Buddha in the badlands

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Christmas morning my son gives me a Buddha who squeaks when you squeeze him. In one hand, this rubber Enlightened One holds a cell phone to his ear, in the other a cup of coffee.

"To make your desk more fun," my son tells me. "He's the office Buddha."

Would Buddha mind this joke, mind being a toy? Probably not, since his message emphasizes living in the world, not turning away from it. This gift makes me remember the active nature of compassion — perfect conduct and perfect mindfulness — while accepting the contradictions of life with laughter.

Of course, it's the season of giving, though sometimes it's hard to recognize a gift for what it is. Like The Mystical Arts of Tibet, the weeklong residency at the Detroit Institute of Arts by a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks, their arduous work on a sand mandala, their chants and music and dances, and the result of all this activity which is spiritual, not material.

To understand why thousands of our fellow citizens came to watch the sand painting take shape between Christmas and New Year's — standing attentively in the museum's North Court day after day as four red-robed monks applied their bodies, prayers and concentration to an evocation of the palace of the Nine Buddhas of Healing and Longevity — would mean we dared to hope that the gift had been received.

The DIA's director of education, Nancy Jones, has been giving such gifts to museum goers since she took over the department five years ago, inviting installation artists, low-rider aficionados, poets and shamans to bring their living worlds of experience to these sanctified galleries.

"I think of these programs as a gift to our community. It's what I and my staff can contribute," she says in phone conversation.

Four years ago, Jones went to visit the Philadelphia Museum, intending to survey the collections there. But when she came upon a similar mandala-in-progress being created by Tibetan monks from the Drepung Loseling monastery, she was "riveted — I didn't even see the rest of the museum."

Her immediate thought was to bring this experience to the DIA as quickly as possible. Then she had a better idea, but one which required some patience.

With the millennium a few years away and anticipating the hysteria that was certain to fill the media, Jones invited the Drepung Loseling monks to usher in the year 2000 with a calming week of activities centered around the power of a mandala. They responded that Detroit would be an excellent site for such a focusing of energies, and plans proceeded. Jewel Heart, the Tibetan spiritual center in Ann Arbor, got involved and folks here in town offered their homes and hospitality to the 11 monks who would bring Buddha to the land of the Bad Boys.

Monday, December 27:

The opening ceremony stuns everybody with its sense of imminence. Dark red robes, golden yellow hats (Buddha called these the colors of simplicity), hair-raising musical instruments, bowls containing marble sand ground up with watercolors — it's all so exciting.

But the Tibetans' chants are immediately followed by a storyteller's loud voice and drum from the balcony over the North Court. It seems that somebody on Jones' staff has scheduled a meditative experience and an exuberant one in the same space. These are living traditions, not exhibits, and they splash over onto each other in a very uncomfortable way.

Oh, the monks are cool with it — they're trained to meditate through anything. But we Yankees flash on memories of Disneyland or Somerset where everything happens on top of everything else. Ah, America the frantic, why can't you just cool it for once?

Tuesday, December 28:

It's quiet today, with the storytellers elsewhere in the building. One of the monks answers questions as the work continues. A young lady asks how long the mandala will remain on view after it's completed. He says, "for a few hours, then it'll be dismantled."

But then, she asks, what's the purpose of making it?

The monk answers, "The purpose is to dismantle it."

Of course, this sounds pretty crazy in a culture that worships stuff. Aren't gifts meant to be kept, possessed?

And yet, what if someone helps you concentrate on the impermanence of things, how everything changes, passes away? And, as a result, the feelings of envy, greed, hatred and frustration that a materialist society fosters in people begin to subside? Can that itself be a gift?

Wednesday, December 29:

Shaddup (pronounced sha-doop), the monk-spokesman, gives a lecture in the Holley Room on the symbolism of the mandala. As in all of the week's events, the space is packed with avid listeners. He describes the work of making the painting, the discipline, breath control and patience required of each artist.

The monks apply the colored sand with a long, slender funnel called a chagbu, scraping its serrated metal length so as to literally vibrate the colors into place. While doing so, each monk chants silently to himself, concentrating on the object of meditation which is simultaneously the mandala and the evocation of the Buddhas that the painting permits.

Thursday, December 30:

It dawns on some of us that we're watching a rare kind of collective work — each person responsible for himself, knowing the minute details of the project without a blueprint, working without conflict, jealousy, irritation or competition. Mamas and papas, kids and old-timers, Buddhists or not, the crowds keep coming, watching and whispering.

At the evening performance of Sacred Music, Sacred Dance, the DIA auditorium overflows with enthusiasm. Shaddup introduces each piece with an explanation: "Invocation of the Forces of Goodness," "A Melody to Sever the Ego Syndrome," the fabulous "Snow Lion Dance," the liberating "Dance of the Skeleton Lords." The program ends with an "Auspicious Song for World Peace." People clearly need to know about this.

Friday, December 31:

On the very brink of 2000, the closing ceremony gathers the forces of healing and compassion, and the monks sweep the completed, glorious mandala (which began four days earlier with a small central dot of sand) from its perimeter back to the center. What results is a pile of ash-gray sand, some of which the monks hand out in little vials to a crowd of impatient hands. We want to know more about Buddhism, but we still need to reach out for things.

Driving over to Belle Isle through the twilight, I remember the words of the Dalai Lama from his recent daybook, The Path to Tranquility: "The essence of all spiritual life is your emotion, your attitude toward others. Once you have pure and sincere motivation, all the rest follows."

The monks lead a procession out to the western tip of the island where they chant, and then spread the remaining sands into the water of the Detroit River. The cold runs through everybody's clothes and no one hangs around afterward.

But the work is done — the city is blessed. A gift of love, peace and understanding awaits us whenever we decide to use it.

George Tysh is Metro Times' arts editor. E-mail him at [email protected]
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