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Of Buddhism, mandalas and 'House of Cards'

Madhuri Banerjee http://MadhuriBanerjee

Updated: May 21, 2015, 1:59 PM IST
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I was watching Season 3 of ‘House of Cards’ when I saw Buddhist monks in episode 7 making a mandala.
According to the Berzin Archives and Wikipedia, “A Mandala is Sanskrit for circle. It is a spiritual and ritual symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism, representing the Universe. Mandalas often exhibit radial balance.

The sand mandalas are unique to Tibetan Buddhism and are supposed to give purification and healing. A great spiritual leader chooses the mandala to be created. Then Monks create a drawing from memory and begin to fill it in with colourful sand. Grains of sand are carefully placed along the drawing with funnels, tubes, and scrapers over a few days, weeks or months. As the monks do this, they recite sacred chants to the divine spirits to meditative music. According to Buddhist scripture, sand mandalas transmit positive energy to the environment and to the people who view them. Once it’s completed, the mandala is blessed and the sand is swept away, first broken in half with grey sand and then slowly from outward to in, sweeping the sand into a mesh of grey particles and then it is disposed of in water in what’s called a Dissolution Ceremony.

At its base, the ritual of constructing and dismantling a mandala represents the transitory nature of life, the way things can be at once present and then removed but just because it’s been removed doesn’t mean it wasn’t once there.”

So first I wanted to marvel at the writers of ‘House of Cards’ for thinking to bring it in. A power couple who have had terrible strife till now renew their vows in this episode. The mandala seems to have healed them. It also shows the passage of time since a month passes by and the monks come and go. It shows how Frank is so busy with his work that he is unable to see the beauty in it. And Claire goes so close that she almost ruins the mandala, as she does with all her decisions in season 3. It also shows how both of them are struggling to leave a legacy and how right under their nose Buddhism is teaching them that nothing is permanent. Life, our legacies and our desires are all temporary. It was a beautiful way of showing a dichotomy of a power couple against a spiritual message.
The sand mandala made me realise something about myself as well.

All these years I’ve been struggling to leave a legacy for my daughter. Maybe even for my generations to come. I have been working hard to etch things in bestselling paperbacks that has fed my ego and burst my bubble many a time.

I wanted to say I’m truly successful at what I’ve tried to do. I’ve achieved what I set out to be. I have miles to go because the legacy is not done yet. So much more work to be done. So much more writing before I die.

And in that moment when the mandala was done, I could feel that the Monks would be proud. What an achievement. Back breaking work over a month to put tiny grains of sand to make the most incredible and beautiful piece of art ever. And within a single stroke of breath the Dissolution Ceremony began and the piece of work, was all gone.

And I looked at all my six books. Why the hell was I so proud of them? What legacy was I even thinking about? A Mandala represents wholeness, a cosmic diagram reminding us of our relation to infinity, extending beyond and within our bodies and minds.

When Monks can stand and chant while they see their hard work of a beautiful creation turning to ash, I needed to realise that I was just a small part of this Universe. I must extend myself beyond my creations, a legacy and my ego, to go beyond my body and mind to be one with infinity.
The Dissolution Ceremony of the Mandala shows nothing is permanent. Nothing is ever lasting. Nothing is going to remain forever. Not even this moment.

That piece of work was made to heal you at that time. It gave you a sense of purpose, reason, love, belonging, identity. And we must realise and understand after a single moment of breath, it is all gone. It was important at that time. But you cannot hold on to it forever. The accolades, the dissent, the brick bats, the anger, the praise, the love, the hate for what you created, what you believed was wonderful and what you thought was permanent is nothing but a moment that was given to you to realise and then extend beyond.

The meaning of a mandala is that which encircles a centre. What is our centre? Our ego? Our spiritual being? Our love? Maybe it is our “nothingness.” We came from nothing and we will become nothing. There is no such thing as a legacy. That’s just history.

Does that mean we stop working? Not at all. Because we need to do the things that we’ve been chosen to do. That book I’m working on. That presentation you just finished. That child you just fed. That art that you just completed. They were all necessary. As long as you know that it’s not what defines you.
So I realised long after I finished watching the show that we can do our best every day and then let it be. I know we’ve heard it one million times. But in this we must not let our ego come in. And we must know how to let the beautiful thing we made, worked on and created be free. If it stops meaning anything, if we stop asking for “what we deserve” and stop wondering “why we’re not getting” things or pained by “what is happening to us” then we have truly understood the meaning of the mandala, of the essence of life and of who we really are.

That was my spiritual awakening. Let me know about yours.

First Published: May 21, 2015, 1:25 PM IST

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