige said. 

Over the last several years, different monks from that community have toured the U.S., with stops in Key West. The group currently in Key West will next head to St. Petersburg, Florida.

“It’s always exciting to have them visit our community,” said Janet Loveland, another Tara Mandala member who has been photographing the monks’ visit. “After the semi-seclusion of the pandemic years, the event seems even more special. Their happiness, joy and sincere commitment toward world peace is inspiring. It’s a joy to be in their presence – always smiling.”

A Drepung Gomang Monk takes part in a traditional ceremony in Key West, during the monks’ Sacred Arts Tour, which started on Dec. 31, 2023, and runs through Jan. 6, 2024. JANET LOVELAND/contributed

This is the Drepung Gomang Monks’ fourth time in Key West. 

St. Paul’s is open daily, 8 a.m.-7 p.m. through Jan. 6, for the public to view the sand mandala, and the monks’ market is open daily. 

Highlights of the week’s events include

Thursday, Jan. 4, St. Paul’s Church

  • Noon–1:30 pm, Organ Concert/Sacred Sounds of the Monks. Free to Public

Friday, Jan. 5, St. Paul’s Church

  • 4:30–6 p.m. Tibetan Cultural Event Featuring the Snow Lion Dance, Yak Dance and Good Luck Dance with traditional chants, featuring Tibetan sounds and traditional costumes. Free to the public. 

Saturday, Jan. 6 at the St. Paul’s Church Sanctuary

  • 2–3 p.m. Closing Ceremonies and Dissolution of Sand Mandala of World Peace will start at St. Paul’s Church. The completed sand mandala will be swept up into a pile, symbolizing that life is transient and impermanent. There will be a procession to Simonton Street Beach to drop the sand into the ocean, to go to the far parts of the world. Then the monks will give their final blessings. 

“We’re really happy to be able to practice interreligious hospitality live and in real time,” said the Rev. Donna Mote, the rector of St. Paul’s since 2021. “It’s a peaceful and powerful thing to see them and make the symbolic gesture and bow, just connect with them in that way.”

Most of the monks visiting don’t speak English, but Mote said that doesn’t stop them from communicating with locals who don’t speak Tibetan. 

“That underscores that most of human communication is non-verbal,” Mote said. “You can get a long way on smiles.”

A group of Drepung Gomang monks host a traditional Tibetan Buddhist ceremony at St. Paul’s Church on Jan. 1, 2024. The monks returned to Key West on Dec. 31, 2023, for a week-long festival which runs through Jan. 6, 2024. JANET LOVELAND/contributed

Watching the monks work on the sand mandala is a meditation, Mote said. 

“Work is prayer and prayer is work,” Mote said, of the ritual. “We need to interact with people from other traditions. Interacting with Buddhists makes me a better christian. It’s mutually beneficial.”

“We’re the perfect Christians to host Tibetan Buddhists,” said Mote, who has a Ph.D from Emory University’s Graduate Division of Religion. “We’re all about the incense and the bells, the altars.”

Mote said the monks may draw in people who have no interest in church or organized religion, and they are just as welcome as devout Christians. 

“There are people who avoid Christian places for a lot of good reasons,” Mote said. “It’s not incumbent to believe the stuff we believe. We’re happy to share. It’s not our clubhouse, it’s a community asset.”

Gwen Filosa
Gwen Filosa is The Keys Weekly’s Digital Editor, and has covered Key West news, culture and assorted oddities since she moved to the island in 2011. She was previously a reporter for the Miami Herald and WLRN public radio. Before moving to the Keys, Gwen was in New Orleans for a decade, covering criminal courts for The Times-Picayune. In 2006, the paper’s staff won the Pulitzer Prizes for breaking news and the Public Service Medal for their coverage of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. She remains a devout Saints fan. She has a side hustle as a standup comedian, and has been a regular at Comedy Key West since 2017. She is also an acclaimed dogsitter, professional Bingo caller and a dedicated Wilco fan.