Awareness of impermanence and appreciation of our human potential will give us a sense of urgency that we must use every precious moment. –Dalai Lama
It took nine days for two monks to create a sand mandala, in honor of His Holiness XIV Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday. My friend Karin and I were fortunate enough to watch those artisans at work, and to share tea and conversation with them a few weeks back.*
Earlier this week, the Center for Living Peace provided a short video clip of the private dissolution ceremony.
<a href="https://instagram.com/p/5vC-qDvfVp/" style=" color:#000; font-family:Arial,sans-serif; font-size:14px; font-style:normal; font-weight:normal; line-height:17px; text-decoration:none; word-wrap:break-word;" target="_top">"Impermanence" was truly the word of the day. • • • After spending 9 days of tireless work creating the Sand Mandala in honor of @dalailama's 80th birthday, the monks dissolved it this morning. Such a beautiful display of #impermanence @ucirvine</a>
A video posted by Center for Living Peace (@occlp) on <time style=" font-family:Arial,sans-serif; font-size:14px; line-height:17px;" datetime="2015-07-29T21:26:49+00:00">Jul 29, 2015 at 2:26pm PDT</time>
(For still images of a dissolution ceremony, click here and scroll down. A more detailed video is available at this link.)
In witnessing these ancient Tibetan Buddhist traditions, I am reminded of the simple joys available to us in each moment. Beauty. Unity. The healing balm of sacred rituals. Too, in watching the attentiveness with which the monks go about their tasks–the physical endurance and mental discipline required to create and then dismantle the sand mandala–I see illustrated the concepts of detachment and impermanence.
The metaphor is deep and wide, with a special resonance for each of us. I’m appreciating it anew this morning, as a memoirist whose book is currently out on submission to publishers.
When we contribute our stories to the collective, we spare them from the dustbin of history, albeit temporarily. Pages crumble; interests wax and wane. So we aim for the transcendent, more so than permanence. We stay in the room with story, despite any temporary discomfort. In writing about past events, we remain fully present. And we try to remember that who we are– in this moment; in light of our experiences, and despite them–is the heartbeat of our memoir.
*Oh my goodness, I’m remembering now that I teased a second blog entry about that! I’ll post it next week, I promise!
Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck. –Dalai Lama
Three friends and I were among the 18,000 people who flocked to the Honda Center in Anaheim last Sunday, in celebration of His Holiness XIV Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday. We paid big bucks for center-front seats, a worthy trade-off for the privilege of seeing firsthand the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who embodies Tibetan Buddhist values and the art of happiness. Creative souls that we are, we thought it serendipitous that program featured a panel discussion with the Dalai Lama about “awakening compassion” and “the transformative power of creativity and art.”
Artists put the finishing touches on a giant mural, in the final hours before curtain call.
You know me: I’m a spoonful-of-sugar kind of writer. But I’m gonna give this to you straight. Global Compassion Summit, Day One was more glitz than substance, accessorized as it was with frothy celebrities, a fluffy hashtag, and Styrofoam cake. As a local resident (in any capacity, really), I was well and truly embarrassed. #WithCompassion
In an emotional opening, Venerable Lama Tenzen Dhonden attempted to set the stage. “The Dalai Lama does not want any physical gifts. For him, this birthday is just like any other day, but if we can help to create a more compassionate, kind planet, that would be the most beautiful gift of all.”
I’m guessing the event coordinators handpicked the performers, measured each act against a set of objective criteria. No doubt, they asked the finalists to be mindful of the Dalai Lama’s very specific birthday wish. They probably choreographed everything beforehand, too, as organizers are wont to do. But you know what they say about “the best laid plans…”
Some presenters wove their personal remarks into the overarching theme, if only tangentially. “Meditation alone will not change the world,” Jody Williams told us. “We have to have action.” After the applause faded, she added, “The Dalai Lama is my favorite action figure.”
Jody Williams, founding coordinator of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, sings a few stanzas of “Happy Birthday” to “the most rocking, compassionate simple Buddhist monk I know.”
Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi spoke directly to the Dalai Lama. “”Whenever I get tired or I lose hope, I remember you. For 60 years, you have been fighting for the rights of the people of Tibet without becoming tired and without losing hope.” I teared up, right here.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi speaks in Farsi, in honor of her compassionate mother.
The oceans are signaling their distress, this team of bespeckled scientists warned. We must respond with a shared sense of urgency, or face together the dire consequences of our inaction. Believe you me, I would’ve signed any petition they put in front of me, would’ve appreciated a very specific list of action items. Even the most compassionate among us are prone to inertia…
Desmond Tutu’s grandson made a brief appearance, as did a couple of philanthropists. At several points in the lengthy ceremony, the lights dimmed and pre-recorded birthday wishes flashed across the Honda Center’s Jumbotrons. It was a parade of luminaries whose names I didn’t recall and whose faces I didn’t recognize. Putting aside for a minute the Archbishop’s charming songfest, the repetitiveness became a source of irritation for an increasingly restless crowd. “I didn’t come here to gawk at celebrities,” someone said. “I came to hear the Dalai Lama.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his wife, singing to the Dalai Lama.
