Many years ago, I dragged my boys to something they resisted until we got there (this was a frequent occurrence back then). In a church in Darien, several burgundy and saffron-robed Buddhist monks crouched over a large piece of plywood with narrow metal funnels filled with what looked like colored sand, and very, very gently, and very, very carefully tapped it out in seemingly random places. But it became obvious that together they were creating an intricate mandala.
My boys, jaded and irritated, who would have rather been playing video games, or doing anything, when we entered the sanctuary, stood transfixed as patterns emerged and the mandala took shape. We were even more amazed when one of the monks explained that when they were done, they would sweep all the sand away in a ceremony recognizing the Buddhist emphasis on nonattachment and impermanence.
I’ve always wished to see another mandala ceremony in person, especially after viewing the moving The Englightenment documentary recently, about the Kalachakra initiation ceremony over which the Dalai Lama presides. I got that opportunity last week at the Resiliency Center of Newtown, where the Buddhist monks of DNLK (Do Ngak Kunphen Ling) Tibetan Buddhist Center in Ridgefield created a special compassion mandala. It seemed especially poignant in this space where the community continues to heal from the unimaginable tragedy that occurred there in 2012. While several monks from the Ridgefield center assisted, one monk alone, who had travelled from southern India, spent five days, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with only short breaks, completing the masterpiece.
I badgered one of the many friendly and welcoming monks with questions about the piece and the process. He explained that the vibrantly colored powder is actually ground granite, which they get from India. Each mandala – in fact each and every minute feature of every mandala – has sacred and specific meaning. He pointed out how this one illustrates the journey from ignorance to compassion through dharma (Buddhist teaching). As he spoke, two other monks lifted the creation from the floor to place it on a table they’d adorn as an altar to honor the work and the lesson before they swept it away in a ceremony later that day. Everyone in the room froze as they lifted, maneuvered, and positioned the large slab of wood over the table festooned with saffron covering fabric. I kept having visions of that scene in Annie Hall when Woody Allen sneezes on another powdery substance, but his cohort were not so compassionate about impermanence and nonattachment. What if someone sneezed? Tripped? Stumbled? But I realized that here I was practicing the precise attachment to permanence that the entire exercise and these monks resist and see as an illusion.
The mandala made it safely to the table, and everyone let out a sigh of relief and a quiet round of applause. The artist bowed his head humbly and giggled. I have had the opportunity to see the Dalai Lama speak twice, and spent some time in the presence of other Buddhist monks at the DKNL Center and other trainings, and the thing that always amazes and surprises me is that despite their clearly very serious commitment to their practice and way of life, they are light and happy. The Dalai Lama often chortles at his own silly jokes – he donned a baseball cap of the sponsoring organization both times – and just smiles and radiates a calm that comes from a place I can only hope to get to in my mind one day. These monks, too, were joking and laughing in this town – in this place – that has so much sorrow to process. Practicing, clearly, what they very subtly preach.
The monk who created this particular mandala did not have a lot of English, but I chatted with him for a while nevertheless. Was he tired? I asked. No, no, he shook his head vigorously. He seemed invigorated. Would it be hard to watch them sweep away five days of his work? He shook his head no even harder. “Nothing is permanent,” he said, with a broad, soft, sweet smile on his face. “We will make another.” The staff of the center huddled together seemingly unconsciously, leaning in on one another, wistful, but peaceful smiles on their faces, some streaming tears.
I did not stay for the ceremony. I had some very other important stuff and things to do, I told myself. In reality, I was attached to the beauty and grace in that room, and I’m not sure I was ready to let it go. I may be on the path, but clearly have a long way to go in my own practice. I have deep appreciation both for the monks of the DKNL Center, and the people of Newtown, for illuminating the path.