The Tibetan monks spend weeks creating sand mandalas, intricate sand painting of vibrant color and meaning. Once the mandala is complete, the monks then perform a ritual of sweeping up all the grains into a glass jar, wrapping it in a silk cloth, then distributing it in moving water. All the weeks of labor, of painstaking placing sand to represent deities and ancient symbols, swept away and carried across the water. The lesson in it all is that material life is impermanent. You and your things can be swept into a jar.
When my daughter was four we were living in NYC and I heard about a Tibetan festival being held on Long Island. Braving the city traffic, the bridge and Long Island, I drug her out in the cold fall morning to see something she could have cared less about. I was in a crisis of a sort. I had been since uprooting my daughter from Kentucky and moving to a city I knew nothing about with a man I was beginning to discover I knew even less about. Spending a Saturday with Tibetan monks seemed a better alternative to the chaos my life had become.
We arrived at this nondescript house down an equally unassuming road, drove up an impossibly steep driveway to stumble upon Shangri La. There among the apple trees was a Tibetan wonderland. Behind the main house was a large hall, open to the outside and there scattered on the rug on the floor were monks enveloped in orange robes, tied with ruby sashes, with their eyes closed and the most mournful, plaintiff chants emanating from their open mouths.
My daughter, usually a flurry of activity, paused in the doorway with me, holding my hand tightly with her eyes wide with wonder. We stood there, the pair of us, enraptured by these men in their robes, so removed from anything but the harmonious sound that carried us away. In that moment I was standing there with my little girl, whose tiny hand was intertwined in mine. It was just the two of us, experiencing something beautiful and profound and I had blinked away tears at the perfection of it all.
Later, after we were given paper mandalas to color and a small woven bag, we mulled around the grounds, saying hello to our like minded brethren. An elderly woman from Tibet approached us, her smile toothless and her face creased with the beauty of her life. She crouched before my daughter and ruffled her hair, pinching her cheeks. Then she looked up at me, her dark eyes alit with something I could only describe as happiness, and remarked I was surrounded by love. It was one of those remarks you file away.
I was watching something on television the other night and they were explaining the sand mandalas. My little girl, now a beautiful young woman, turned to me and asked me if I remembered that morning we went to the Buddhist temple. I did remember, I told her. I had been thinking about the same thing. That morning, listening to those monks, seeing that old woman. I am surrounded by love. At the time, I thought it meant I had people who loved me. My daughter, my family, my circle of friends and the man I had moved to NYC to be with.
Years later, sitting in my living room, I realized that’s not what she meant at all. I am surrounded by love. I am the carrier of it, not the recipient. I am the one with the open heart who was shocked by the power of loving my daughter, whose heart flew open with the possibility of getting love in return. I am surrounded by love and it’s mine to give with no expectation of it returned. To love a book, a song, a band or a perfect Saturday morning. Love is not restricted to people. It can apply to food, to scents or to soft sheets. You can love this life despite all it’s impermanence. I have built my life mandala, only to have it swept away in a stream, but always return to work on another one. This time more intricate, more colorful than the last. To see for a brief moment, this life in its entirety and then to sweep it up.
I am surrounded by love. And love is all you need.