Or is it the other way around? Do we think things are more beautiful when they are bound to come to an end?
Is there a way not to mourn the passing of one thing while transitioning into the next?
A few years ago, I went to see a group of Tibetan monks who were traveling through the US to raise money for their expatriated monastery in India. They spent days creating a sand mandala in the back of a local bookstore near my home.
The Tibetan Buddhist sand mandala is an exercise in creating a beautiful work of art that will be intentionally destroyed at its completion. It expresses the transitory nature of all life.
These monks spent hours and days on their knees bending over a large platform, chanting and filling intricate patterns on the giant wooden surface with tiny amounts of neon-colored sand. Because the process was so intensive, and the mandala so large, you could come by at almost any time and sit and watch them work.
The sound of their deep voices chanting, the intermittent clanging of bells and chimes, and the smell of incense created an otherwordly, yet very comforting, environment.
And then one night, the monks decided to teach a sand painting class for us. Each of us had our own little wooden board, a brass tool shaped like a long thin ice cream cone, and bowls of the finest sand imaginable, in the colors of a new box of Crayola crayons.
One older monk spoke enough English to instruct us in our task. We were supposed to draw a picture in pencil on our board as a guideline of where to put the sand. I cannot draw so one of the younger monks, Jamba, sat beside me to help me. Jamba was the size of a linebacker on a college football team. He wore his yellow and red robes like a lumbering boy in sweat pants and tee shirt. He had a fun, easy crooked smile and he smiled a lot. He spoke almost no English and of course I do not speak Tibetan.
I was just so excited to be there and learn to paint with sand that I could not even think of what to draw. So Jamba suggested a lotus and I agreed.
He quickly sketched a blooming lotus on my wooden board.
Then the monks demonstrated how to fill our brass cones with sand and to tip them ever so slightly and gently so that a thin trickle of bright flowing sand would come from the end of the cone like a continuous thread and that is how we would color in our drawings. Eagerly, I chose a color and filled my cone.
I tipped my cone at a fraction of an angle and a giant blob of colored sand fell onto my board. This was going to be harder than it looked. But somehow everyone else was able to do it. What was wrong with me?
I tried it again. Another blob. My lotus was not getting off to a very good start.
Finally Jamba could see that I was not doing very well. He would draw a little bit, and then hand the cone to me and watch me make a mess. And then he would take the cone back and draw a little more, or change the color of the sand.
After a while it became evident that I was not going to be able to paint my own lotus and that he would make one for me. That is when the artist took over and I just watched him work in silent amazement. He painted a full pink lotus blooming from a cluster of green leaves, floating in a sea of blue sky. With the most intricate precision he highlighted the tips of my lotus petals with almost imperceptible white veins and deepened the base of the flower with a red heart. He painted wispy puffs of clouds in my blue sand sky and as a final touch, he added a bee to my beautiful flower. The bee made me laugh out loud with delight. It was like a writer with a feathered pen adding a flourish to his manuscript.
At the end of the class, I had the prettiest lotus. The thought of sweeping it away crushed me. How could I destroy something that was made just for me? Jamba took us out to the back of the shop and each of us gingerly followed, carrying our sand paintings as if they were made of the finest blown glass.
Instead of destroying our work, he had a can of aerosol fixative. He was going to spray our sand paintings so we could take them home.
I asked Jamba if that didn't go against the whole idea of a sand mandala in the first place. They are created in order to be destroyed.
Jamba smiled and laughed and said that they only use the spray for the Americans. Because we never want things to come to an end.
He was right.
I put my sand painting in a place of honor in my home where I could see it all the time. The bee was my favorite part. Just looking at the bee and remembering how the bee came to be (!) in seconds with such festivity made me smile. But little by little the painting started to get dusty, and what could I do? I could not clean it. It was so fragile. Bits of sand started to flake off of it and I worried about the further decay of my painting. Pretty soon it was falling apart and after a while I had no choice but to throw it away.
I realized I had held onto it too long. My memory of the painting was as it was in its final stage of decay, not in its colorful glory as Jamba had laughingly painted it for me, and that made me wistful.
Now in my mind's eye, I try to see the painting as it was when it was new, and more and more I realize that is how I should try to remember lots of things, in their full beauty and in the moment of creation.
This is how a mandala is painted, if you are interested.
And because this relates to the lotus, the bee and something else I've been thinking about, a quote from a book I have not read in many years, but should read again:
"When you love someone, you do not love them all the time, in exactly the same way, from moment to moment. It is an impossibility. It is even a lie to pretend to. And yet, this is exactly what most of us demand. We have so little faith in the ebb and flow of life, of love, of relationships. We leap at the flow of time and resist in terror its ebb. We are afraid it will never return. We insist on permanency, on duration, on continuity; when the only continuity possible in life, as in love, is in growth, in fluidity – in freedom. The only real security is not in owning or possessing, not in demanding or expecting, not in hoping, even. Security in a relationship lies neither in looking back to what it was, nor forward to what it might be, but living in the present and accepting it as it is now. For relationships, too, must be like islands. One must accept them for what they are here and now, within their limits – islands surrounded and interrupted by the sea, continuously visited and abandoned by the tides. One must accept the serenity of the winged life, of ebb and flow, of intermittency." ~ Anne Morrow Lindbergh, A Gift from the Sea
Beautiful photo by readerwalker.