Monique’s Journey: Tibetan monks, breast cancer, and mandalas


As you leaf through the mandalas in my four mandala coloring books you may notice distinct Nepalese and Tibetan influences in some of them. This is no coincidence; each of my mandala coloring books, and the third volume in particular, is linked with the East. Two separate incidents led me to visit the Himalayas in the fall of 1996.

The first happened in Belgium at the age of fifteen when I read, The Third Eye, a book by a Tibetan monk named Lobsang Rampa. For the first time I learned of mandalas, a Sanskrit word referring to both "center" and "circle." Instinctively I recognized them. Although my awareness of them never ceased, it stayed fairly dormant until 1977 when, having moved to the empty spaces of Montana, I felt the incredible urge to draw my own mandalas. I did, non-stop, for 10 days. Afterward, realizing how little known these centering, calming designs are in the West, I decided to share them through a coloring book.  A second volume eventually followed.

Before creating my third set of designs, however, I felt the need to infuse myself with fresh images. Few regions in the world are as rich in mandalas as the Indian subcontinent and the Himalayas where they are as much part of everyday living as literacy is in the West.

The second significant event occurred on the winter solstice of 1993 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Even though subsequent surgery gave me an excellent prognosis, I knew that I had to reach for something beyond the realm of traditional Western medicine. To heal my psychic wound I needed to engage in a personal challenge that celebrated my health, my life.

One day I saw a photo of a radiant young woman on a mountain summit, holding up her arms in that universal victorious pose that says: "I made it!" Laura Evans, too, is a breast cancer survivor. In her book The Climb of My Life, she chronicles her courageous journey from the edge of death to the victory of a lifetime. She describes how she and other breast cancer survivors made a heroic ascent of the highest mountain in South America, Mount Aconcagua. Her story inspired me. I, too, wanted to stand on top of a mountain.

And so, in search of mandalas and "my" mountain, I left for Kathmandu, Nepal with WoodsWomen Inc. (check out True to expectations, I found myself in mandala heaven: everywhere I looked, everywhere I went, I saw gorgeous mandalas. I absorbed their images like a thirsty sponge. I'll never forget my joy the day I showed my own designs to some village children and invited them to color them; they did so without hesitation. In fact, mandala was the only word we had in common.

With the assistance of Chitra, my Nepalese guide, I headed into the mountains. We hiked for a grueling two days before reaching a small village where we intended to spend a couple of nights. As it happened, our guest house was owned by a very unusual Tibetan monk, Kalsang Lama. In addition to his native Nepali and Tibetan he spoke fluent French and English. He explained how years ago a Western doctor had sponsored him to pursue a college degree in France. After working in Kathmandu for a few years, he returned to his isolated village with the mission to give to his people what his friend had given him: an education.

And so it came to be that in this remote Nepalese mountain village, a Tibetan monk asked foreigners to sponsor local children so they too can attend boarding school in Nepal's capital, the only way most of them can receive an education beyond basic literacy acquired in village schools. Like a proud father he showed me photos of "his" 25 girls and boys, many still attending school in that far-away city. Realizing how rich my own life has been as a result of educational opportunities, I decided to leave a gift I hadn't even known I'd brought: a 10-year commitment to send a 9-year-old girl, Jyotsna, to school in Kathmandu, something she very much wanted but could never do on her own.

The next day, still wanting to climb a mountain, I asked Chitra to guide me to the top of a particular hill. A surprise awaited me at its 12,000 ft summit: an ancient Buddhist shrine. As I leaned against its white walls, surveying the quiet Himalayan panorama, I felt jubilant: I, too, had made it.

Later, as I was finishing drawing the designs for my third book, I finally understood how these events are connected. When I was a teenager, a book by a Tibetan monk rekindled in me a deeply buried memory of something Himalayan cultures have always had in abundance: mandalas. Thirty-five years later I visited Nepal, leaving behind a gift that is similarly bountiful in the West: an education. That gift I placed into the hands of a Tibetan monk. And so it is that East and West continue to meet in my life.

Jyotsna, now in her 20s, continues to flourish and is most grateful for all her years of schooling in Kathmandu. Graduating in 2003 from 10th grade - the final class in Nepalese High Schools - at the top of her class, she proved to be a natural student who loved to learn and expand her horizons.  At her request and with my continued financial support, Jyotsna enrolled in a 2-year college prep program after which she decided to go to college and pursue a business degree.  How her advanced full-time studies, still unusual for so many Nepalese children and especially a girl, will continue to affect and transform her life as an adult and in Nepalese society, not to mention her native village, no one knows.  What is clear is that Jyotsna is already passing on the gift of education that came her way so many years ago by actively seeking sponsors for other Nepalese children who, without outside help, could not pursue an education.  Way to go, girl!

The other great news is that Jyotsna and I connected in a new way as she is one of the children whose Peace Mandala design was included in my fourth mandala coloring book (publ. 2000): Peace Mandala Coloring Book from Children around the World.  Her photo as a 13-year old is on the back cover along with those of many other remarkable children who contributed to this Gift of Peace in the New Millennium.  This book plus my growing international mandala family of many children and adults are one of the highlights of my life.

Besides publishing her own 4 mandala coloring books since 1977,  Monique Mandali M.A., is also a transpersonal psychotherapist in private practice in Helena, Montana. She specializes in inner work, creative imagery, mind-body connections, and transformational processes. Monique uses mandalas in her own work with clients and presents workshops and retreats that heal body, mind, and spirit.