New York

Kalachakra Sand Mandala

The Museum of Natural History

A sublime form of wisdom was offered this past summer to the thousands visiting the Museum of Natural History in New York, who witnessed the first public presentation of a centuries-old Buddhist tradition of mandala-making. Working steadily for six weeks, three Tibetan monks from the Namgyl Monastery created an intricately detailed sand mandala, one grain of sand at a time. The Kalachakra, or “Wheel of Time,” mandala conveys a wisdom, a way of seeing things, that couldn’t be a more appropriate and timely lesson to our culture. Its beauty, order, and meaning convey both esthetic and spiritual concerns with a oneness of purpose and value that has all but disappeared from Western art. The mandala is a marriage of ornament, symbol, and design, bound together in poetic union. This particular mandala represents a god with four faces and 24 arms who opposes violence and is spiritually dedicated to peace, harmony, and balance. Its geometric pattern functions as a sort of map or guide to the gateways of enlightenment. Seven feet in diameter, and containing a total of 722 deities, the mandala painting progresses in four concentric circles toward the center. The various inner chambers—representing the four elements of fire, water, earth, and wind—of a structurally segmented, fortresslike palace draw us deeper into the mandala through passageways connoting the body, then speech, and ultimately the mind. These lead us finally to the center, where the Buddha sits upon a lotus blossom facing east—suggesting, perhaps, that even in the final attainment of inner peace the path continues. Here, at the nucleus of the sand castle, is the throne of wisdom, the transcendental state of perpetual bliss, an egoless void around which symmetrically orbit the eternal cycles of time and space, the entire pantheon of deities, and the interconnecting spheres of all life on this planet.

Politically, the mandala offers more than idle prayers for peace; it is a tapestry of benevolence, harmony, ego-death, and antimaterialism itself. Philosophically and ideologically, the Tibetan Buddhist ideal of meditational transcendence, self-realization, and cosmic harmony, as revealed through the sand mandala, is a welcome relief from the dead-end topics of most contemporary art. Nowhere were the contrasts between the Eastern and Western approaches to art-making more evident than in the questions that were raised regarding the ritual destruction of the sand mandala. While the materialist soul of the Western museum tried to find a way to preserve the mandala, the Buddhist spirit of the mandala, emphasizing process over product, determined that it would be destroyed upon completion and ceremonially tossed into the Hudson River. The moral: an ecological metaphor for the interdependence of all life in the planetary cycle, and a Buddhist commentary on the impermanence of life and the agony that comes from attachment. Aren’t these the kind of ideas that our art should be raising, and that our culture as a whole should be facing?

Carlo McCormick