Friday, August 3, 2012

Taking The Essence

To a child it looked like the grownups were building sandcastles in the sandbox: Both my maternal and paternal grandfathers used to play this game every morning in their homes: "Om Vajra Bhumi Ah Hung...," sprinkle rice grains here, "Om Vajra Rekhe Ah Hung…," sprinkle rice grains there. Then rub the vessel, rub, rub, rub with your right ell, sprinkle rice grains on the vessel, stack a ring, fill it completely up with rice, stack the next, smaller concentric ring, again filling that up with rice grains, all the while solemnly mumbling important-sounding words until the whole tower culminated in a conical construct that was to be destroyed at the end - just like a sandcastle.

It seemed like the Tibetan version of the Sisyphean task - the same thing over and over without a visible result. But while Sisyphus was condemned to roll the rock up the hill only to see it roll down again shortly before reaching the peak, my grandfathers offered and destroyed Mandalas voluntarily and enthusiastically until the end of their days.

Little did I know that the Mandala offering was an integral part of many people's regular Buddhist practice and that it could contain the entire Buddhist path all the way up to enlightenment in one go. It had a deep meaning.

I was reminded of the Mandral because my aunt asked me to come over a while ago. Whether I could donate my grandfather’s religious belongings to a monastery in Tibet? My Somola had no special affinity for Buddhism but was thoughtful enough to look for a suitable solution for the sacred objects lying around the house collecting dust.

Symbolising the Mandala offerings
Upon taking a closer look, I discovered my Pola's old Mandral. After half my lifetime was spent in Dharma oblivion, I somehow became interested after all and - funny enough - one of the first things I had learned was the Mandral using my hands as Mudra to symbolize the offerings. So when my aunt allowed me to keep my grandfather's Mandala set saying she was happy it remained in the family, I felt elated: Now I could practice with "the real thing" just like the others, that was my first thought. I didn’t anticipate the new significance that was to grow out of the inherited Mandala set.

Initially attracted by the Buddhist message of how the three poisons – ignorance, greed and anger - influence our actions and keep us rotating through Samsara, and how through systematically developing strong ethics, wisdom and compassion we could save us from ourselves, the Mandral gave me a first taste of the backbreaking work the implementation of these ideas into one's life could actually become.

In public, Mandalas are usually offered at the beginning of a Buddhist teaching to the Lama who is going to give it. At home, the Mandral would be offered to your personal Lama under whose guidance you normally practice and whose blessings or inspiration you sought to make progress. In the prayer, all kinds of things were given away as a gift to the Lama in exchange for the teaching or the blessings. You basically offered the whole universe. I was under the impression that the Mandala was a method to make us less attached to things and become more generous, although at the back of my head I had some doubt about the effectiveness because after all, we were offering fantasy things we didn’t own. Even though I had learned that in Buddhism things were never just what they seemed, I was unable to connect that insight to my Mandala situation at the time.

I don't know how my grandfathers went about learning it but I began by trying to draw all the objects that appeared in the prayer: The holy ground, the fence, the king of mountains in the centre and all the other components, arranging everything in the correct sequence. When I was half way through, having a tougher and tougher time to draw elements like "automatically growing fields", I began to suspect that I was trying to reinvent the wheel: Someone somewhere must have made a better drawing already. I can't possibly be the only person on the planet wanting to learn the Mandala offering? Bingo! I found a very helpful illustration.
This picture then served as a visual crutch to memorise the prayer. To intensify the exercise, I downloaded it from the internet and recited along in the evenings when walking the dog. After a few weeks, I got it. Next time in Buddhism class, when everyone was offering Mandalas to request the teaching, I had caught up with the others: I knew my offering by heart and inside out.

But now that I had my own Mandrel set, again I needed to learn the ritual or procedure. The mental picture and the words were there but where and when to place the heaps of rice grains, the rings, when does the rubbing come in et cetera?

So I found myself a video in the internet of a Mandala offering to which I practiced simultaneously rewinding as many times as necessary – basically many, many times. Eventually I did master the ritual - only to realize a while later that I still wasn’t there: I had merely got on top of the mechanics that were visible from the outside. The real work hadn’t even begun!

In order to make the Mandala offering effective, you had to try and understand the deeper meaning: So what did "the ground" represent? What was the meaning of "the fence" and all the other things that appeared in the prayer? And why did we offer objects like the minister, the elephant, the horse, the general, the queen, the treasure vase and so on, when they didn't belong to us?

What looked trivial like building sandcastles turned out as a highly sophisticated method to induce a change to our habitual thinking pattern. All the outer, ritual action was there to trigger an inner, mental transformation. Whether it was the Mandala, the water offering or the prostrations – they were all a means to an end. The end was to get to a higher or broader, more aware or deeper level of mind.

Looking up and down the Internet and in bookshops or talking to friends was a good start but at one point, I realised, nothing can replace the wisdom of a good Lama. There are things that are not available “out there” that you can only hope to catch if you find a qualified Lama and stick around for long enough. In my case, this meant continueing to attend Buddhism courses and offering Mandrels with good intention but without really understanding the deeper meaning for almost three years until I accidentally heard the Lama explain it more as an aside:

"The ground" was your mind and the offerings represented the positive mental attributes you were determined to develop and for which you requested the teacher's inspiration and blessing. The minister, for example, stood for flexibility, the horse for concentration, the general was equanimity, the queen joy and the treasure vase symbolized the power of memory. I guess the destruction at the end is to teach you that you shouldn't get all uptight about reaching these qualities. They are fundamental but if you get hung up you lost before you started.

