In honor of His Holiness The XIV Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday, two monks visiting from the Namgyal Monastery in Dharamsala, India are creating a sand mandala on the UCI campus. I count myself lucky to be among those who will be in attendance for The Dalai Lama’s actual birthday celebration, as part of the Global Compassion Summit in Orange County, California. But in advance of that day, I wanted to take part in this more intimate, sacred ceremony.
My Pentecostal upbringing was steeped in rituals, none of them similar; but when I first saw a sand mandala a few years ago, I was instantly drawn to its spiritual metaphors. Events like this are best when shared, so I was happy when my friend Karin agreed to join me.
Karin’s first thought, confessed over dinner? Netflix’s hit series, House of Cards. No spoiler alerts, please, because I’ve only watched Season One, Episode I. Still, I’ve read enough to know that the main character’s ruthless ambition is a driving force, that viewers are plunged into the depths of depravity as Frank Underwood claws his way up the political ladder. Having schemed his way into the White House by Season 3, Frank sets for himself the task of establishing his legacy. It is in this context that he and his wife Claire play host to a group of Tibetan monks, who create for the President and First Lady their very own sand mandala (brief video clip).
“Mandalas constructed from [crushed limestone] are unique to Tibetan Buddhism and are believed to effect purification and healing. Typically, a great teacher chooses the specific mandala to be created. Monks then begin construction of the sand mandala by consecrating the site with sacred chants and music. Next, they make a detailed drawing from memory. Over a number of days, they fill in the design with millions of grains of colored sand. At its completion, the mandala is consecrated. The monks then enact the impermanent nature of existence by sweeping up the colored grains and dispersing them in flowing water.” (Smithsonian Institute)
While four monks typically work in tandem on a sand mandala, passport-related concerns brought this seemingly unlikely pair together at UCI. More about that later... Press releases were late, so the place wasn’t crowded. We wandered at our leisure, posed questions and wrote in our journals. I snapped countless photographs, searched the familiar patterns for the inevitable surprise.
Venerable Chöphel bowed over the table, balancing a fluted chakpus over the delicate edge. One brass chakpus grated against the other, until tinted sand flowed like liquid through its narrow opening.
Venerable Chödar took the measure of things…
while Venerable Chöphel transformed crystalline sand into waterfalls.
The process itself had a singular beauty. Mask-covered faces. Deep breaths. Sensible shoes and infinite patience. It was a collaborate effort, with creative license pushed to the margins. Not the tiniest sliver of space for artistic ego, here. The patterns were so deeply rooted in the monks’ collective experience that they grew organically into exquisite designs.
At the end of the day, their work remained unfinished. It will be, by the end of the week. Then, as with every sand mandala created before and after this one, The Dalai Lama’s birthday gift will be deconstructed in a special ceremony:
“The sands are swept up and placed in an urn; to fulfill the function of healing, half is distributed to the audience at the closing ceremony, while the remainder is carried to a nearby body of water, where it is deposited. The waters then carry the healing blessing to the ocean, and from there it spreads throughout the world for planetary healing. (Drepung Loseling Monastery)
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The dissolution of this sand painting is a reminder of the transient nature of things, of the ephemeral nature of our own existence. The name itself means “circle” in Sanskrit, a nod to the underlying symbolism of the mandala’s creation. Viewed solely as an impermanent art form, it is within itself of a house of cards, albeit with no power-grabbing or suffering involved.
So the question arises: Does my having photographed this sand mandala alter in any way its meaning? If the purpose is solely to suggest life’s impermanence, maybe so. On the other hand, in sharing these images (and related pop culture references) I’m boosting the signal on a chosen path forward, beyond the isolated world in which Tibetan monks once lived. The Dalai Lama himself–by virtue of his political exile and reemergence as a global ambassador for peace–stands front-and-center in the social media spotlight.
Pixels, satellites, social media and streaming video…avenues, all of them, for continuous rebirth. At the very least, they breathe new life into religious traditions that might otherwise be relegated to the dustbin of history (e.g., this tent revival meeting, via True Detective). And at their best, they forge memories that eventually find their way into the stories we write.
Speaking of which…remember that “inevitable surprise” I mentioned? Stay tuned for Part II, in which we’re invited to stay for tea with the Venerables and discover that one of them is, in fact, The Dalai Lama’s personal tailor!
Update: The mandala is still a work in progress. Stop by to see the finishing touches! (UCI’s Banning House, 9 a.m. – 6 p.m., until July 3)