Monday, July 31, 2006

Mandala Dissolution

It was a completely different atmosphere at the Sand Mandala on the afternoon of its dissolution. For one thing the room was over heated and stuffy with the smell of too many bodies, both the unwashed and the overly-perfumed varieties, crammed into a small space. Small children grew fractious at being held back from destroying the completed mandala ahead of schedule.

Once everyone had admired and photographed the finished mandala there was a lengthy session of thank you's, speeches and presentations of mandala posters and long silk scarves the colour of french vanilla ice cream. The youngest monk, the one with the sparse but lengthy handlebar moustache and the heavy gold watch, pulled out a tiny video camera from the folds of his robes and surreptiously filmed the audience before tucking the technology away.

Geshe-La gave a talk about the meaning of the mandala, mostly recapping what he said at the opening ceremony, and about the ritual about to commence. To make, and to witness the making of the mandala is to accumulate merit by imprinting loving-kindness and altruism onto our minds and remove obstacles to compassion. The dissolution rituals energise the Chenrezig mandala by giving the sand to running water. The spirits are made happy by this gift, Geshe-La said. He also said that even though these aspects of Buddhism sound like imagination and mythology, if you study Buddhism seriously you will find it is rational and logical.

Then the monks launched into a comparatively short session of deep droning chants punctuated with bell ringing. This is the third time I've listened to them chanting and it is starting to sound pleasantly familiar so my perception of brevity might be influenced by not feeling so alien. Anyway, it didn't seem like long before the three of them stood up and stood at the north side of the mandala, did a bit more chanting and began to break it up. I was watching the faces of the two monks who had spent the past three weeks creating it and I saw no hint of attachment to their work nor reluctance to destroy it. I thought about my friend who said she wouldn't attend the closing because she would be too upset by the dissolution.

First they scattered grains of polished rice across the intricate face of the mandala, then using first their hands and then big soft paint brushes the monks swept the coloured grains from the edge into the centre in a more or less symmetrical process. Their paths blurred then obliterated the monkeys chased by dragons, the little goats and green horses, the cloud patterns and lotus petals, the dancers and meditators, the fountains and flames: all the details that I'd watched emerge as the design grew ever more complex as it expanded out from the relatively simple central shapes.

A pile of greenish grey sand grew up in the centre of the platform and was finally dispersed into the monk's special vessels and a hilarious assortment of containers presented by members of the audience. Glass jars and metal bowls, ziplock baggies and leather wallets, paper bags from the shop downstairs and a special little box: no one was turned away without a small handful of the grains charged with all the compassion of the mandala.

Then we all drove out to the boat ramp at Onerahi (a harbourside suburb) and there recreated a ritual space on a blue tarpaulin facing the sea. Once everything was in place (including a huge photo of His Holiness the Dalai Lama) and everyone had a smouldering stick of incense, another round of chanting began, enlivened this time with not only bells but drum, cymbals and a conchshell horn.

During this part of the ritual a motor boat pulled in and was hauled onto the back of a trailer right in front of the monks who didn't seem to miss a beat. A few minutes later, behind them a big and beautifully carved waka (Maori canoe) drove past on a trailer and our little crowd was expanded by a few of the interested waka ama crew and their families. Then the monks led us all in a procession down the boat ramp while they continued to ring bells, bash cymbals and blow the horn festively.

Geshe La waded into the water and ceremoniously tipped all the remaining sand mandala grains into the harbour turning the water the same greenish hue for a moment. Finally everyone threw flowers in after the sand and watched them float out into the harbour. I felt sure the spirits were made as happy by receiving our gifts as we were by giving them.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Parihaka Poem

I would have posted this poem earlier but I had it entered in a competition. Since it didn't place there, here it is for your delectation.

High above Whangarei

the mountain tells a story

of a settlement overgrown

by nikau and ferns,

a story elusive as dreams are

after a new day has begun.

Where only birds

hunt and sleep and sing today,

hundreds of people long ago lived inside

village palisades spiking every ridge line.

Huge pits, now shallowed by generations of leaves,

were filled with kumara grown

in the rich alluvial valley below.

Cold mossy stone squares

mark hearths that glowed with warmth and light,

at the centre of hapu storytelling.

Their mokopuna’s mokopuna

tell stories in other whare now,

still remembering battles on the mountain.

