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Order to chaos: the lesson of the mandala

Chris Marchand

Chris Marchand served as editor of the Dryden Observer from August 2009 to April 2018.

For people who are driven by deadlines, it can be exceedingly hard to attain a state of mind in which one is ‘present in the moment’.

How does one suspend thought, let words, and ideas pass through the mind without engaging them. Take a minute and try it. It’s not easy to simply ‘be’.

I observed the Venerable Losang Samten for an hour before we spoke. In that time he spent only 15 minutes skillfully adding grains of coloured sand to the mandala design in the Open Roads Library. The rest of the time he spent interacting with onlookers and letting kids try the chak-pur, the hornlike metal tools used to add the sand to a mandala with precise control.

Interviewing a Buddhist monk is not the best approach to understanding the art form, the religion and the practice of meditation.

The real learning experience begins when the tape recorder is shut off.

He began asking me questions about my life, the places I’ve lived. He discovered we share a longing for mountains that has shaped our identities. For him the Himalaya of his native Northern India — a place he journeys to every year braving bad roads during the spring melt. For myself, the steep ridges of the East Kootenay where as a younger man, I juggled great risk and reward on a pair of skis. In these places we both found a way of life — his monastic, mine hedonistic.

He probed me incessantly about skiing, a kind of Socratic inquiry I was keen to oblige. He asked about the qualities that one would find most favourable in snow. I spoke with zealous conviction on the mechanics of speed and flotation in deep powder snow, of the weightless levitation that overcomes you at the top of a turn. I tried to describe a meeting of physics and spirituality that becomes an obsession to people.

“And what are you thinking about when you ski?” he asked.

“Nothing,” I replied. “It’s not really about thinking.”

“Aha,” he leaned back in his chair. “That’s how I feel when I make Mandala.”

The lesson of the sand mandala — a thing of great beauty and order which is swept into a pile at an appointed time and toted down to the river to rejoin the chaos of nature. It is a brash and profound statement on how we struggle to accept impermanence — the constant change that reshapes our community, our schools and our bodies as we grow older.

To accept such entropy into our lives is among the most difficult spiritual tasks facing anyone.

For Open Roads and Riverview schools, this lesson of impermanence could be particularly poignant for former students who will soon see the dismantling of the former Riverview School.

For others the lesson takes on other meanings. The next day, my mother — who has just completed seven of eight chemotherapy treatments in her battle against breast cancer — posted a picture on Facebook, her own bald head gleaming next to Losang’s bald head.

I find it a bit remarkable that two members of the same family would seek out an audience with this gracious man — to bask in his calm patience and search for a way to find some peace with the future, to master our fears and embrace the chaos.

Chris Marchand


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