A BLESSING AND A CURSE
One summer afternoon in the 1980s
when the air was fetid and muggy
and the city streets filthy and miserable,
I impulsively looked for refuge
in the American Museum of Natural History,
that storehouse of human knowledge
of what lies within our universe and ourselves,
with its millions of artifacts and specimens,
the accumulations of generations
of explorers among isolated peoples
and unpeopled regions, of the unrecorded past
collected, investigated, and placed into context.
I don’t remember how I ended up in the room
where the Buddhist monks were making a Mandala
by pouring colored sands from little bottles
to form intricate patterns. They worked their designs
on a tray on a table in the middle of the room,
while viewers watched and cameras recorded their moves.
Three men with shaved heads in saffron robes:
one was older, and two were young. As soon
as I entered, I felt their peace and wanted to stay.
One of the younger monks explained
how the museum had invited them to New York
from their monastic exile in northern India.
They carried the images they made in their heads.
The Mandala would take two months to finish.
“And then?” I asked. He smiled, and his gold tooth
winked at me. “We will take the Mandala
to the Hudson River and offer it to the water.
The museum wants to preserve it.
They will use sprays to fix the sands,
but they won’t work. It will be given back;
the cycle must continue.”
I remember the lightness in his voice,
the rippling muscles of his lifted arms,
a grace that seemed without sex, outside of time.
I was older than he, though still apprentice
to my art. I thought of the beautiful designs
of the Wheel of Life, their inner meanings
and the interplay of colors.
It seemed tragic to me, but not to him.
His inner equilibrium wasn’t disturbed.
It mattered not to him that nothing lasted,
and I counted it a blessing and a curse.