“I tell my generation that we were born during the darkest period in our long history. There is a big challenge and it is very unfortunate. But if there is a challenge then there is an opportunity to face it, an opportunity to demonstrate our will and our determination. So from that viewpoint I think that our generation is fortunate.” — His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama
This is a chaotic world. We seek solutions to calm us down, to ground us, whether the beach, a cocktail, or a mile-wide meteor crater, formed 50,000 years ago when a small space rock, disintegrating not quite fast enough, sped through our atmosphere at 26,000 miles per hour, slamming into our planet and throwing millions of pounds of earth rock onto the surrounding terrain. Somewhere in this story of a sudden and violent occurrence resulting in a tranquil, permanent symbol of our impermanence lies a lesson.
Last week during a snowstorm, I planned a quiet afternoon in a hotel in Santa Fe, New Mexico, phoning room service for a cup of tea and extra wood for the fire. Within half an hour, the panicked hotel employee, who failed to open the flue before striking the match, stood on a chair waving a towel at the screaming fire alarm; members of security, engineering, maintenance and hotel management evacuated much of the third floor and descended into my no longer quiet space with walkie-talkies, fire extinguishers and other equipment; and snow flurries accompanied by an icy wind joined the dense smoke in the room.
The phone rang.
“Get over here now,” said my husband George, who explored the city in what we southerners call a blizzard. “It’s the most unbelievable thing I’ve ever seen.”
“Impossible,” I shouted between coughs and smoky tears before hanging up the phone.
Familiar with these summons, I assumed that whatever it was —- the distant cousin from New Iberia, the killer jalapeno poppers, or the bronze statue of John Wayne —- could wait. Nothing compared to the mess before me.
Perhaps the real chaos, the most dangerous discord, lies within our own minds. It exists within a panicked room service waiter convinced of his termination, a panicked hotel manager anticipating guest complaints, and a panicked guest (me) taking blame for the accident with hopes of saving a man’s job.
At last the room emptied of people. I poured myself a cup of lukewarm tea and awaited the fire department, on its way to replace the alarm.
Within minutes I heard a knock at the door.
“What the…?” said my friend Barbara, open-mouthed, as she entered the freezing, smoky room.
“No matter what it is, I’m not going,” I groaned, curling up under the comforter. “Besides, I’m waiting for the fire department.”
“But George says you have to come. It’s Tibetan sand painting!”
A meteor hit my brain and the clutter dissipated. I grabbed my coat, ear muffs, wool hat, scarf, rubber soled boots, gloves and mittens and headed into the storm, walking ten blocks to view an ancient tradition.
George met me at the door:
“Listen, in case he asks, I told the guy over there, the one that speaks English, that you met the Dalai Lama.”
Drowning once again in mental chaos, I stared at my husband:
“You lied …. to a monk …. about the Dalai Lama .... and about me? I can’t go in! What will I say to him? I can’t lie, much less to a holy man about the spiritual leader of his people. What possessed you?”
“It was easy; it made him really happy!”
Hoping to see the painting, I assessed the situation. Barbara agreed to run interference with the monk.
Inside I watched the Drepung Loseling monks, lifelong students of Buddhism and the alleviation of suffering, bend their backs over a magnificent sand painting five feet in diameter.
Using metal funnels called chakpur, the monks tap the sand, grain by grain, onto the intricate design, only to destroy it on New Year’s Eve. They pour their picture into the Santa Fe River, where the waters disperse the compassion and love of a symbolic painting’s peaceful creators throughout the world.
As I understand it, the bright-colored mandala represents the universe; its creation in sand and its inevitable destruction represent the impermanence of life.
Through metaphor and basic teachings, whether we call it Buddhism or not, we have the opportunity to contemplate the impermanence of life through a mandala or a meteor’s crater. We could embrace exercises in compassion, perhaps imagining that the thousands of people we pass at the airport or see at the Saints Game are our brothers and sisters, all of whom we are pleased to see, with genuine concern for their welfare and happiness. We also could embrace the insults of others as an opportunity to explore kindness in the face of painful personal circumstances.
These methods are difficult. They are the lifelong challenges of Buddhist monks, the goal of their studies, and the reason for the genuine smiles on the faces of a displaced and persecuted people.
May you and yours know happiness in the New Year-
Wendy Rodrigue (a.k.a. Dolores Pepper)
With special thanks to Ira Seret of Santa Fe, New Mexico and the Jindag Foundation, which hosted the Drepung Loseling Monastery and The Mystical Arts of Tibet
For a related essay and photographs, see the post “A Winter Adventure: Trapped in Gallup and Freed by a Meteor’s Crater”