So often the reason we do something turns out to not be the real reason we were moved to do it. It turned out the real reason I’d gone to the decidedly un-festive birthday party was not to celebrate my friend who was fighting with her girlfriend, but to run into a former student who said, “I just came from seeing the sand mandala at Lucy’s El Adobe.”
Apparently, a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks was spending seventeen days in November assembling a sacred mandala out of colored sand in the back of a Mexican restaurant in Hollywood. Lucy’s is famous as a favorite hangout of Linda Ronstadt in the 1970s; she and then-Governor Jerry Brown, whom she was dating, were often spotted there.
Although my contact with Rose was growing more infrequent, I invited her to go see it with me, certain she’d be interested. We went the next night, day fourteen of the ritual, wending our way through the main dining room where couples in booths ate corns chips and sipped margaritas, heading toward a second dining room off to the side. There, at the back of the room, beside an empty, tiled fountain surrounded by plastic plants, was a medium-size table on which the mandala was being constructed. It appeared to be almost finished, its patterns precisely delineated, the elaborate maze of concentric circles filled in with vividly colored sand.
The mandala is a geometric model of unity that shows the interconnectedness of all things. Traditionally constructed of crushed colored stone, in modern times the sand mandala is made with plain white stones dyed with opaque inks and pulverized. There are many different mandala designs, each encoding a set of Buddhist teachings and often depicting specific deities, but a mandala always includes a central point, a square within a circle, and the design is always symmetrical. Although Westerners may regard them as artistic creations, within Tibetan Buddhism mandalas are part of sacred practice and each phase of their construction is accompanied by elaborate ceremony.
By the time Rose and I arrived, three monks in robes of gold and saffron and scarlet had knocked off work for the day. They milled about for a while, and I wondered if they were getting ready to leave. Instead, after a time they settled themselves on a low ledge and began to chant, punctuating their droning words with percussive bursts of bells.
Rose and I took our places in two heavy wooden chairs facing the monks. I closed my eyes to better listen, to allow my agitations—with the traffic, with dinner, with wanting Rose to once more be in love with me—to slip away, to let the sounds calm and recalibrate my mind.
Every so often my eyes would flit open and glance at her. I wanted to make sure she was engaged, not antsy to leave. Her eyes were closed, too, and they remained so, as far as I could tell. She seemed content, and I admonished myself for being more concerned with her experience than with my own.
A handout described the purpose of this particular mandala, the Rig’Dzin Dub-Pa Mandala. Its patterns represent the gathering of intrinsic awareness holders (“Vidyaharas,” in Sanskrit), and is sometimes referred to as the “Mandala of the Lama.” Tibetans believe that gazing at a mandala awakens positive qualities within the viewer and causes these qualities to grow.
Although their designs represent interconnectedness, a sand mandala also symbolizes the Buddhist belief in the transitory nature of all matter. In three days, this mandala—as it is with all sand mandalas—will be dismantled by the same monks who assembled it; they will sweep away the intricate patterns of color to remind us of the illusion of beauty, the impermanence of all things. The sand may be distributed among the people who attend the closing ceremony; such sand is considered to contain blessings for healing. Or it may be collected in a jar, wrapped in silk and transported to a river, where the sand is released back into nature. The same materials are never used twice.
A key cause of suffering, Buddha taught, is our unwillingness to accept impermanence. We cling to what has been—states of mind, states of matter—unable to bow to the inevitability of change and dissolution. After seventeen years of companionship, Rose could not bear to allow her beloved dog Chaya to pass from this life. I cannot bear to accept that the love Rose once felt for me has changed into some other feeling, no less sincere, perhaps, but looking nothing like what once was between us. As the monks continue their sacred music, I offer a prayer to be released from this karma of craving, of clinging. Let me dissolve, I importune, like sand, let me be swept away.
What Rose prays for this evening I cannot say. After a time, we both seem to share the wordless understanding that we are ready to go. We exit the restaurant, heading back toward the street full of neon and traffic, walking once more through the room where diners hover over their plates of carne asada, their Cuervo Gold, as if nothing at all were going on in the next room, as if there were no other room at all than the one in which they consume their evening meal.