Life's lessons

by GREG GARRISON, The Birmingham News, December 17, 2004

Birmingham, AL (USA) -- As a Tibetan Buddhist monk shook out grains of colored sand from a metal funnel, creating a quilt-like pattern on a slate table, a bird repeatedly flew up to the third floor window of the Birmingham office building, looking in.

The dark gray-crested tufted titmouse bobbed up and down, and fluttered on the window ledge, as if admiring the monk's handiwork.

"It's amazing," said Lama Tenzin Deshek. He recognized his feathered admirer. "He was here last year, watching me."

Buddhists believe in reincarnation, with the soul moving sometimes from one species to another. "Maybe in my previous life, I was a bird, or maybe my mother was a bird," he said.

Buddhism is based on the teachings, or Dharma, of the Indian philosopher Siddhartha Gautama, who lived about 483 B.C. and is known as the Buddha. The Buddha's essential teaching is that suffering persists from life to life and one can only escape into nirvana by achieving perfection through mental and moral self-purification.

Deshek wore a green work smock over his burgundy and gold robe as he worked on the elaborate sand painting, called a mandala.

Mandala means "circle" in Sanskrit. He began by drawing the design outline with chalk on a slate tabletop. When he completed the chalk design, he began trickling out the colored sand, carefully placing it on the pattern. "It's very easy to make a mistake," Deshek said.

One misplaced cough would ruin the delicate patterns of sand.

He did a mandala last year and a visitor couldn't resist touching it, not realizing it would disrupt the design.

"She stuck her finger in it; she just couldn't believe it was sand," said Leslie Bradburn, a member of the Losel Maitri Tibetan Buddhist Center, where Deshek serves as spiritual leader to a 50-member congregation. "He had to repair it."

Back at Namgyal Monastery in India, where Deshek learned the art of making sand mandalas, sometimes moths would land on the table, spinning their wings and ruining hours of work.

Usually requires 4

Usually mandala construction requires four monks, working from all four sides of the table, Deshek said. He has worked alone this week, eight hours a day since Saturday, creating a mandala that represents Chenresig, the Buddha of Compassion. The mandala radiates outward in the shape of an imaginary palace with four gates.

Creating the mandala is an act of purification for Tibetan monks, who meditate as they create it, he said. On Sunday it will be dismantled, then poured into the Cahaba River. Creating a beautiful work of art, then destroying it, shows the transitory nature of the world.