Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Impermanence

A group of Tibetan monks is creating a sand mandala at the University of Massachusetts Fine Arts Gallery this week. Although we were unable to go during the day to see the monks in action, we were able to see their "handiwork of devotion" this evening before the gallery closed.

The mandala is created after an opening ceremony to bless the room and make it conducive for this deeply spiritual and devotional ritual. The monks then spend 3-4 days using beautifully and richly-colored sand to create a design based upon Tibetan cosmology and sacred geometric designs. Poignantly, once the sand painting has been completed after three days of painstaking and ceremonial labor, it is ritualistically destroyed as a lesson in the impermanence of all things. The sand from the mandala is then released in a running body of water in order to share the energy of the mandala with the world at large.

Coupled with performances by Tibetan artists, video installations of Tibetan culture, and other informative lectures, the Tibetan culture is being duly revered and honored this week here in Amherst. This is even more special based upon the fact that many Tibetans have chosen to make Western Massachusetts---and especially our beloved "Pioneer Valley"---home, as part of a concerted Tibetan resettlement project. Our Tibetan neighbors are an integral part of our community, and add a great deal to our town's cultural richness.

It is impermanence which informs much of my work vis-a-vis individuals who are dying, finishing their time on Earth, preparing to leave this plane for the next, whatever that may or may not be. Like my recent small epiphanies as I stare into the eyes of the patient of whom I have written so much lately, this concept must make its mark on one's soul and psyche. In this world of exponentially increasing consumerism and ownership of treasured objects and assets, one must be reminded---ad nauseum, if necessary---of the thread-like strings which so loosely bind us to these "things" which we think define us. The computer, the house, the car, the clothes, the CDs, the books, the money, the stocks---these are not us, but we incorporate them as part of our identity, our sense of being. Add to this the impermanence and fluidity of health and even life itself, and mortality begins to seem like one giant lesson in letting go, realizing that the grip of the material world is, at best, a weak and unenlightened grasping at straws, if not an illusion altogether.

So the next time I fret about my slow Internet connection or malfunctioning flashlight, I must remember the mandala and the lesson it bears. But the lure of the material world is powerful and I will no doubt fall prey to its persistent voice again and again. But that mandala---and other practices like it---can make an indelible and unforgettable mark if one will allow the magic to penetrate the noise from time to time.

It's been said that the only certainties in life are death and taxes, but I would beg to differ. I would say that the only certainty in life is impermanence itself. And that is a permanent condition.....
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