The woman who greets me in the foyer of the Dhargyey Buddhist Centre smiles and puts her fingers to her lips. She leads me into a large room with high, ornate plaster ceilings where a man is bent at work over a table. It looks for a moment as if he is painting with a fine brush. In fact he’s rubbing the serrations of a slim brass conical tube with the bone handle of an old carving knife. The tube is filled with sand the way a pen is filled with ink, and from its nib flows a stream of brightly coloured marble sand. Tibetan lama, Venerable Geshe Losang Dhonyoe is making a Medicine Buddha Mandala, a healing gift to the people of Dunedin.
Sometimes several monks work together to create a mandala, but Geshe is creating this mandala on his own. In preparation, he grinds and dyes the marble sand to various grades of fineness. He measures and draws the mandala’s essential outlines. The template is ancient, and must be reproduced accurately to ensure the proportional harmony of the mandala as it grows. Mistakes are erased, even if this means erasing hours, even days, of work. And this is hard work. Geshe labours daily for a fortnight, building the mandala from the centre outwards, growing it grain by grain. The close focus, the sustained postures and the repetitive tapping are all strains on the body. Geshe indicates his neck, his shoulder, his thumb, his eyes, although even as he does so, he smiles. Smiling seems to go with the territory here.
The mandala’s images include fish, lotus flowers, umbrellas and – essentially for the Medicine Mandala – eight nectar vases of healing medicine, one for each of the eight Medicine Buddhas. Geshe shows me a small statue from which many of the images are drawn. With no training in the Buddhist tradition, I do not understand the symbolism in any conscious way. Yet the sheer beauty of the images draws me in, as does the process by which Geshe makes each symbol manifest in the mandala. There is something dancelike in this making, a blend and balance of strength and frailty, will and grace.
Unlike a painting, the sand mandala has a three-dimensional quality, something like a luxurious carpet, although it’s more than this. When I crouch and view the mandala from a lower angle it becomes a landscape. I find myself wandering in a vast moraine, surrounded by shimmering mountain ranges.
Watching Geshe at work is deeply calming. He is focused on the mandala, but gently so. He notices each visitor, offers tea, answers questions. In Tibet, he explains, doctors begin their working day with 30 minutes of chanting. The important thing, he says, is the quality of one’s attention. His advice for health practitioners is simple (and also difficult): be with each patient; attend fully.
A Medicine Mandala, once viewed, is said to impress itself on the inner vision, a potent and healing reminder of its creation, meaning and beauty. A potent reminder, too, of scale and impermanence. As I write this, Geshe is bending over his work, pouring the final grains that will complete the mandala, which will remain at the temple for one more week, on display for anyone who would like to view it. On 18 June, the Medicine Mandala will be dissolved, and its blessed grains of sand taken to the ocean and dispersed on the waves.
Sue Wootton is co-editor of Corpus.
The Medicine Mandala can be viewed at the Dhargyey Buddhist Centre, 22 Royal Terrace, Dunedin, New Zealand: 9-noon and 2-5.30 pm daily, up to and including the dissolution ceremony at 1.30pm on Sunday 18 June 2017.