Sunday, February 6, 2011

Mandala in New York

On the last Sunday of January the Buddhist monks destroyed the mandala they had constructed over the past several days in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Mandalas have been found in many spiritual traditions, including Hindu and Buddhist, although the most famous ones are associated with Tibet. In Tantric Buddhist practice, these cosmic diagrams assist in inner spiritual development. Mandalas are created from a variety of materials and for a variety of purposes, meditation, healing and purification. The one in AMNH, like most of the Tibetan ones, had been made of sand and was a healing or medicine mandala. It was part of a series on ‘Brain and the Tibetan Creative Mind’ that the museum organized. It complemented the fascinating exhibition on Tibetan medical paintings, ‘Body & Spirit,’ curated by Laila Williamson, that had opened just before in the museum, as well as the scientific exhibition ‘Brain: The Inside Story.’

The centrepiece itself was truly beautiful. The hall where it was placed was obscured in semi-darkness and the lights directed to the mandala lit it up so that the bright red, green and yellow of the sand painting literally shone. The beauty of the piece of art was breathtaking, even in the less than perfect setting. A picture of the Dalai Lama sat on a table behind the mandala and behind him were the museum’s permanent dioramas of Antarctic nature complete with penguins. Himalaya in the Antarctica. The hall was also so crowded with people that the security guards had to shout and push them back so that the perimeter around the object of admiration was clear. They also tried to get people to circulate around the mandala in a clockwise movement, so that all and everyone would get a closer look at the work. “Keep on moving, perambulate! You don’t need thirty photographs, ten is enough!,” the guards kept on prodding the less than cooperative crowd. I heard the event coordinator, a tiny grey-haired Asian woman, say to one of the guards that their plan and organization were not perfect.

The monks who created the mandala came from two monasteries, including the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in India. This inter-monastic cooperation in itself is quite rare. They had come to create and then destroy the mandala – a symbol of the impermanence of life and the futility of human effort –at AMNH to raise awareness of their culture, but also to raise support to the Tibetan cause.

After a lengthy thank you session during which – it seemed – half of the museum staff received long white scarves and a paper bag from the monks showing their gratitude (although this part of the event would have been better suited to a celebration behind closed doors, I thought it was still nice that the monks did not forget anyone, not even the security guards who got their uniformed necks wrapped in white), the spokesperson, a youngish monk with a round shaved head and eyeglasses, launched into a prolonged diatribe against the Chinese. He poured vitriol over the occupying Chinese who systematically suppressed religion and were responsible for the deaths of uncounted Tibetans. He explained how the Dalai Lama’s entourage of only thousands of monks were the last holdout defending the old culture and religion in Dharamsala in India. This political message obviously sunk into the spiritually-inclined audience gathered here. They had heard Richard Gere and other celebrities explain this to them before. The truth, as always, is less black and white. The Chinese I have talked with over the years – academics, government officials, oversees expats, regular folks – have been invariably baffled about the strong resistance of the Tibetans to their efforts to bring them progress. The communist ideology is, of course, negatively disposed to religion, which it sees as backward, maintaining the oppressive feudal system. But the main motivation of the Chinese, I would argue, is to bring economic development to Tibet and they just can’t understand why the locals don’t embrace the inevitable march of progress and accept the necessary sacrifices, like destroying old neighbourhoods to make way for superior new concrete blocks or turning the sacred lake in Lhasa into an amusement park for the invading entrepreneurs from the east. The greatest crime of the Chinese in Tibet and elsewhere is gross cultural insensitivity and a criminal level of tone deafness to local sensibilities. Mind you, last month on a trip to New Delhi I discovered that the staff in the gym and spa I patronized were Tibetans. I talked with one of the ladies and she explained that she’d been to India for ten years and that it was virtually impossible for her to get a visa to go back and visit her homeland. So it is true that the Chinese government to whom internal security is paramount does also pose unacceptable and stupid restrictions on people. What security threat did this soft-spoken woman pose, I wondered. Perhaps the blissful massage she provided would be too calming, so that people would forget their duty to conquer the earth and turn natural resources into wealth by creating billions of trinkets that the world would buy.

Finally the ceremony itself was ready to begin. The bespectacled spokesman withdrew to the back as nine saffron-robed monks formed a line behind the mandala. They all placed high yellow felt hats on their shaved heads, their tops curving into a big hook. The leader started the chant in which the eight others would join. The leader displayed extraordinary skill in using his voice. At times he would recite the sutra at a very low pitch using his throat to create an otherworldly two-layered gurgling sound. At other times, the entire monks’ choir got into a hypnotic chant that was paced to induce trance. In Tibet, chanting is an integral part of religious rituals and involve recitation of sacred texts or sutras. The chants are rhythmically complex and involve minutely executed changes in mood and tempo.

I observed the audience and saw that many people had their eyes closed, several of them clearly praying to whatever gods they had. Only an elderly Jewish man in front of me was restless. He had come to the event with his extended family (and I’m sure attending had not been his own idea), but the family was dispersed around the mandala in the dense crowd. The yarmulke and jeans wearing gent did not stay restful for more than ten seconds at a time. He was fidgeting and glancing around constantly. He tried to wave and make faces to his granddaughters on the other side of the stage (sensibly, the young girls ignored the silly grandfather). At one point when the chanting intensified into a rhythmic crescendo, the man started chanting his own syncopated counter-riffs while taking a few klezmer dance steps. Luckily for him, the rest of the audience seemed to be too absorbed in the beautiful ritual to take too much notice of his disrespectful distractions.

In the middle of the chanting at a particularly intense moment two of the monks blew into their long trumpets known as dungchen, while two of their colleagues crashed cymbals and beat on a large bass drum creating a majestic ruckus. One could only imagine how these sounds would soar above the Himalayas and echo from the walls of the mountains across green, fertile valleys inspiring awe in the farmers down in their fields. This mighty clamour was repeated towards the end before the chanting died and the monks removed their crooked headgear.

Then one of them approached the mandala and slowly circled it drawing lines across it with his hand: from south to north, from east to west, entering from the four gates on each side of the mandala. He then proceeded to stir the carefully arranged sand, the result of many days of painstaking work by the monks from two monasteries high in the Asian mountains, into colourful swirls before entirely destroying the patterns. The futility and impermanence of human endeavour. Grains of this sand were then distributed to the spectators in small plastic sachets, so we too now have a tiny piece of the mandala to enhance the peace of our home.