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Friday, April 4, 2008

The Beauty of Impermanance

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.


paris parfait April 4, 2008 at 11:43 AM  

What a gorgeous post! And you know that also build temples in the jungle, then tear them down and start again. I love their lack of attachment to possessions. For many years I was living out of a suitcase, traveling abroad for work and had few permanent possessions. It seemed that once I bought furniture or something valuable, it was time to move again and I would sell the items. It's only in Europe that I started "nesting" and collecting so many beautiful things. But I do try not to be attached to physical things. I always think of the '89 earthquake, when a friend's apartment in the Marina district was heavily damaged. When she was allowed in for 15 minutes to get as much as she could carry, she loaded her car to the brim. She was about to drive away, when a security guard beckoned her over. She got out of the car and walked towards him and at that exact moment, a telephone pole fell on her car, crushing it flat and destroying everything in the car. Her attitude was of course, "Hey, I'm alive - the rest is just stuff and stuff can be replaced." Of course we all have special items with which we attach sentiment, because they were inherited from beloved relatives or gifts from special friends. But all in all, those monks have the right attitude - nothing is permanent in this life. Thanks for this beautiful, thought-provoking reminder of what is really important. xoxox

Anonymous April 4, 2008 at 12:46 PM  

The impermanence of flowers is one of the reasons why I love floristry so much. You describe this transience beautifully. Isn’t it like attending a great evening of live music, or watching a couple dance beautifully, knowing the experience will not be repeated exactly the same way ever again?

Red Shoes April 4, 2008 at 1:29 PM  

Theatre has the same breath of impermanence--we create a set, a world, and we light it and give it sounds and we put people in it and they exist--and then we take it apart on the strike date, with crowbars and hammers. It's a strange sensation every time.

Thank you for sharing this...

ModernTanguera April 4, 2008 at 1:51 PM  

Wow, thank you so much for sharing this. I knew a tiny bit about sand mandalas before, but your experience was really touching.

Psyche April 4, 2008 at 2:05 PM  

What a wondeful blogger you are.

I love the Japanese archetype of the beauty/impermanence connection - the cherry blossom - especially in connection with the 'floating world' of the 18th and 19th century entertainment business, the pleasure quarters with their theatres and teahouses and brothels, actors and geisha and courtesans, and the merchant customers that kept the whole extravagant, bitter-sweet business financed, paying a fortune to live in their fantasy world.

"Because they fall
we love them,
the cherry blossoms.
In this floating world,
is anything lasting?"

Ariwara no Narihira

studio wellspring April 4, 2008 at 4:07 PM  


Anonymous April 4, 2008 at 7:15 PM  

These guys have too much time on their hands...

I'm TEASING!!! They're amazing. I once saw something similar at the Met in NY made out of yak butter!

But some of us seem to be drawn to the impermanent things like performing theatre, dancing at milongas, inhaling the perfume of flowers.

Thank you for this, and for the wonderful quote at the end.

tangobaby April 4, 2008 at 8:56 PM  

Dear Paris Parfait,

I did not know that about the temples, but it sounds like that is just another aspect of the practice of non-attachment. It is such a difficult concept to embrace for our modern world but I do think it would make life a lot easier for us if we tried.

That story about your friend in the Marina is incredible. I am glad she survived to tell that tale. I am also glad to be living on more stable ground than in the Marina (knock wood).

I am glad you liked the post. I enjoyed remembering the story.

Dear dutchbaby,

I had never thought of floristry like that. I just love what you create and never see the flowers past their glory.

I guess you are right in comparing the sand mandala to a performance, but I could not wrap my mind around a physical thing being destroyed as part of its creation.

Dear Red Shoes,

Of course. And I can imagine the emotion that comes from that tight knit group in sharing the creation of such an experience and to realize that it soon must end.

Hello Modern Tanguera,

I thought of you when I wrote this, too. I think your post on TangoZen helped to inspire me in some way.

Dear Psyche,

What a beautiful picture you've just painted for me. The geishas, the cherry blossoms, the imaginary world of delight that doesn't really exist.

Dear Ms. Wellspring,

It's funny how we travel on these parallel tracks, isn't it? I am so glad.

Hi Johanna,

I'm glad you liked the quote, too. It seemed really perfect for what I wanted to say. That book is a treasure and worth having on the shelf.

Sallycat April 6, 2008 at 6:48 PM  

I absolutely love this post.
The past two years have drawn into sharp focus for me that nothing is permanent. A marital state, a home, the love you feel for another, the way you feel love for another, an emotion, a perfect moment... shifting, changing, passing, growing, dying.
And for me it is true that things seem more beautiful when I know they will not last. The trick I guess is to be always aware that nothing lasts and so treasure every single moment and appreciate it. Then every moment will perhaps appear more beautiful.
My journey from BA to England to BA has been a life masterclass in learning to let go of possessions, observing how my life and the lives of others have changed, feeling the shifts of emotions, allowing pain and joy to come and go, noticing how fragile and transient is the world around me and my mind inside me.
Impermanence is to me a beautiful and reassuring word.
Reading this post tonight has comforted me. Thank you my cyberfriend. SC

5:45AM April 7, 2008 at 7:22 AM  

I really needed to read something like this today. Carpe Diem!

Thank you

tangobaby April 7, 2008 at 9:19 AM  

Dear Sallycat,

Of all people, you have described so clearly and honestly your life and how change has affected you. You provide a lot of inspiration to others to embrace transitions and to look for the gifts that come with change.

I'm glad this post was a comfort to you because you such a dear, sweet person and I want you to be happy!

Hello 5:45am,

I just saw this quote and thought you might like it as well...

May you live all the days of your life. ~Jonathan Swift

Let us all seize the day. Carpe Diem, indeed.

[a} June 28, 2008 at 3:30 AM  

I loved the video--can't believe they destroy something after working so tirelessly on it! The whole idea is amazing, transient, wonderful.

tangobaby June 30, 2008 at 10:22 AM  

Hello [a},

I know it's hard to imagine that scenario. When you see these mandalas in person, it's even more incredible to think that they only live for a few days.

I guess it also helps that these moments, this tradition, is being handed down from generations of monks to others, so that this art is continuously being created as it is also being destroyed.

HummingBird April 12, 2009 at 11:40 AM  

Thank you for your post about a genuine sense of loss followed by inner revelation. I once witnessed a sand mandala being created and found it an very precious experience.