monks from the Drepung Gomang monastery. I’ve witnessed several sand
mandalas over the years, different designs and themes associated with each one, yet what they all have in common is the actualization of impermanence. I find that to be the most beautiful aspect of a sand mandala and the experience of it was quite palpable this time. I estimate that these monks spent between 20-25 hours over four days creating very intricate and precise images and details,
grain by grain, knowing that the finished product would be on display for a
couple of hours then disappear in about 5 minutes, swept into a pile and
offered away. There is a certain energy and excitement in those final moments, people sitting up in their chairs, moving in to get a better view, in wonder and perhaps a little disbelief that it is actually happening. A sense of joy also permeates the space, certainly due to having witnessed and taken part in such a powerful event, but I suspect also because of an unspoken sense of relief at not having to worry about maintaining and protecting the mandala.
Being able to spend a little more time witnessing the overall process of this
particular mandala led me to more deeply contemplate the teaching of impermanence and why I find it useful. Per Buddhist doctrine it is one of the three marks of existence - the other two being suffering and no self - and as such is a central current running throughout teachings and practices in the various streams and schools of Buddhism (see my previous post for more on suffering, and perhaps something on no self will come about in the future). Though these various teachings are valuable and worth exploring, it is fairly simple to experience the reality of impermanence for oneself, no special undertakings required. We can witness it by being still and observing things, whether in meditation or simply sitting on the porch; by noticing how our moods change throughout the day; when watching clouds in the sky morph into different shapes, appearing and disappearing; and through experiencing changes in ourselves, others and the world itself over a course of a lifetime and beyond. Yet there is more to this teaching of impermanence than just being a statement of how things are, something that it offers that informs and enhances our life and our living when we allow ourselves to become intimately familiar with it.
“Always changing” is another way to express impermanence, and again this is an experience with which I’d venture to say we are all familiar. Although it is happening all the time, in ways large and small, research and studies show that
change is one of the biggest stressors in a person’s life. We are creatures of
habit, we like to have things upon which we can depend, routine and structure
provide a sense of well being and security - research and studies also show these to be beneficial and necessary. The two appear to be at odds with one another and at first glance we may think the teachings of impermanence are encouraging us to embrace change and choose it over routine and stability. However, when we spend some time looking more deeply into it we find that this not at all about choosing one over the other but instead a marrying of these two seemingly contradictory experiences, discovering a way of being in which they are both held equally.
Here there is an important distinction to be made between knowing that
things are always changing and allowing oneself to become intimately
familiar with the reality of impermanence. The former can lead to feeling
that we have to hold on tightly to and cherish what we have because it won‘t last, to make sure what we are doing and how we are living is worthwhile and meaningful, to not miss out or let time pass us by, to make every moment count. Or consequently it could lead to disengagement and apathy - nothing lasts so nothing really matters. The root of and motivation for these responses is fear and anxiety. The latter leads to an experience of spaciousness, of discovering the moment to be much larger and more complete than we could ever imagine, and we find that it is actually carrying us along quite effortlessly, simply asking that we show up for it. Whatever occurs in this space is worthwhile and meaningful in and of itself, whether mundane or extraordinary. Certainly it is not without its pains and challenges and catastrophes, yet even in those we can connect with the same sense of gratitude more easily found in times of joy and ease. We are able take ourselves, others and things of the world less seriously, the upkeep and maintenance of those particulars requiring less of our time and attention, which in turn frees up our energy and enables us to engage in life more fully. And although it can be overwhelming and disheartening not to see the results we want or any results at all when we work so hard to contribute and make a difference in the world around us, we do it anyway, wholeheartedly. Knowing that ultimately we cannot know the impact we will have had upon the world around and beyond us, we are less driven by the end results we hope for, motivated and energized more so by realizing and appreciating how important and fortunate it is that we are here now, able to contribute to and take part in the cocreation of it all.
As I was considering ways I notice this showing up in and affecting my life, the first thing that came to mind was how I cannot at all relate to people when they make statements about how their children grow up right before their eyes, wondering where the time has gone. The thing is, I wish I could relate to this, as I sense a certain sweetness and wonder in their words and how they are conveyed with which I would like to connect, and a slight sense of loss at not being able to do so. I try to think of a time when I felt it for myself but to no avail, because in my nearly 10 years as a father it has simply not been my experience. Nor has it seemed like things are moving along too slowly. It all feels so full and complete, nothing missing and nothing extra, with more to come that will neither add to nor take away from what has been and is. In many respects ours has been a road typical for most, with the usual and expected milestones, successes, disappointments, challenges. And it has also been a road particular to us, though not unique, our son having several surgeries from the time he was an infant, certain allergies and health issues developing and subsiding, and in general becoming who he is because of how we are raising him. Throughout all of this there is a seamlessness, and at no point in the weave do I find anything scrunched too close together, stretched too thin or any gaps from things missing or lost. And I do find my experience of it all related to being increasingly intimate with the impermanent nature of existence, which my mind tries to tell me came about because of my meditation practice; or facing my son’s mortality each time he underwent anesthesia; or witnessing how people’s lives are changed irrevocably in an instant on a daily basis, knowing that I and my loved ones live with that same vulnerability; or from that time I was choking on Beef Wellington and spent some moments directly facing my own mortality. In the end it’s all of the above and more, the endless ways and opportunities we have to meet what is, for which we are continuously invited to show up, fully. And what is returns the favor, meeting us just as fully and
All of this from spending some time watching the workings of a sand mandala…how so? As I see and experience it, at times my life is penciling in an overall framework and design that will become invisible yet noticeable as the actual living unfolds. At times my life is coming to the center, to develop the overall aspiration around which all else will be built. It is the larger spaces colored in with wider strokes as a background for the more intricate and detailed designs to come. It is making black swirls upon a dark purple background that are barely distinguishable from one another until that work is done and I am able to step back to look at it. It is images of horses and fishes and conch shells that rise above the other images, standing out strongly. Sometimes this happens: www.youtube.com/watch?v=8J_Ctk4-IoQ . And regularly, although not in such close succession and happening regardless what stage things are at, there are the lines drawn through the pattern, the pinching and wiping away of images, the wide strokes of a hand that mixes it all together, to be swept up, gathered and offered away.