The Buddhist Centre in Whangarei celebrated the Dalai Lama's birthday (he's 71) yesterday by starting a new sand mandala in the 'old library' building that is rumoured to become Whangarei's new/future arts centre. I remember visiting a sand mandala in progress once before but I can't remember where or very much about it at all so it must have been before I became so interested in Buddhism.
(A sand mandala is a kind of diagram of the place an enlightened being lives and everything in it. It's made out of crushed limestone dyed with pigments which monks arrange precisely using a funnel and horn. It takes them three weeks to make up the large image and then, when it is complete it is dissolved.)
This time I'm very interested in the sand mandala and its resonances with the Buddhist teachings I've been reading lately. I'm particularly excited about the impermanence of it, the idea that so much effort will go into creating something so beautiful and meaningful, appreciated by so many people and then it will be destroyed. I love that!
We went along to the opening ceremony last night. The three Tibetan monks and the one Western nun of Jam Tse Dhargyey Ling (the Buddhist Centre here) chanted in a deep drone, poured water, rang a bell, crashed a cymbal, banged a drum and blew a horn. Well, the monks did, the nun sat behind them looking left out of the exotic ritual. Then the oldest monk, Venerable Geshe Sangey Thinley gave a talk through his handsome young Tibentan translator about the meaning of the sand mandala and some of the objects on the shrine next to him, while the young sand mandala monk-artists looked bored.
The Chenrezig is a mandala for world peace and compassion representing the emanations by the Buddha who manifested the enlightened being of compassion when he was teaching it (my understanding of Buddhist theology is, at best, nascent and dodgey so don't quote me on any of this). The enlightened being of compassion is also manifested by the Dalai Lama as Chenrezig- hence the link to his birthday. Turns out that Chenrezig is also that image of the Buddha with four arms: two in prayer position holding the jewel and two in the air holding a lotus and a rosary.
Geshe la stressed that the sand mandala is very different from other kinds of (contemporary/secular) art. He explained why and how to use the mandala to help develop one's compassion and improve our own lives and those of all beings in this lifetime and in the future. We were all invited to come back as often as possible while the mandala is being made and to watch it's creation with a meditative attention on compassion.
Finally, the two young monks hopped up on their platform which reminded me of a canopied four poster bed, decorated with bright silk hangings. The pattern that they will be filling in with sand is already drawn on in pencil. To end the ceremony and begin the mandala they made the central circle of white, working slowly with tiniest trickles of sand coaxed from their funnels.