By and large, the panelists seemed unprepared for the discussion du jour, so they talked instead about the subject they knew best. That is to say: themselves.
Comedian George Lopez made a self-effacing joke about language barriers. When it fell flat, he turned it into a political jab.
Recognize the guy on the left? Hint: Harem pants, gold lamé, and‘80s hip-hop. It’s Hammer Time, and MC’s upgraded himself to designer shades and a suit! In a bit of revisionist history, MC described the lyrics of U Can’t Touch This is “an exultation” to God. Note the panelists’ reactions. They were mirrored by the audience.
Julia Ormond (patterned skirt, blue shawl) started out well: “An important part of acting involves hearing other people’s stories and then evoking their emotions in your performances,” she said. But she stayed too long in the spotlight, prompting someone in the darkened balcony to shout, “Let His Holiness speak!”
Through it all, the Dalai Lama remained calm and observant. At times, he seemed amused by the outsized personalities that flanked him.
“The source of contentment and happiness lies within our selves.”
When the children’s choirs marched in, we saw his tender side. During the Agape Choir’s performance, for instance, a caucasian child was holding the only mic. Standing behind that soloist: a diverse group of smiling, swaying, clapping children who seemed just as eager for attention. The Dalai Lama’s smile was inclusive, and his embrace encompassed all.
Randy Jackson bellowed, “Whasssupppp, Los Angeles?”
Duuuude, you’re in Anaheim. But yeah, whasssup. Or whatever.
When Josh Radnor and Wilmer Valderrama took the stage, Ann Curry introduced them in the context of their TV series, now cancelled. “Your Holiness,” the moderator said, “You probably saw that popular TV show…”
Hit shows or not, I’m pretty sure he hadn’t.
Notables and not, the panelists sat together on the lengthy white sofa, chatting among themselves and occasionally addressing the Dalai Lama in their remarks. Ticket-holders gathered their belongings and headed toward the exits. More’s the pity, because when the Dalai Lama eventually fielded Ann Curry’s question about being compassionate in the face of criticism, his answer was golden.
His Holiness recalled for us–with twinkling eyes and make-believe horns—the time he’d been called a “demon” by a high-ranking Chinese Communist. Our critics can be our best teachers, he said. But if there is no truth to what they say…he waved a dismissive hand. His comments were so self-effacing, his laughter so infectious that we found ourselves chuckling about the accusation, maybe also rearranging our thoughts about the absurdity of it all.
He was just as mirthful about the gigantic birthday cake that was eventually wheeled onstage. Carved from fondant-covered Styrofoam, the 8-foot confection was painted a high-gloss silver, and then festooned with saffron and maroon flowers that matched his monastic robes. From a hidden compartment in the back, someone pulled a smaller, edible cake: lemon-vanilla chiffon with strawberry filling. The Dalai Lama ate a pretty big forkful, and then let loose his trademark belly laugh. “You should visualize yourself taking a taste,” he teased.
At last, Ann Curry presented to the Dalai Lama his ultimate birthday gift: an aerobatic performer, female, gyrating above a spiritually symbolic lotus. I wasn’t the only one who cringed, by a long shot. No telling what the Dalai Lama was thinking, because his chair was positioned at stage right, and his face was cloaked in shadows.
The pink lotus is a symbol of enlightenment, associated with the Great Buddha himself.
When the symbolic metamorphosis was complete, Ann Curry accompanied the Dalai Lama again to center stage. Again, the belly laugh, as His Holiness took notice of the artists’ flamboyant costumes.
I later realized that, in these singular moments, the octogenarian monk was exemplifying some of the values we hold dear, as storytellers and visionaries. Beauty that comes of authenticity. Lightness of being. Diversity. Objectivity. Transcendence.
The Dalai Lama also said many lovely things about peace, education, happiness, and spiritual connectedness–variations on previous talks that you can easily find elsewhere. Now that I think about it, they weren’t all that different than his remarks at UCI, back in 2011 (my write-up). But on the occasion of his 80th birthday, I came away with two important observations. Gifts of insight, if you will. 1) While compassion fuels creativity, ego is its arch-nemesis. 2) When we explore our compassionate, creative sides, we find the secret compartments in which the tastiest cakes are hidden. While I’m at it, maybe I should also add a third. 3) It’s difficult to write a fair but critical piece about something so subjective, and to (paraphrasing storyteller Ron Carlson here) “stay in the room with the story” for as long as it takes to discover the deeper truths.
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.
Mandala-in-progress, featuring the celestial house of Avalokiteshvara. Tibetans regard His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama as the living manifestation of compassion.
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)
Vajra and bell, ritual objects used in the dissolution ceremony.
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.
On the right, Venerable Sherab Chöphel; on the left, Venerable Tenzia Chödar, aka Namsa Chenmo–H.H. The Dalai Lama’s personal tailor.
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.
My offering: A plumeria blossom that symbolizes impermanence
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)