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The Gift – Ann Norton

What do Tibetan Buddhist Monks and WaterFire have in common? The connection became clear on the evening of October 21st, 2000.

Custom required the Tibetan mandala of colored sand, created grain-by-grain at Providence College by two Buddhist monks, be ritually destroyed and poured into a body of water before sunset. When Barnaby Evans was approached about combining this event with WaterFire, his response was enthusiastic and immediate. How appropriate to combine two such spiritually powerful happenings!

This mandala, a circular design nearly five feet in diameter and symbolizing the cosmos, was dedicated to Avalokiteshvara, the spirit of Compassion. Now, the energy was to be shared with the entire Providence community. WaterFire, in each of its nearly 100 presentations, has also brought a positive, spirit-filled energy to the City.

The synergy between WaterFire, the monks, and Providence College brought magical results. Gary Calvino, Director of Special Events for WaterFire, has to be credited with coordinating torchbearers, music, and lighting of the fires.

In the spirit of giving, the monks requested permission to bless the Rhode Island State House. Carrying the sacred sand in a brass vessel, they walked around the rotunda, chanting. Their bright saffron and red robes and plumed yellow hats made a striking display. As the monks emerged from the State House, two WaterFire volunteers with torches flanked them, leading the procession down to the River. The Brown University Chorus sang a hymn. When the monks reached the water’s edge they began to pray.

At sunset — 5:54 exactly — the large crowd was completely hushed. Two torchbearers struck a gong, and the monks poured the sand into the water. As the gong’s resonance faded, WaterFire began with a traditional Tibetan song. As the last grain of sand touched the water, the first fire was lit. The differences between Western urban setting and ancient Eastern ritual were dissolved. Two worlds were reconciled.

That evening was a memorable example of giving. Providence College sponsored the monks, who in turn gave the mandala to the entire community. WaterFire made possible a spiritual experience for all to cherish.

Ann Norton teaches Asian art history at Providence College, where she is chair of Art and Art History and director of the Asian Studies Program. She has curated a number of Asian art exhibits in New England, and publishes on South and Southeast Asian art and culture.