56 pages, perfectbound
Five weeks should be enough time to overcome all obstacles and paint the dance mandala. I am a volunteer at Tara Mandala, a Tibetan Buddhist retreat center, located near Pagosa Springs, Colorado. I glue together several lengths of a building material called tyvec and then cut the tyvec to fit the circular dance platform. I start at the center and paint outward, laying down a coat of color—Jade Green, Royal Blue, Medallion Yellow, Summer Red—straightening the lines, cutting the darker colors into the lighter in increasingly larger circles. I follow my plan. I’m adding color to another ring, now, cutting in the fifth ring, the green against the red, roughly one hundred feet of curved line along the outside, when it starts to rain, and the rain makes the paint run, and I have to roll up the mandala. There’s not much I can do but head for cover. When the storm subsides, I unroll the mandala and look at the splattered mess—blue and yellow making a yucky green, red and yellow making an awful orange. This is not my plan.
This is a lesson in impermanence. When it dries, I’ll repaint it. And it dries, and I repaint it. And I’m proud of my work. The next morning, after our work meeting, I take my teacher, Tsultrim, up the hill to show her the mandala, the luxurious colors, the clear lines. I’m gesticulating with both hands as we crest the hill and see the mandala scrunched up in the middle of the platform with a coat of frost still glistening in the morning sunlight. We approach quietly and look at this tossed and twisted agony of a shape. I can see the paint is cracked and peeling, and my eyes well with tears when Tsultrim says, “You’ll just have to start over.”
Yes, Marpa. And Milarepa puts his rocks back where he got them and begins another building. I stretch out the mandala and put down more rocks around the edge and get out my pocket knife and start scraping the torn paint and sanding the edges and filling the gaps with caulk and coating the patches with primer and repainting the color and making the lines clean.
At the next work meeting, I report that in another day, if the weather holds, I’ll be back to where I was three weeks earlier. The weather does hold, and I paint my way into the outer rings. Then, one morning on my way to practice, I look down the hill and realize the mandala is missing. I run down the hill to the dance platform and discover an upturned can of paint still dripping through the boards and the mandala and the plastic milk container with the other cans of paint in a heap in a ditch by the pond. I pull it up and find another mess of spilled paint and twisted fabric.
Yes, Marpa, I know, put the rocks back and begin again. This must be an important test of some kind. Tsultrim suggests I do the Long Protectors’ Practice. The Dharmapalas, the mountain gods, are unhappy with me and don’t want me disturbing things in this location. I had better get myself aligned with the forces at play if I’m ever going to finish this project. So, I sit by our stupa, a reliquary, and burn juniper and do the practice every day. “Eight classes, all-powerful guardians, I speak to you, please accept these clouds of desirable objects, filling the sky! Magnify all that is wholesome, pacify all that is bad! Be of service day and night and fulfill my wishes, easily, swiftly!”
I spread out the mandala and secure it with strips of lath, which is what I should have done in the first place. Only there’s no should. I’m learning, and now I know, and now it’s done, and I clean up the mess and start again. The mandala is covered with patches of white paint and looks apoplectic when Tsultrim returns from a trip to Santa Fe.
She looks at my work and says, “It doesn’t seem to have changed.”
I say, “Yes, Tsultrim, it has changed; believe me, it has changed. I just haven’t made any headway.”
I clean up the patches and straighten out the lines. I must have painted nearly a mile of lines by now. The paint is drying, and the mandala is finally stable. I’ve been doing the protectors practice, and the mountain gods seem peaceful. I have put a heavy rock, shaped like a heart, in the center to keep the occasional breeze from making the mandala plane and take off for the wide, blue yonder, but the rock has scraped the surface of the white paint. I’m repainting it just as heavy clouds roll over Ekajati Peak.
It doesn’t rain right away, but in the middle of the night it breaks loose with flashes of lightning and blasts of thunder. I know it’s raining hard because there’s a river running through my tent, blowing in from the unprotected side. And the mandala? I don’t want to think about it. I give it a quick glance on my way to practice. That’s enough. I can see something is wrong. It seems to be covered with a misty vapor.
After practice, I go down to the platform to sweep off the rain and do a set of Qigong exercises. The white paint from the center circle has spread over half the colors and is still floating in the pools of rainwater. Yes, Marpa, I know, nothing lasts. Clean it up, and chill, dude. I swab up most of the paint and let the rest dry. It only requires a light coat of each color to bring back the luster. If the weather permits, I’ll be on track in a day or so. I’m three-fourths done, and there’s still a week before the arrival of Namkai Norbu Rinpoche and Prima Mi.
More rain. I rush off to find a tarp. I don’t want a repeat of the last fiasco, so I put the tarp over the wet paint, not noticing the tar on the flip side of the tarp. When I pull the tarp up after the rain has subsided, there are black splotches scattered over most of my near perfectly painted center designs. Oh well, this cleans up with gasoline, which lifts the tar but also lifts some of the soft paint and leaves yellowish smudges. I add another coat of paint. This painting is beginning to have a lot of character, a texture and patina like an old masterpiece from so many repairs.
Kim, a Dharma sister, helps me paint the black lines that divide the mandala into sections. We’ve laid down two strips of masking tape leaving about an inch for the black lines. We’ve painted two lines, and I’m laying down the third set of tapes, when we discover if you pull up the tape, the paint comes with it. Kim is beside herself. It’s a sweltering day on the platform, and we’re blowing it. Kim is pulling her hair. I try to soothe her, but she is inconsolable. I decide that it’s best to shut up.
Yelling obscenities and tears bursting from her eyes, Kim grabs a brush and paints all the lines without any tape, one after another, one brush width, right on, no error, straight as I could want them. What might have taken all day takes 20 minutes, and all I have to do is patch a few spots, retouch the lines, and were done. Voil‡.
Rinpoche arrives the next day, and there is not a cloud in the sky. ”Bene, bene,” he says, “very hard work, very good. Bene.” Prima Mi is with him, and she will teach the Vajra Dances. She looks at the mandala and says that it is very beautiful.
There are twelve of us plus Prima Mi. Nine women and three men will learn to dance The Dance of the Liberation of the Six Lokas and The Dance of Three Vajras. These dances are not performances. They are Dzogchen meditation practices, which integrate sound and movement. Prima Mi is not sure this is going to work. She has never taught these practices under such conditions.
She wants to start early, but in the morning there is frost on the mandala. This melts, and then we mop up the water. We have to dance barefooted because our shoes scrape the paint and our socks get soaked. Soon, it’s too hot for bare feet on the dark colors; the winds whip us; the lightening cracks on the hilltops; and we’re not at all sure we can survive the elements. But we are unanimous we want to learn these dances.
I bring a box covered in black plastic to house our shoes, so they won’t get wet, and I bring a clean tarp to huddle under when it pores. Others bring water bottles and incense and a tape recorder. A crystal ball is put in the center of the mandala to represent the Dharmakaya, the absolute. It’s perfect, and we’re captive. Wilderness, fresh air, and a heaven of wildflowers surround us. No distractions obstruct the path. We have the mandala beneath us. We are ready to enter the immutable space of Vajrasattva and purify the six realms of beings, leaving our worldly cares behind and liberating the God Realms, the Realms of the Asuras, the Humans, the Animals, the Hungry Ghosts and the Hell Realms. And so, our training begins.