Moira McLaughlin, Grass Valley, California, 1.18.14
Almost every year since 2000, the Sierra Friends of Tibet have sponsored the Gaden Shartse Monastery Monks' visit to our town, Grass Valley, California. The Tibetan monks, now exiled in India, stay for a few weeks and present lectures, offer blessings, visit schools, and share their traditional arts, the most thrilling of which is the construction and dissolution of a sand mandala.
Since I moved here in 2009, I've wanted to see them. The last three years, due to visa issues, they couldn't come to the States. This year, they returned, and I finally made it.
Even before their arrival, I'd been focused on their visit. As I've written before, I'm working on a series of dox-ZENs, 12 pen and ink images of Darby painted on the pages of a Zen Buddhist book. The pieces are an exploration of the Buddhist concept that the mind is an endless series of three processes: craving, acting, and discontentment.
They're also a meditation on impermanence and dealing with imperfection in the wake of the crippling grief and subsequent creative block I experienced after Darby's death. And, they're an exercise in detachment, something I struggle with as an artist.
I thought I could learn a lot from witnessing the life cycle of a sand mandala. I thought it would inform my work somehow. And, I kept wondering if there was a dog angle, a way to relate it Dog Art Today and share it with you. Remember, I'm working on alignment this year.
Also, you should know that the venue for the sand mandala is the chapel of a former convent and orphanage built in 1865 for orphans of gold miners. It's now a bohemian warren of artists' apartments (and a whole other blog post).
When I entered the chapel, my Catholic reflexes kicked in. Where were the pews, the holy water, the hierarchy? Should I genuflect? Who's in charge?
People were milling about, taking photos, chatting, and, most alarming, walking up on the altar, underneath the stained glass window of Jesus, and putting things on a folding table -- knick knacks, photos, and statues. Seriously, they were putting tchotchkes on the altar.
I had a hard time breathing.
Especially since the monks working on the mandala are right there. Yes, they are cordoned off. But, you can basically look over their shoulders and watch.
After I took a few photos, I went over to the gift shop table, where Tibetan goods such as prayer flags, pillows, and bells are for sale to benefit the monks, and chatted with a woman volunteer.
"Um, what are the people putting on the altar?" I asked.
"Well, people bring in personal items and place them there. And the monks will bless them," she said.
I looked confused I guess, but I was just trying to absorb it.
"For example," she said, "Last year a woman brought in the ashes of her dog..."
I burst into tears.
She stopped talking, reached out her hand, and started rubbing my shoulder.
Now, I was verging on sobs, the "ugly cry" as Oprah calls it. She kept rubbing my shoulder and nodding her head. No words.
"I've...lived here for five years...for five years I've wanted to see the monks. And I am working on an art project about my deceased dog...and I can't believe you just said that," I said.
She nodded. Kept rubbing.
"Does this happen to people?" I wailed. I was mortified, but no one seemed to notice.
"You know," she said, "The monks are going to be here for a few weeks. Perhaps you could bring in your art and they could bless it."
Then the bells rang, and everyone found a seat for a lecture and the blessing.
One of the monks talked about sacred texts and keeping them off the floor, providing them a place of honor they deserved. They threw rice and flower petals. One walked around the chapel and sprinkled us with water. They blessed us and all the sacred objects on the table. And they performed a form of chanting called throat singing. I thought about Darby.
There was a Q + A.
It was beautiful. Open. Welcoming. And then, in what seemed like 20 minutes but I have no idea, it was over.
As I gathered my bag, I noticed that the kind woman volunteer was sitting in front of me. She stood up, looked around, and found me.
She came over and said, "I was thinking about your dog and your art, and you don't need to bring anything in. They were here. They were blessed already, because you are here."
"I was thinking exactly the same thing," I said. I smiled -- really beamed. "Thank you," I said. "Thank you. I feel better."
I left the chapel as the monks got back to work.
If you live in Nevada County, you can see the monks from 10am - 6 pm at St. Joseph's Cultural Center, 410 Church St., Grass Valley, CA 95945.
The dissolution of the sand mandala ceremony takes place on Saturday, February 1, 2014 at 7 pm.
For more information visit Sierra Friends of Tibet.