Samuel Rayfield attempts to escape samsara through three Tibetan Buddhists in the Hunter.
After a week at the Maitland Regional Art Gallery funnelling multi-coloured crushed marble into mandala form, Tibetan Buddhist monks Gelek Tenpa, Yama Gyatso and Chemi Tserig ceremonially scooped and whisked it into glass vases. The surrounding crowd, many members of which had checked in with the mandala’s development throughout the week, were handed two square sheets of coloured crepe paper prior to the dissolution. Dispersing throughout the crowd, the monks spooned the sand from the vase into the centre of the crepe, resting in the palms of spectators’ hands. Wrapped about the sand, the crepe was twisted securely shut, its contents now at the whim of those possessing it.
Ordinarily, the ceremony continues to the nearest river, into which the sand is deposited for flowing downstream. I put mine into my top-left jacket pocket, which is rarely where I put anything, so it was forgotten about and went through the way. But that is okay: it’s likely scattered throughout the pockets of all my family members’ garments the jacket shared the suds with, making its way and finding its place in the world, as sand never stops doing.
Backtracking, however – the mandala began a week before, expanding from circles to a square eventually encompassed by a larger circle, all within which are contained hundreds of repeating ornate constructions, everything laden with symbolism. It started slow (which is to say, as quickly as possible) and continued so with the chak-pur, an elongated conical funnel, with ridges along its sides, into which sand was poured. Cross-legged on cushions, the monks bent at the waist and rested another cushion between their chak-pur hand and the nearest knee. The other hand held a blunted blade, the former end of which was held to glide the latter over the chak-pur’s ridges to subtly vibrate the sand from its end.
Like so, the mandala was constructed. It was for chenrezig – in Sanskit, avalokiteshvara – the bodhisattva of compassion. (“A bodhisattva is an enlightened being who has decided to delay becoming a fully enlightened Buddha and who lives in a compassionate spirit life for the sake of all beings”.) All those witnessing the chenrezig mandala and its creation, according to Buddhist thought, will act with a little more universal compassion in their day-to-day.
Most of this information I gathered from the information sheets or observing the dissolution ceremony. I’d spoken to a handful of people from the Himalayan region in the past, never Tibetan Buddhist monks, often through broken English and alcohol, and only once at great length. But everything I’d heard of the peoples’ character – their warm energy, peaceful smiles and bright eyes, hospitable embrace, everything – had proven astonishingly true, so attempt a conversation with the monks I would. They’d spend their next week in Australia at Charlestown Square, doing as they did at the gallery, so there I would be.
The monks begin every mandala day with a chant. The chant you hear (if not, turn it up) is from the dissolution ceremony, but to the untrained ear, the two are similar and both a praise to Buddha. It takes a designated year of training to achieve the depth necessary for tones that low and throaty, a designated year for memorising and achieving the stillness necessary to develop a mandala, and an infinity of years to perfect it. Gelek has practised for 25, Yama for 25 or 26, and Chemi for 35.
They began just past 10:30am on a Tuesday. Until Sunday, just outside Big W, they would start at similar times, continuing into the late afternoon. This mandala was for manjusheri, the bodhisattva or wisdom, who along with chenrezig and compassion form the twin pillars of Buddhism.
“Don’t forget about compassion,” stresses Venerable Thubten Pema, from Tharpa Choeling Buddhist Centre in Wellington, north of Dubbo, accompanying the monks on their tour of Australia. “If you haven’t got compassion, then there’s no point.”
As at the art gallery, the green canvas on which the monks trickled their sand was surrounded by rugs handmade in Tibet. I had to take off my thongs before stepping onto them and sitting close. As the sand trickled and colours were changed, areas of blanket colour were laid and, within them, lines became ridges, the dots mountains. Regions of the mandala accidentally receiving too much colour were picked at until the correct amount remained.
All manner of onlookers were passing by in this odd place, where many hearts’ material desires became satisfied in magical, swift transactions. Some people paused for a moment, some for a few; others did not stop, but others sat still. Children were especially interested.
Occasionally a monk would rise from hunching, straighten his back and cast his eyes about the room, smiling at whoever smiled back. Often, one would offer the others a brief chuckle, but without their attention requested, their visage was calm. I wondered what they were thinking, or whether they were thinking at all.
“What are they doing?” questioned a bearded and pram-pushing passer-by, peculiarly without stopping. Hoping for an answer to the question, my translator would be Dalyong, an 18-year-old volunteer travelling with the monks, assisting where necessary.
Did they like Australia so far?
“Yes. A happy place this is.”
What are they doing here in Australia?
“They came here to make sand mandalas.”
To see some stuff as well?
“Yes, to go around and see oceans and beaches.”
What’s that raised, circular platform in the middle of the mandala?
“It’s like a cushion for the Buddha to stay. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
Further discussion of the mandala confirmed that no, their mandalas are not like a spider’s web; new and never before seen. Exercised from memory, the variable is the location. Balancing the disturbances of the shopping centre and its clamours for attention, it is hoped manjusheri, like chenrezig, assists the ease of intelligent decisions for all passers-by. How modern Australia could learn from the knowledge and presence of Tibetan Buddhism, Dalyong did not believe they could confidently say, so she referred me to Pema.
“That’s a big question,” she told me, but suggested “we have expectations we shouldn’t have. In Tibetan Buddhism, we try to lose all the expectations of people, of things … every single one. We can’t expect anything of anyone.”
I’d spoken earlier with Tseo, a nun with English far eclipsing my Tibetan (of which there became “too-je-che” [too-jay-shee], or “thank you” – my humble return for the monks’ time). A relatively brief chat about how cool bears, wolves and mountains are became her offering her sister’s place to stay, just outside Ganzi, if I should ever be passing by. Our exchange lasted less than 10 minutes, but she was already telling me about the hot springs, food and company I’d share.
That was unexpected.