The slick white clay tangata whenua

carved into pits and terraces

was built up over millennia

by the bodies of ancient kauri

transformed with infinite slowness

into a substance so dense

that the earthworks stay true

centuries after the final fleeting

generations were driven out by muskets.

Thus the earth also holds their memory

in the shape of the land

still beneath young trees

as the mountain returns to itself

from a dream of human habitation.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Flashdancing the length of New Zealand

Workplaces in Northland are being encouraged to 'Walk the length of New Zealand' in 10,000 steps a day. Walking the length of New Zealand has been a long time dream of mine, so I was quite excited when I first heard about it. Unfortunately, the idea isn't to take a few months off work and follow Te Araroa , the long path, from Cape Reinga to Bluff. But still, just keeping track of the number of steps and pretending that you've walked from one town to another seems like good training for the real thing, so I'm quite keen.

The catch is you need a pedometer and the official ones cost $40! which I don't have spare. I'm bidding on a $3 version on Trade Me but lucky Ashleigh was given one. So today she set off on her journey without the rest of the Narnia staff. Though because it's a virtual jaunt we all get to watch her from the sidelines. She kept us entertained with experimenting how to maximise recorded steps. Turns out that dancing round the kitchen, particularly her favourite Flashdance routines, is a great way to accumulate steps (and gets her much further along the virtual road than dancing on the street would). Remember Flashdance the 1983 movie? Welder/exotic dancer wants to go to ballet school? Lots of sexy dancing in water spray and grungy clothes? That's Ash in the kitchen at Narnia!

Monday, July 24, 2006

Sand Mandala Detail

Most of the green garden's circle is laid down now and being populated by fish and fountains, clouds, elephants, horses, goats, meditating people, flames and other less identifiable images like this one. This design is the most '3-D' element on the mandala so far, the centre of each circle rises up spherically and the stripes in the middle are also quite high. I don't know if you can tell in this close-up but there are two grades of sand being used, coarse and fine.

It's the final week now, next Sunday they will sweep up all the sand and offer it into running water nearby. I'm finding it very helpful to be focusing on the impermanent nature of all things. Even though pleasurable things like the mandala are short lived, so are sucky things like PMT.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Love Child

As the eldest child of parents who didn't listen to pop music I came to the sounds of the sixties in the eighties, in my late teens. My political feminism (mum may not have listened to cool music but she made sure I had access to Ms Magazine) took as it's cultural soundtrack the girl groups of the decade before I was born: the Shangri-Las, the Ronettes, the Shirelles, the Marvettes and of course the Supremes. I played the Supremes the other day for the first time in years and had a rush of memories both silly and poignant. Love Child had particular resonance for me when I found myself pregnant and single at the age of 18 and I used to listen to it over and over again feeling a maudlin combination of self-pity and defiance.

I've noticed that as I get older I listen to music with decreasing intensity. I rarely make an effort anymore to seek out new music or follow up things I've heard and liked on the radio. What I do listen too tends to be pretty random- what I've held onto or picked up in bargain bins or am given by friends. I often don't even know the names of the songs or the singers. This casual relationship to music is mostly due to the painful lessons in non-attachment learned early by having three successive vinyl collections stolen and then the final collection made obsolete by CDs when I could no longer afford to buy new music. It's easier not to care so passionately about what I listen to.

Sand Mandala Two Weeks

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Sand Mandala Day Twelve

Back at the Sand Mandala yesterday: the monks had taken off for Auckland after lunch, and for once I was not rushed. I had a long leisurely visit, chatting to the nun in attendance downstairs, experimenting with the sand and funnel put out for visitors to try, reading more of the interpretation available on the walls. But mostly, I just circled slowly (clockwise) around the platform on which the mandala is emerging, looking and looking and looking.

As you can see the house of compassion is almost finished: the central square and the gates or foyers coming off in each of the four directions. I worked out that the blue quadrant not only represents North but faces it as well. The yellow is to the East, white to the South and Green is West. And the centre is down. This last was a significant realisation because I had been trying to interpret the shapes and symbols as though they were oriented to my view from the outside of the mandala. But the reverse is true and once I adjusted my perspective it became much easier to see faces and figures.

Lots of people came through during the 45 minutes or so I spent there, many of them clearly on return visits. Strangely, almost every group of visitors asked me a question about the mandala. I must have looked like I belonged there and since I was able to answer most of the questions easily, I didn't fight that impression.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Just a dream

As I write this Bonnie is lying across my arms and drooling on the keyboard which gives posting a surreal difficulty and should explain the typos. She just came in from the garden and has covered my pyjama lap with mud from her paws. We are both watching a fantail do aerobatics outside the window, each with our own kind of stimulation from this entrancing sight.

