How quickly it is gone

Venerable Lama Losang Samten, a Tibetan monk, is in Chico showing us how to live, specifically creating a mandala of compassion on the Chico State campus. The mandala, like the peace mandala he made in the same spot in 2008, is done with very fine sand in several colors. When the elaborate, three-dimensional creation is completed, it is destroyed. The Associated Students website says that the mandala is “intended to benefit and uplift every person who sees it.” Right on.

I followed the peace mandala’s progress and returned several times to see Losang (pronounced LAHB-sahng, believe it or not) rub a metal rod on a metal funnel’s serrations to vibrate the grains of the aforementioned very fine sand out the little end of the funnel, called a chak-pur, and onto the outlined surface where the mandala takes form.

The detail in every mandala I’ve seen can be as small as a millimeter or so, and that’s about how much room for error there is. A few grains at a time, Losang again is devoting a chunk of effort—10 to 5, Tuesday through Sunday until March 5 this trip—to create a work designed to be destroyed.

As a materialist Westerner born and bred, part of me is appalled that anybody would spend that much time on something totally awesome and then ruin the thing and give away most of the sand and dump the rest in Chico Creek, which is what happened with the peace mandala in ’08. It sounds like vandalism.

At first I thought of it as an exercise in concentration, except when I concentrate I stop noticing anything else. Losang seems always to be aware of what’s going on around him. Working with the sand, he still seems aware of his surroundings, always present and accounted for.

At the end of laying down a line, say, he may look up from the work and glance around. Sometimes he acknowledges people he recognizes, and he often chats on his breaks. All the while there are these intervals of meticulously laying colored sand into a complex work of art whose form and disposal are predetermined. What could be an exercise in tedium might also be a practice in being here now just doing this one thing thoroughly and not thinking about anything else. Maybe I’ll ask him.

On the first day, Losang encouraged everyone, including me, to use the chak-pur to pour down some of the red sand in the center of the mandala. He said I was good at it.