Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d type: On Thursday, I met two Buddhist monks from Tibet arranging a mandala, a circular essence of the universe created by carefully placing grains of colored sand in patterns; after the skinny monk taught me how to arrange sand,the large monk gave me a life lesson about yoga, karma and about smiling from within.
Let me explain. I’d heard word that two Buddhist monks from the monastery near Ithica, NY were coming to create this sand mandala in a huge atrium on campus. My religion professor mentioned the beauty and intricacy of the sand arrangements. He said something about the monks arranging the sand from 8am to 5pm all day, everyday for a week. And then he said they’d destroy the mandala in a ceremony at the end of the week to symbolize the impermanence of the universe.
I had no idea what to expect, I’d only encountered Buddhism once briefly in Italy, and I figured since I had a spare half hour before my fitness class, I’d drop by and see what the hype was all about. I must have walked in right at the end of the monks’ lunch break because other than the random guy studying on a window sill, I was alone with the monks in the large atrium. The larger monk was lounging in an overstuffed chair, obviously enjoying his last few minutes of lunch. The skinny monk stood with his eyes closed, as if in prayer. I eyed up each one and decided it’d be okay if I crept closer to the sectioned off area where the mandala was to steal a peak at their work.
The mandala blew my mind away. There in the middle of this huge atrium, in the middle of this huge table, was an enormous sand arrangement. It had taken them four days to get this much sand set. The colors wove in and out of each other, creating symmetric and asymmetrical patterns representing various elements of the universe. Nothing was keeping the sand in place except gravity. If I exhaled too sharply, the whole design would no doubt have been ruined.
I stood there for what seemed like an eternity, totally enraptured by the mandala’s beauty. The colors swirled and dancing around each other in such order and with such purpose. For some odd reason, I felt like crying.
I didn’t even notice my knees pressing into the cloth barrier. My whole body wanted to be right next to the mandala, and my subconscious wanted to stick my face right up close so I could see the grains. But the barrier held me back.
I felt a tap on my right shoulder that startled me out of my trance. The skinny monk stood right behind me. I smiled sheepishly because I knew I was getting too close, and I guessed he wanted me to back off. Wrong. He motioned for me to follow him. He led me to a table with sand and art tools spread out. He took two long, hollow golden sticks, filled them with green sand and made a series of demonstrating motions. He brushed the golden sticks together, vibrating them in unison so sand came out the end, and a beautiful flower formed on the table.
He smiled a large toothless smile up at me, and pointed at the flower. Then he handed me the instruments. I awkwardly grasped them together and he rearranged my fingers around them. The metal was warm in my palm, but holding them felt awkward and I suddenly felt shy. So he took my hands in his, smiled through his kind eyes and nodded at me to try. So I tried to imitate his motion. I made a lopsided green heart right there on the table and grinned up at him, maybe for approval, or to apologize for my poor skills. “Beauty,” he said, and then promtply turned, picked up two more metal wands and started working next to me on his gorgeous creation. We worked side by side for a few minutes–me, a little kid in a sand box, doodling shapes on the table, him, a sand-master.
After I while I felt someone’s gaze in my back. I turned my attention to the large monk observing us in the chair, and nodded to him, my body was half turned toward him.. was it okay to talk to him? What should I say? He drew me over with his eyes and I stood by his side as he asked me if I’d heard about the Yale student who was found murdered two weeks ago. Yes, I had, I replied. “Why do they do these kinds of things,” he said to me. “People bring bad karma to this world.”
“Tell me about karma,” I said. “What does it mean? How do you get good karma? I know about yoga but that’s all…”
“Yoga is not just body,” he said. “There is physical wellness, yes, but spirit is important to. You must listen to your inner self. Develop it. Know it. It takes work. Learn who you are. Good karma is easily there when you decide good things for yourself in life.”
“What sort of good things?” I said, totally drawn in by his leathery tan face, his yellow and maroon robes, and his calm manner.
“Don’t kill college students,” he said smiling sadly. “But no, it is hard. Do your practice. Do your breathing. Learn from two voices inside your head and your heart. Stretch your muscles. Do not get lazy. Yoga and karma can be one.”
“Do you have any advice for yoga beginners like me..?” I said.
“Like advice? Ya know.. pointers, tips. Something you know, that I don’t, that I can learn from?” I gestured with my hands in a circle, as if that would help me make more sense to him.
A light went up in his face. “Yes,” he said. “Be smiling from inside, and outside, things will go better for you. Do not let little bad things catch you like a trap.”
Then he nodded once toward me and smiled. I thought the conversation was over so I smiled and turned away from him back to the mandala, when he said, “Yellow woman…?” (I think he was talking about my hair being blond).
“Yes…sir?” I said (oh my gosh, can you call a Buddhist monk sir??!) I thought.
“Live easy, yellow woman. Keep smiling. Smile to this world like you smile at this mandala.”