I realise that I haven't written anything for a while about my book/arts work. This morning I dreamed I was in a car mechanic's workshop and decided to make a book. I took a beautiful sheet of handmade white paper, thick and creamy and textured like a cloud, and started folding and tearing it to make small sections of pages for a simple codex book. Suddenly I realised that my teacher had given me this special sheet of paper to make a different kind of book with fancy folds. I stalled, filled with concern for how to fix up my mistake, but of course once paper is folded and torn there is no going back.

Lucky it was just a dream, eh!

Friday, July 14, 2006

Sand Mandala Day Seven

The first of the three weeks of sand mandala construction comes to a close with the central square almost completed. Next they will make a big green circle to represent a garden and populate it with elephants and horses. Finally, the whole thing will be enclosed in an elaborate border to be about 1.5 metres in diameter.

Finally I got to see a monk at work when I visited yesterday. Ven. Karma Geysen scraped a infinitesimal stream of coloured sand out of his ridged funnel, filling in blue and red shapes on a white background, then working on a panel that I had thought looked like ribbons or dragons wings. Watching him begin by drawing the central figures that will be surrounded by flowing curves I realised that they are actually little stick men with staring eyes and golden crowns. Looking at one of the posters of the finished mandala (here's one I prepared earlier...) I could see that the figures were like lamas dancing with long shawls floating around them. Looking at the poster made me think that the panel that reminded me of fountains last time also had eyes and so maybe the 'fountains' are more like beings, emanating a spray of something from their heads?

I noticed that while the monk was working, other visitors would stay longer and look more closely at the mandala than they seemed to do when I visited during their breaktimes. It was fascinating to watch shapes appear under the tip of the funnel, especially as the stream of sand is so small as to be almost invisible so it's almost as though the mandala is being created out of thin air. Every now and then he would sit up and empty his funnel into a bag or jar of sand, and refill it with another colour, which always appeared a much lighter shade in the container than it did on the mandala where every colour is incredibly intense.

Another moon

This doesn't really look like the moon, but it is, rising full and fat over Whangarei Town Basin (marina). I took lots of photos in which the moon appeared twice before I tried resting the camera on the hatchback of my car to hold it steady for the long exposure. That's why it's on a funny angle and looks like a completely different celestial body. As a sci-fi reader I like to imagine that this is the kind of image one could take from a planet with a gaseous moon or perhaps a space habitat near Saturn?

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Sand Mandala Day Five

Yesterday afternoon the Sand Mandala was no larger than on Sunday, but much more complex. Many of the flat panels of colour (stripes in the corners) have been covered with detail in bright contrasting colours: only the right foreground corner is still mostly blank. I particularly like the panels with a flowing design, like ribbons in the wind or dragon wings. The black stripe you can see in the right foreground will be, as in the other three corners, covered in little white dots like drops burbling up from fountains. It's easy to imagine that wherever the embodiement of compassion resides, there will be fountains and dragons too.

On this visit my aspiration to develop compassion was most easily found for the monks who are doing this, though they were on break again during my latest visit (surely one day I will get to see them at work!). But I imagine them as they sit hunched over for hours on end, repeating the same small motions endlessly. I noticed that on one side of the mandala the panels of colour are as smooth as velvet, the boundaries between different colours are ruler staight and the curves swoop elegantly to fill the available space with balance and poise. On the other side of the mandala, some of the large surfaces of unbroken colour appear a little rough, some of the boundaries are blurred or a line is minutely uneven, and the curves a little turgid. I hasten to point out that it is all remarkable, and my awareness of these variations has only arisen by spending a very long time looking very closely.

I wonder if one of the monks is less experienced, or more impatient than the other? I fill my heart with compassion for them both, from my own memories of collaborative work and their challenges for those who like to go slow and those who like to speed; those who prioritise the perfection of every detail and those whose vision is expansive. In a shared project it is not always easy for participants to relax and appreciate the diversity of the contributions that each one brings.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Horsey Gossip

Most days on Mt Tiger I walk to the end of the road and back which takes about 70 minutes if I don't dawdle too much. Dawdling is most often caused by the thrill of receiving a text in one of the three places in which there might be sufficient coverage for text messages: if the satellites are lined up, the wind is blowing in the right direction and the moon is in the seventh house. (If you are one of my texting buddies and are wondering why you don't hear from me much or get responses promptly, this is why).

