Friday, April 20, 2012

Morning Prayers, Meditation and Sand Mandalas

As tired as I was last night, I decided to take a warm bath before bed to try to relax a bit. That was a mistake. I found myself wide awake until nearly 2 a.m., and I was totally irritated when Colden decided he wanted to sleep in our bed last night. Ugh. There was no turning back once Tom was awake and taking a shower, so I got up and started getting us ready for the day.

I drove up to Plattsburgh, anxious and exhausted. Why does it always seem that I can't unwind the night before something exciting like this?

When I got there, I recognized a couple of the other folks who had showed up for morning prayers with the Tsawa Touring Monks. We sat against the wall while the monks gathered around the sand mandala they've been working on, and morning prayers began.

It wasn't like anything I had expected. The movement and the sound of the chanting monks was enough to transport me to a monastery halfway around the world, with the smell of incense and the heat of the sun coming through the windows. I closed my eyes and listened to the chants and the prayers and the noise of the instruments, and I felt the sounds throughout every cell of my body. The energy in the room was like a blanket that I could wrap around myself, comforting and soothing.

I was particularly interested in the instruments that were being played - long horns, shorter horns that had holes like flutes, drums, and bells. All were intricate and beautiful, and I wondered how old they were, and how long they had been in use. I thought about all the other times that those instruments had been used in morning prayer like this, and I felt a deep connection with the sounds they made.

Truthfully, it reminded me a bit of the church services I attended when I was a kid. The part during the Eucharist where the words were chanted and interspersed with music and singing. But this went much deeper for me, even though I had absolutely no idea what they were saying, what the prayers were for, or to whom they were directed. I didn't need to know, really.

When it was over, a few of the monks continued work on the beautiful sand mandala that they are creating during their time at the Cultural Center, and one of the monks led a teaching and meditation session. I attended the meditation session and learned a new 9-point meditation. Then I went back downstairs and watched as they worked on the mandala:

It was truly awe-inspiring to watch the intricate details being formed from tiny lines of sand. After a few minutes, a school group arrived to watch and we had a wonderful Q&A with the monks' tour guide.

The kids asked some wonderful questions, and I'm going to recount as much as I can remember about these sand mandalas, and this one in particular.

According to the tour guide, there are over 160 million designs for mandalas in the Buddhist scriptures. 160 million. And there are no pictures - only descriptions in words. So there are no visual references to these mandalas, just words to describe them. The monks memorize the descriptions, including the colors and the shapes and their placements, and then create these from memory. Some monks memorize only five or six mandalas, while others have memorized 50 or 60!

This particular mandala is being created to bring wisdom to all sentient beings. That's something I love about Buddhism - every good action can be done for the benefit of all sentient beings. It's such a generous spirit! In the mornings, the monks say a prayer to the deities asking for permission to create the mandala for the benefit of all sentient beings, and then they go to work. Normally, a mandala such as this can be created in just two or three days. But since they are doing this as part of the Cultural Center programming, they are stretching it out over the course of almost two weeks to let people watch them as they create it.

One of the kids asked what happens if someone makes a mistake when making a sand mandala like this. The tour guide answered quite bluntly, "They can't." It has to be perfect, every time. There's no way to correct a wrong color or a wrong line.

The sand is scooped up into long tubes that are wide on one end, and taper to a narrow point on the other. The monks use a small stick to rub the ridges along the narrow end to coax the sand out into the intricate patterns of the mandala. I was surprised at how quickly the tiny designs appeared! 

At the end of the creation, the mandala will sit on display for a few days for people to see. Then there will be a ceremony where the leader of the monastery will run a finger through the design, effectively destroying it, and the sand will be carried down to the river. Once the sand has been deposited in the river, the wisdom that was generated through the creation of this mandala will be passed along to the creatures who live in the water, and from there, to all the other planes of existence, including those of which we are not aware.

I can't imagine what it must look like when the mandala is destroyed. I don't know if I should go to the ceremony or not - but the whole point is to reinforce the teaching that nothing in this life is permanent. We enter this world with nothing, and we will leave with nothing. Nothing will last forever.

And yes, standing there and listening to the tour guide talk about the mandalas and the intention behind it, I did come up with a few ways in which making a sand mandala is a lot like beading!

The one thing that made me just the tiniest bit angry at this event was hearing from the nice people at the Cultural Center about how they had been unable to get any school groups to come for field trips! The school that arrived today walked over, since they are located only a few blocks away. The principals of the other schools never bothered to call the Cultural Center back. It's that kind of thing that makes me think seriously about homeschooling Colden, or at the very least, yanking him out of class when something like this is happening.

Really. I mean, here in the North Country, we don't have a lot of opportunities for our kids to be exposed to things like this, and it's just so, so important for them. All the things that those kids learned today from talking to the monks and watching the mandala being constructed and then trying the sand technique themselves - that's not anything you can learn by reading a book. It's something that has to be experienced to be learned, so that they can take it into their hearts and make it their own. It's not something that can be measured on a standardized test. It's important.

Tomorrow, I'm taking Colden and his friend Yossi up to the Cultural Center for a kids' painting activity, and then let them watch the mandala being constructed. Then I'm going back on Monday and Tuesday next week (and maybe Wednesday?) for morning prayers and a pulse reading.

More on the meditation session later...right now, I have a stack of quesadillas and some homemade guacamole calling my name.

To be continued...

1 comment:

Amy B. said...

I'm eagerly awaiting your continuation, Jennifer! Sounds like anamazing day!