As fascinating as it is to watch the monks from the Gaden Shartse Monastery patiently construct a “Buddha of Wisdom” mandala in the small gallery room at the rear of Sorrel Sky Gallery, it is just as interesting to watch the people who come to watch them.
Fresh out of the bustle and noise of downtown Durango, many are taken aback by the scene: the decorated table bursting with colors, the unassuming monks in their crimson robes, the hush and quiet of the room broken only by soft exclamations of surprise as the newcomers are struck by the intricacy of its construction, and by the realization that the mandala, this symbol of impermanence so painstakingly made, will be dismantled on Saturday and poured into the Animas River.
The quiet is broken, also, by the sounds of chakpur tools, the rolled copper funnels the monks use to place sand on the design. A small hole in the sharp end of the funnel serves as a spout. By scraping the ribbed funnel with another metal tool – think of a chisel but with the blade end held in the palm – vibrations are created that allow the sand to flow.
A musical sound fills the room, a singing, high tone like rhythm sticks played by a percussionist, but yet unfamiliar. This is not the driving beat of a popular song, but the rhythm of patience and contemplation. Soothing, but focused, too. The sound of an ancient ritual used for meditation, healing and for monks new to the world of the monastery – initiation.
The one thing every adult in the room possesses that the monks apparently do not is a cellphone. Out they come, and cameras capture bits of the scene and record action, as if the ritual would not really exist without proof of a photo, or a minute or two of shaky video.
One tall visitor, close to the table and up on tiptoes, holds his camera phone high for a better overhead shot. He loses his balance, sways forward and threatens to fall onto the table and scatter the sand.
“Whoa, cowboy,” says his wife, reaching both arms around him to tether him to the ground. The incident provokes nervous laughter all around, but not from the monks. They laugh heartily, fully enjoying the moment and the prospect of artistic disaster. There is a feeling that, should the mandala be disturbed, so be it. They would patiently start over again.
This is not the monks’ first visit to Durango, and we welcome their return. Two years ago, Gaden Shartse monks created a Green Tara mandala at Open Shutter. Like this one, it was completed and then dissolved in the river as a blessing. In addition to the mandala, they are presenting a series of talks and performances this week (visit durangoherald.com for details).
Just outside the room are many items for sale to support the monastery, founded in southern India after the Chinese invasion of Tibet. Among them is a poster of a poem by the Dalai Lama called “The Paradox of Our Age” that laments much of our modern condition:
“...These are times of fast food but slow digestion; Tall men but short characters; Steep profits but shallow relationships.” And, “It’s a time when there is much in the window but nothing in the room.”
Except this room. And while a few don’t get it – one man shakes his head as he leaves – many more, even the children, seem eager to embrace it.
There is another, quiet, universe in here.