There is one spot on the road where there is reliable enough reception to even talk on the phone. Fortunately it coincides with a wonderful view to enjoy while I am chatting, unfortunately it is a very exposed spot where the wind cuts through any number of layers of polar fleece and thermal underwear.

Sometimes I dawdle to enjoy a patch of sunshine (sun disappears from our house at about 2 in the afternoon) or a lovely scene like my favourite corner pictured here where an old stock yard has become overgrown by young nikau trees. Most of the road is tree-lined, the original farmer(s) obviously decided to leave a couple of metres of bush growing between the road and their paddocks, something I wish was more common. Not only does it make for pleasant walking but it's an ecological corridor for birds, more of whom seem to live on Mt Tiger than just about any other rural environment I've spent time in. It is probably also a defense against erosion as the road is carved into the steep sides of the valley that pocks the centre of the mountain (a big old volcano crater methinks).

My dawdling is occasionally due to a couple of friendly horses, one roan and one chestnut, grazing the crater slopes. Today I could hear one of them neighing long before I reached that stretch of road and soon found out why. The roan mare was being led away along the road by some young women. Turns out that Isis was staying in the paddock in order to breed with the chestnut stallion. They didn't know yet if she had gotten pregnant, but she certainly had gotten muddy! Almost her whole coat was covered in mud (though I don't think horses roll around on the ground while they are Doing It) obscuring the delicate mottling of reddish spots on her creamy coat. She's a lovely gentle horse who didn't seem bothered by being taken away from her paramour. He, on the other hand, seemed quite heart broken and his loud cries echoed round the valley for most of my walk.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Sand Mandala Day Three

I spent about 20 minutes at the sand mandala today, while the monks were on a break. This meant I didn't get to see them in action (as Al photographed them later), but I didn't mind getting an uninterrupted view of the work so far. I was surprised that it is so three dimensional rather than completely flat: the white outlines of the petals you can see in the centre are all raised in upside down 'V' with their peak almost a centimetre high. So far the monks have mostly laid down solid colour backgrounds which are now starting to be layered with very intricate designs (the right foreground corner is the most heavily decorated so far).

I wish I knew what the different colours, shapes and designs mean as every aspect of the mandala represents something significant about compassion, and where it resides. I knew that some of the designs, such as the symbol in the middle and on four of the central petals were letters or words in Tibetan script, but until I Googled my way to Omniglot's page on the Tibetan alphabet I didn't know that they are actually consanant clusters and that the Tibetan alphabet is syballic (each letter represents a syllable, unlike the alphabet I am using to write this blog).

Apparently just looking at the mandala is enough to make an imprint on the mind which helps to develop compassion (which is why as many people as possible are encouraged to come and visit it). I'm hoping that by making several visits where I can really pay attention, I will fast track my pursuit of a more compassionate relationship to all beings.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Happy Birthday Dalai Lama

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.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Monday, July 03, 2006

Matariki up the Mountain

Another Matariki event I attended was a guided tour of the pa sites on Parihaka with an archaeologist and kaumatua (Maori elders). I had negotiate some time off work, because it was scheduled on a Tuesday morning (the actual day of Matariki) so I drove to the Summit carpark (the first time I hadn't walked up Parihaka and it felt like a terrible cheat).

The twenty or thirty manahiri (guests) were welcomed onto the Summit with a powhiri. Our group was included a some young pakeha mothers with their preschool children, a uniformed group of teenagers from a Wharekura (Maori language high school) and assorted adults of various ages and ethnicities. I was particularly appreciative of the teenagers who confidently sang waiata that I'd never heard before in beautiful harmonies. (If you don't already know, a powhiri involves -among other things- a series of speeches and prayers in te reo Maori from hosts and guests, and each speaker is followed by a song led by someone in his -and it's almost always his- party. When the group is mostly pakeha, the waiata part can be pretty shameful).

After the powhiri one of the kaumatua, Te Ihi, talked for a long time on the viewing platform, from which you can look out across the harbour and town of Whangarei and beyond to the old volcanoes pimpling the land all the way to the horizon. He told us about the battle to have the official name of the mountain corrected to the original, finally achieved last year. He talked about the some of the landmarks, the meaning of their Maori names and a few stories, but he didn't really tell us much about Parihaka itself.

