I don’t usually talk about this, but thinking up scary things is one of my special talents. No matter what happens, I can always imagine something worse. I don’t have to try. Fear just comes naturally to me.
You might think this particular skill would provide me with healthy perspectives when the going gets tough. But no. It just makes me feel guilty for feeling blue, when life could clearly be so much harder.
Which brings me to this past month. Wall to wall emergencies. Stressapalooza. Code Red and a half. Not that it couldn’t have been worse, of course. After all, everyone’s still alive, I’m still vertical and obviously able to type.
And that makes it possible to get back to the story I started writing earlier this summer. About a trip we took to Philadelphia a few years ago, to see a rare example of sacred Buddhist art, a Kalachakra Mandala, and about Losang Samten, the Tibetan Buddhist monk who created it.
Wait. Please. I don’t want to mislead you.
Normally our trips to Philadelphia revolve around visiting my sister Mimi, picking up supper at Hymie’s Deli, watching a movie. That sort of thing.
But Mimi works at the community center that was hosting Losang Samten, and when she found out about him, she invited us to come see his work. Mimi knows about a lot of interesting things that I’ve never heard of before. Kalachakras, to name just one.
Mimi told us that Kalachakras originated in Buddhist monasteries in Tibet. And that, even today, only a handful of people in the world have the discipline, dedication and practice to be able to create – or more accurately, recreate – a Kalachakra.
She said that Losang Samten would work on it all day, every day for an entire month, lightly rubbing one chakpu, a narrow metal funnel, over another, to arrange thin strands of brightly colored sand into elaborate patterns.
Of course I was curious. We drove up to Philly. We got there the night the Kalachakra Mandala was completed.
And this is what we saw: A round, vibrant design, maybe six feet in diameter. Filled with patterns made from multi-colored sand that were so intricate you could easily have mistaken them for embroidery stitches.
Mimi told us that the term Kalachakra is usually translated as “wheel of time.” Later I found out that another interpretation is “circle of life.” So even though, at first sight, the Kalachakra’s exquisite tapestry grabs your eye, the key to its meaning is in its name.
And its meaning is what made me want to write this story. Not its beauty, although the care and concentration that went into composing it makes you stand in awe. But this: the fact that just one day after it was done, it would be undone.
It would be, as they say, dismantled. All the sand would be brushed into a pile at the center of the circle. Bagged up and carried to the river. Scattered over the water. Blown away on the currents and the breeze.
That really got to me.
I mean, when I spend a couple of days or a week working on a drawing or a painting or a story, my plan is to hold onto it when it’s done. Print it. Put it up on the wall. Back it up on my external hard drive. Post it on my blog. It’s my product, man. The proof of my effort.
Sure. I know. We all know. My stuff. Your stuff. All of it. Eventually, everything gets blown away.
It’s one of those things we know deep inside. And that’s where we’d like it to stay. Out of sight. Out of the way. We’ve put our hearts into this life, after all. So what was the meaning of all that work, all that love and care and effort, if we can’t hold onto it? It hurts to know that we can’t. Sometimes it hurts a lot. We need comfort.
Obviously, I’m no kind of expert. I wouldn’t know any part of this if Mimi hadn’t told me about it. But here’s how it looks to me. The purpose of the Kalachakra is, ever so beautifully and gently, to help us remember that the circle of life is made up of countless parts. Coming, going, beginning, ending, twining, transforming. The wheel of time will turn. And so will we.
I learned that from Losang Samten on a November evening a few years ago in Philadelphia.
It’s part of the story I wanted to tell. But it’s not the end.
To get there, let’s go back inside the community center where my sister Mimi works, to the side of the lobby where the completed Kalachakra is on display.
Here’s the scene:
About sixty of us sitting in front of the Kalachakra Mandala, all eyes on Losang Samten as he circles it, chanting meditative prayers. His voice is soft. Even though only some of the Buddhists among us can understand his sacred words, we’re all hushed and still, straining to hear him.
See us? Still and hushed?
All right then. Now let’s turn our gaze to the other side of the lobby, which is quickly filling with chatty, laughing people, meeting, greeting and eagerly anticipating the beginning of – wait for it – Gay Bingo, a “fabulous, irreverent, campy, wildly popular monthly event,” according to the website for http://www.aidsfundphilly.org, the group that’s sponsored Gay Bingo for going-on 19 years, to help raise money for HIV and AIDS awareness and services. Sure, everyone there is glad that Gay Bingo supports a worthy cause. But mainly, people go to Gay Bingo because it’s hilarious. And right now, they’re ready have some bona fide fun.
So let’s review.
On this side, there’s a hushed crowd, earnestly contemplating this:
And on this side, there’s an exuberant crowd, eagerly anticipating this:
The exuberant people? They’re fine. They are happy. They’re ready to party.
The hushed people, on the other hand, of whom I am one, are less than fine. We’re distracted. We’re getting irritated. We’re having trouble concentrating. We can still see Losang Samten quietly chanting over the Kalachakra, but as the hubbub behind us swells, we can’t hear him at all.
Beyond that, we hushed people have an additional problem. Right here, right now, in this place and this time, we’re trying really hard to be, you know, good. We’re trying to rise to the Kalachakra occasion, to slough off the petty stuff. Like, for instance, irritation.
But here it is. Dammit. We’re helpless. This isn’t a movie theater, where we can feel free to cast indignant glares at noisy patrons. We’re at a sacred ritual, with a venerable monk, doing… what is it we’re doing here? Oh yes. Striving for enlightenment.
So much for us. What about that monk, himself? What about Losang Samten? He’s still circling the Kalachakra. Chanting. Too softly for even the most hushed to hear. But he doesn’t seem bothered or flustered or the slightest bit distracted. The look on his face is intent, serene.
Until. Until, unexpectedly he stops circling. He stops chanting. He looks up. He smiles.
“Do you hear that noise?” he asks.
Damn right we do, we’re all thinking. Or at least I am.
And then Losang Samten exclaims, just loudly enough for everyone to hear:
“Isn’t it wonderful?”
Didn’t you mean to say distracting? Irritating? Inconsiderate?
Actually, no. Wonderful.
Wonderful is exactly what he said.
Hold on a minute. Let’s see if I can wrap my head around this. Those crescendos of laughter effervescing from a few feet away are wonderful because…?
Because they’re the sounds of joy? Because joy is beautiful? Because the sounds of joy are embracing us? Because we are all here together? Because we are all here?
Ohhh. Okay. Now we get it. We’re like the patterns in the Mandala. We two groups aren’t two separate halves. We are interwoven. A whole. A circle. Like the Kalachakra.
Oh. Now we get why Losang Samten is serene. As opposed to merely quiet, like his earnest listeners. Losang Samten understands the Kalachakra as more than an exquisite art form or the visual center of an ancient ritual. He knows that its purpose is to hold us all – earnest and hilarious, irritated and exuberant – in its embrace.
What a wonderful lesson. One I’ll never forget.
Except most of the time. You know how it is, living life. It’s hard to hold onto the big picture.
But once in awhile, like now, something will bring it circling back to me, and I’ll remember.
And that will be, well, wonderful.