This week at the College of Saint Rose’s Interfaith Sanctuary in Albany, New York, a few blocks from home, Buddhist monk Lama Karma Chopal is creating a sand mandala. Lama Chopal is one of fewer than 100 artists qualified to create true mandalas, according to the Venerable Losang Samten, who made the first public sand mandala in the West. Lama Chopal, who became a monk at age 11, according to the college, studied Buddhist art with renowned artist Sonam Nyima for a decade, and completed his monastic training in India and Nepal. He created mandalas at the College of Saint Rose in 2010 and 2018.
A historical Buddhist tradition, a mandala, which means “circle” in Sanskrit, is “a cosmic map of the universe meant to guide individuals to enlightenment.” This week, visitors to the interfaith sanctuary at the college have been able to witness the mandala being created throughout the day. A meditative mindfulness is maintained during the creation of the mandala, which entails dozens of hours of carefully placing multicolored sand in an intricate, bright pattern on a horizontal surface.
On April 1st, at 4:00PM, a closing ceremony for the sand mandala will be held. The mandala will be “swept up and poured into a flowing body of water embodying the central Buddhist theme of impermanence and symbolizing the transitory nature of life expressed in many faiths” according to the college.
Witnessing the creation of the mandala, in the words of Joan Horgan, director of spiritual life at Saint Rose was an “opportunity to quiet our hearts, remember that which is sacred, and come together as a community” at a time when a global pandemic, with war and dissension, dominate the news. I would add that witnessing Lama Chopal and student helpers create the mandala was a way to slow down and mindfully savor the passing of time.
This visit to the interfaith sanctuary at the college also brought to mind the recent news, reported earlier this year in the New York Times, that Thich Nhat Hanh, “a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who was one of the world’s most influential Zen masters, spreading messages of mindfulness, compassion and nonviolence, died at his home in the Tu Hieu Temple in Hue, Vietnam at the age of 95.”
One of the first books reviewed on this website was Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. Lilian Cheung’s Savor, Mindful Eating, Mindful Life. With the scientific expertise of Dr. Cheung, a nutritionist and researcher at the Harvard University School of Public Health, and Thich Nhat Hanh’s experience in teaching mindfulness, Savor addresses the problem of obesity that is spreading across the globe with more than a billion people worldwide, overweight.
Savor makes a strong case that “mindless eating” is a driver of weight gain and obesity, while acknowledging that eating less and exercising more is “easier said than done.” The mindful eating of an apple is described in a passage on how to eat an apple that is memorable and reason alone to read this very worthwhile “practical guide” to eating mindfully and attaining a healthier weight and a more satisfying life. All of the qualities of the apple are savored: its sweetness, aroma, freshness, juiciness, and crispness by becoming “fully aware of the present moment.”
Our review of Savor also references Thich Nhat Hanh’s Old Path White Clouds which includes the story of the first teaching of the Buddha, the morning after attaining enlightenment. The focus is on, not an apple, but a tangerine: “Looking deeply, one can see ten thousand things, which have made the tangerine possible. Looking at a tangerine a person who practices awareness can see all the wonders of the universe and how all things interact with one another.”
In the recent book review by contributor B. A. Nilsson on this website of Chef José Andrés’ Vegetables Unleashed, A Cookbook, the case for eating fruits and vegetables is made by Chef Andrés in a way very similar to Thich Nhat Hanh’s focus on eating an apple or a tangerine. But in Andrés’ example, the focus is on a pineapple.
“Fruits and vegetables are sexy in a way that a chicken breast never can be. Think about it: What happens when you bite into a piece of meat? The first five seconds are kind of interesting, but then you spend another twenty seconds chewing something that has no flavor. Now think about a pineapple. As soon as your fork hits the flesh, its scent fills the air like a wonderful perfume. Then you bite down: juicy, sweet, and acidic, with notes of passion fruit and citrus and mystery that linger long after you stop chewing.”
Mindfulness of time and taste brings to the surface the abundance of life, especially needed at this moment in human history. Thanks to the interfaith sanctuary at the College of Saint Rose for this reminder.
(Frank W. Barrie, 3/31/22)