That was left to James Robinson, the archaeologist, who turned out to be neither a fusty old academic nor Indiana Jones (that would have been good) but an incredibly well prepared, articulate, passionate, knowledgeable and unpretentious guy about not much older than me. He directed much of his spiel at the teens, referring to the pa-dwellers as 'your tupuna' (ancestors) which won them over completely. When the preschoolers started to lag behind the group, he just picked one up and carried on talking with a toddler on his hip for the rest of the tour.

I have spent quite a few hours wandering the tracks and pa site trying to imagine the mountain when it was home to hundreds of people. My imagination and ability to see the evidence were completely inadequate compared what James showed us. A flat terrace off the track not far from the summit had never even caught my eye. Turns out, like almost every surface on the mountain it had been altered by human hands at some point. Literally by hand, the terrace (big enough to build a single garage) had been carved out of the hillside using digging sticks. Same with the enormous kumara pits used for storing enough vegetables for a chief to throw a huge feast.

Parihaka is an exceptionally well preserved pa site. Although all the roofs and walls and tools have long since disappeared, all the earthworks have held their shape very well for 200 years or more. This is because of the unusual white clay that covers much of the mountain. It was formed by kauri forests over thousands (millions?) of years: as the litter of the hard wood broke slowly down it became incredibly dense clay. The denseness of the clay posed engineering challenges for the kumara pit diggers: they needed to ensure excellent drainage so their food stores wouldn't rot in the rainy climate. Their drains and sumps can still be found under the fallen leaves that have filled in the pits by at least a metre since they were abandoned.

There were no stones up the mountain before people came there. Thus any rocks to be found are 'cultural', brought there by someone for some purpose. The most obvious are the several hearths that are still intact on the sites of old houses. I look at them and try to imagine the task of carrying those rocks up the long steep muddy track from the river, barefoot.

The archaeological evidence suggests that Parihaka was home to hundreds of people for hundreds of years but probably not permanently inhabited by great numbers at a time, except when the wider community was under attack or coming together for rituals or celebrations. Significant defenses meant that stored food was safe from raiders and people who usually lived closer to their gardens or fishing places could retreat to a stronghold. Today deep ditches and sheer cliff faces remain to show the boundaries of the pa that originally were reinforced by tall spikey palisades. In an era of hand weapons, height gave a fourfold advantage to the defenders. However, in the 1820s, the 'Musket Wars' removed that advantage and Parihaka was abandoned as people moved south and inland seeking safety (or revenge). Not long after that European surveyors were carving up the mountain and surrounds for Pakeha ownership (it was during this period that the misnomer of Parahaki became entrenched). Fortunately the four men who owned the west facing slopes all chose to set aside the land as reserve and that is why today, in the middle of Whangarei, there is such a wonderful park of native bush and historical significance.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Matariki Party

I had never heard of Matariki until just a few years ago when Te Papa organised a series of events to celebrate the 'Maori New Year'. It seemed like a jolly good idea for a number of reasons especially recognising a uniquely New Zealand holiday emerging from Maori culture and having a midwinter celebration to complement our summer chock full of Northern hemisphere holidays. Matariki is the name of the constellation also known as the Pleides which rises just before dawn during winter in New Zealand. The first new moon after its appearance marks the Maori New Year. Traditionally its significance related to the success of the next season's kumara crops.

Contemporary celebrations in the last few years have included art exhibitions, performances, tours of places of significance to Maori, lectures and so on. Last night we went along to a Matariki party hosted by some new immigrants (from Scotland) to New Zealand, in their beautiful straw bale house at out Whangarei Heads. We arrived not long before dusk and the drummers were already going hard, a tribe of children ran wild in the garden, and the long table was laden with food brought by guests. Later, after we had eaten our fill the party drifted out to the bonfire complete with fireworks, marshmallow toasting and wheelbarrow rides for the children.
It reminded me of some of the parties I went to with my family when I was a kid in the 1970s, the same kind of country setting, unconventional adults, lots of kids of all ages, musicians jamming together and best of all the bonfire. In those days, I would fall asleep in the car going home and, oh joy, be carried inside and tucked into bed. These days I am designated driver, but the ride home along the shore of the harbour was beautiful. Marsden Point, the oil refinery which is so ugly by day was lit up like a fairy kingdom and the crescent moon laid a silver path on the shimmering sea.

View from Mt Tiger

looking east towards Patua