The Lama also spoke of inner, outer, secrete and ultimate Mandala and depending on the level of understanding, an offered object could have several meanings. The Mandala was one of the many tools the Buddha gave people so they could achieve a mental transformation according to their individual ability and determination. You could custom-build your Mandala: As a beginner you would offer it with a mindset to accumulate wholesome and reduce negative Karma and aim for a good rebirth. As a moderate student you offer it with the intention to develop your mind to the level where you can overcome cyclic existence or rebirth altogether, and as an advanced practitioner you would offer the Mandral with the inner attitude to achieve enlightenment for the sake of all.

Offering a Mandala was something so basic in Tibetan Buddhism yet it could also become very elaborate containing the whole Buddhist path with the bulk of the action happening invisibly for external observers. Tampering with the Mandala set was merely assistive equipment for the work on the inside, that’s what the Lama’s comments made me realise.

The good news out of this long Mandala learning story is that I don't need to learn a whole lot more other techniques such as reciting 100,000 mantras or going on long retreats. With the Mandala, it is possible to achieve more than I could hope to handle. It’s like a one-size-fits-all garment perfect for any need.

But something else happened when I used my grandpa's Mandral gear the first time and noticed that the Tog for crowning the Mandala was missing.

Neither my aunt nor my mom remembered where the Tog could be. The only thing my mom knew was that it was made of noble metal. Maybe it was in the safe at the bank? I was barely able to hold the full Mandala with my two hands it was that heavy already. I wasn't keen on adding more weight with a fancy silver or golden Tog.

Just around that time my cousin, a Buddhist monk in Tibet, came to visit. It was a Herculean task to obtain a tourist visa because the authorities suspected he would seek political asylum in this country. I never had a doubt he would not return. Once when we were in Tibet discussing his Buddhist education, the option to flee to India came up. It is generally accepted that the Buddhist training one received in the Tibetan monasteries in India is superior to the one in the homeland. But my cousin replied: "Aché, I can't leave. What would happen to Tibet if all the good people left? A few decent ones must stay back."

When he noticed that my Mandral was missing the Tog, he made me one out recycled cardboard without further ado. It reminded me more of a Roman Catholic bishop's hat but it did the job at no additional weight.  

Mountain Phoenix' Mandala set 
Altogether my Mandral had now become very personal: It came from my maternal grandfather who grew up in Tibet before the arrival of the Chinese, it was being used by me, who was born in a democratic, occidental setting, and it was crowned by my paternal cousin, a Buddhist monk in Tibet born after the Cultural Revolution. It is said that the Mandala symbolizes the universe and amazingly my Mandral really did contain my little world!

Now I was fully equipped but offering a Mandala remains a difficult task. The visualised offerings don't take shape fast enough. The pictures in my head often lag behind the recitation which goes on rhythmically. The Lama said with Dharma practice it’s like with weight training: You build your strength step by step. The more you exercise, the easier it becomes.

Meanwhile I also discovered a trick: Sometimes when I imagine my Pola and I are doing the Mandala offering together, sitting in front of the altar side by side, mumbling the words together, doing the visualisations together and dedicating whatever positive vibes come out of the exercise to the benefit of everybody including ourselves, that's when the visualisations are a little less difficult.

I also remember my dad and my grandma and there is a sense of continuation. Through the Mandral I feel close to them and when I add the Tog to crown my Mandala, my brave cousin comes to mind in his monastery in Tibet upholding the teaching and providing guidance to the community. In my eyes, he stands for all the brave Tibetans who decide to remain in Tibet come what may.

Through the Mandala I finally also understood that the central role accorded to Lamas in Tibetan Buddhism is justified. Lamas are not the heroes of Tibetan culture for no good reason. If our Buddha potential was the seed, a qualified Lama could make the seed sprout so we develop strong roots. Their work was unparalleled and indispensable.

For the longest time I used to have an aversion against Buddhism because I held it responsible for the loss of our country. I was unfairly politicizing Buddhism which was never meant as a form of government to start with. Buddhism has always been about the sentient beings and how to improve their situation with complete disregard for worldly concepts like “country” or “government”.

Who would have thought that I become a person that offers Mandalas? Lamas did not figure in my set of acquaintances either. But there is a common Tibetan saying: "As people get older, they remember their roots; as birds get older they stay on the tree" or in Tibetan:
Mi rgas dus rang-yul; bya rgas dus shing ‘go
How many times have I heard the saying and it never struck a chord?

Now it rings true.

It looks like I have been taking many things way too literal. With the circular Mandala I have come full circle too. Things fall into place and I feel good about it. I feel like old wine in new skins. 

Mandala is khyil khor in Tibetan, which means "turning from the middle" or "taking the essence". It boils down to offering all our positive, wholesome potential of the past, the present and the future to our own enlightenment and to the enlightenment of all beings. It's a huge, ambitious task but I decided to try to take the essence just like my grandparents before me, my cousin in Tibet, and loads of other people around the world whom I don’t know.

May everyone find their source of inspiration!

Mountain Phoenix

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