Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Fourth Moment

I have always been awed by the sand painting tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Monks, very slowly and with deep meditative awareness, spend days or even weeks creating a piece boldly colored and intricately detailed. Spirituality merges with art in this process called dul~tson~kyil~kho, literally “mandala of colored powders”.

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’s meditative approach is beautifully depicted in the following passage describing the cutting of the thousands of strips of paper needed for the mache.

“At first, each passing of the scissors through paper requires pin~point focus. A wavering of thought produces a tear in the paper that impedes subsequent steps of wetting and applying the strips. Eventually, there is a letting go, a recognition that focused, self~conscious effort is not only unnecessary, but an impediment to smooth progress. A gentle ease sets in and the movement of scissors through paper becomes integrated, taking on an effortless motion, until another disruption of the mind starts the process again~~effort, focus, letting go, ease.”

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.

What a graphic reminder! That which stands beyond time can never be captured and held tightly within it. The paper on which Bouchard’s thesis is printed will age and disintegrate. Her artistic creations, as well as her physical body, are on the same trajectory. The things of this world are indeed fleeting.

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.

Blessings on your very own mandala in process~~it is, indeed, uniquely yours and a thing of beauty!

Loanne Marie

PS. I highly recommend Sarah's thesis, especially for those of you who are artists. More lovely words on the blending of art~making with meditation, lots of luscious quotes, and several evocative pictures. Her thesis can be purchased here~~The Fourth Moment. And you can learn more about Sarah, the artist, on her website


Sarah Bouchard said...

Thank you for this beautiful inclusion, Loanne.

Loanne Marie said...

Oh, and thank you for the concept of the fourth moment, its elucidation in your thesis, and all your hard, deep, and transformative work! It does the world good!

Anonymous said...

This brought to mind the Native American sand paintings so I looked it up: not a static object, but a spiritual, living, being to be treated with great respect... they are sacred and within a 12 hour period are destroyed. Used in healing process it is then thought to have taken on the sickness.
Thanks for making me do a little research!

Loanne Marie said...

Oh, you are quite welcome! It seems the Tibetans and the Native Americans have something in common beyond creating works of incredible richness from similar materials through a process of internal stillness and reverence. The Tibetans, too, generally create their amazing mandalas with an eye toward healing. I've never seen a reference to their use in an individual's healing, but planetary healing is clearly one goal~~in a goalless sort of way, of course! And a mandala's destruction and release into water is seen as symbolic of the release of all forms of suffering, a washing away into that which is beyond all suffering.

Thanks for writing!

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Leia Marie