Mandala is a Sanskrit word loosely translated as circle, though its meaning is much richer than that word may convey in English. A circle symoblizes wholeness, eternity, All That Is in perfect balance. A mandala then becomes a symbolic representation of life itself, a sort of cosmic diagram. Each shape and ancient symbol embedded within the finished whole is rich with spiritual significance. But so is the process of its creation. The monks’ complete absorption is a teaching in itself and illustrates the Buddhist concept of the fourth moment.
We are all familiar with the division of time into three parts~~past, present and future. The fourth moment, however, refers to those states of consciousness that stand outside time all together. Ken McLeod, Tibetan Buddhist, teacher and text translator, describes it as an “open awareness that is the capacity to know clearly and respond appropriately to what arises in experience.”
When we are in this state, all seems particularly vibrant, fresh, flawless. We expand beyond our everyday awareness and are saturated by a sense of timelessness. Such states often come through deep meditation and prayer, though we can fall into this exquisite awareness within the ordinary moments of our lives~~while, for example, immersed in nature or a loved one’s eyes, engaged in a mundane household chore, or absorbed in a creative endeavor.
The fourth moment is a term new to me, a gift from multimedia artist Sarah Bouchard. In her MFA thesis by that name, she describes an artistic process that emerges out of a silent meditative awareness. “I devote time and space to witness the mind at work,” Bouchard writes, while “…allowing each movement of the hand to be as considered as a Buddhist’s intake of breath.”
Bouchard walks the reader through the creation of a large~scale installation at the Masonic Temple in Portland, Maine. When completed, hundreds of spheres, individually crafted of vellum and paper mache, will be internally lit and suspended within the grand Corinthian Hall.
Bouchard beautifully characterizes art work that arises from this sort of contemplative awareness as “an experience of eternity in bodily form." And that brings us to another teaching from the Tibetan sand painting tradition~~an instruction on impermanence. The final painting is ritualistically destroyed soon after completion, with the spent sand often released into a body of flowing water.
Each one of us can, though, take the grains of sand that are the stuff of our individual lives and consciously craft from them a unique piece of art, boldly colored and intricately detailed. And when our time is done and our mandala complete, perhaps we can smile as all those varied grains of colored sand, on loan to us for a short while, are swept back into a larger flow.