Read by Ben Farrow
The monk begins work on the mandala on a Tuesday morning. A dais has been erected in the lobby of the YMCA, and a short wooden bench placed before it. The monk, with tea-colored skin and a blunt, eraser-shaped nose spattered with freckles, leans on his forearms, with protractor and t-square. On the blue surface of the dais he etches white lines and curves, making a blueprint, an understructure. The posts that rise from the dais are scaled with brocade, like a crowded sale rack of flamboyant neckties. The monk’s sneakers are Reebok. A man in a sweatsuit, and with a white beard, sits in a hard backed wooden chair against a wall, and fingers a set of wooden prayer beads.
Two security guards take cups of coffee from a brown bag spotted with grease and rain. Their names are Darryl and Ottilie. The smell of egg fills the lobby. A middle-aged woman who has come, earlier than anyone, on the first day, to watch the monk work, turns. Her grimace indicates that the smell of the guards’ breakfast has interrupted her own spiritual digestion. Ottilie, her mouth full of breakfast sandwich, locks eyes with her, daring her to complain.
The next three weeks of Ottilie and Darryl’s shifts will be blighted with people like this woman. Normally, the guards at the YMCA can ask anyone who comes through the doors to state their destination. Now, the lobby itself is a destination, for every hour that the monk is here, making the gravelly humming sounds that he makes in his throat, drawing, climbing slowly up and down the dais, using the metal tool through which he sieves his sand.
A blonde woman in a tailored white suit and gold-flecked scarf approaches the monk, touches his shoulders, and murmurs in his ear. He murmurs back, and lowers himself from the dais.
“Shepa Gyatso will return shortly,” says the woman in white. The woman on the bench has begun to fidget at the signs of the monk’s departure. “He is being interviewed by the local PBS station.”
The monk and the woman in white retreat, to a room off of the lobby.
The monk works on the mandala from Tuesdays through Saturdays. At the security guards’ desk, they play a small boombox, at a low volume.
“Who we listening to today?” asks John. He is a regular YMCA member, in his late sixties. His sagged, worn body betrays prior lives, lives that did not revolve around sober workouts at the Y, or long afternoons of coffee and danish at the senior citizen’s club around the corner.
“Coltrane,” answers Ottilie.
“Coltrane!” John says. “They had that movie on last night, Bird, about Charlie Bird Parker?”
“I didn’t know there was a movie like that,” says Darryl. “Who played him?”
“Black actor,” says John. “A black actor... he plays all different kinds of roles.”
It is permitted to play music while the monk works. It’s permitted to talk near him, and to him if one wishes, or to ignore him and laugh and act as usual. People are allowed to take photos of him, which they do, like people taking pictures of a polar bear tank at the zoo. The monk looks up to say hello only when he looks up for some other primary purpose; to change colors, or to grab a small foam brush with which to shore up his sand. So far his work is squared-off, red and white, with some black, some amber.
The white-bearded man still sits with his wooden prayer beads, in the hard, tall chair that he prefers. He will at times bestow a silent greeting, an incline of his head, to those who come to watch. It gives the impression, to some, that he is involved with the proceedings on some deeper mechanical level.
John does the same thing; he greets visitors, points in the direction of the unmistakable dais, gives anyone who will take one a brochure about the Tibetan Buddhist center. “I practically work here,” he tells people. “I use the Y a lot. It’s a great thing for the community.”
The chair in which the white-bearded man sits is directly next to the room where the monk goes numerous times a day, usually shutting the door behind him.
The monk has assistants. They wear robes with street clothes beneath them; they have shaved heads and flat, wide planes to their faces. They are younger than the monk, and can climb up and down the dais more swiftly, but they work more slowly on the mandala than the monk does. The monk is not always resting when his assistants are creating; now that there is so much sand on the dais, he has begun building a large, square, wooden frame, the size of the dais itself, to protect it. He can be seen in the little side room, when the door is open, hammering away.
The mandala has swelled with color, and the square motif has now been enveloped in circles. Animals and other figures appear. “It looks like a birthday cake,” says a child who comes with his parents once or twice a week, usually in the late afternoon. The monk smiles at this. With colored sand, he builds the homes for seven hundred and twenty-two deities, and builds the deities themselves. The homeless or close-to-homeless of the city, not unfamiliar with the YMCA, wander in to use the restrooms. Some are interested enough to pause and watch the progress. Some pass by with a glance that declares it as useless to them as any other kind of prayer has ever been.
The work is so big now that it is hard to tell whether it is finished or unfinished. Only the monk knows what is missing from it still. The mandala is inside the wooden frame now, and is covered with heavy-duty plastic wrap at night and on Sundays and Mondays.
People have begun to ask when the mandala will be destroyed. They have heard that some of the sand may be taken home by each of them, to bless their homes. Then all are invited to walk to the river, to watch the monk pour the rest of the sand into the waters; his weeks’ of work scattered and soaked in the brine of the Delaware.
“What kind of thing should we bring to take the sand in?” people ask Darryl and Ottilie. “Like a lunch container?” People memorize the date and time, or write it down. “Will it start on time? Do you expect a lot of people?”
When the day comes, the crowd is a sea of upright bodies with folded arms, like sarcophagi. Everyone has worn too much outerwear, but there is not enough elbowroom to take it off. The lobby of the YMCA grows steamy and tense, with boredom and expectation, as watcher after watcher arrives, wrapping around the dais, around each other, and finally, around the walls.
“Today they’re doing the desecration,” Darryl the guard tells John, who has arrived for his workout and is surprised to see the crowd. John’s memory is not excellent. The woman who owns so many white suits whips around discreetly to correct Darryl. “Dismantling,” she pronounces carefully.
The dismantling has drawn the largest crowd. It is the aggregation of most everyone who has ever wandered in once or twice during the workweek, on a lunch break, plus all the dedicated followers who showed up day after day to pray, or meditate, or watch with carefully crafted looks of fascination while the monk had poured out what he would now swipe asunder. The crowd is swaying, not jostling; people fan themselves with the empty paper envelopes they carry. Impermanence, ritualistic destruction – the crowd awaits the display of this, envelopes in hand, hoping to take it home with them forever. “My boss sent me over here to get him some sand,” a bitter young woman says. “He knew it would be crowded and didn’t want to have to stand in line for it.”
The ritual begins. The monk, and the crowd, begin to chant.
A man in his mid-twenties, unshaven, stands on a folding chair to get a better view of what is happening. Darryl approaches him, and taps his shoulder. “Sir,” he says.
The younger man does not move. “Sir,” says Darryl, and the young man glares down. “Can’t have you on the chair,” Darryl says. “Please step down.”
The young man’s neck grows pink, and he stays where he is. People nearby have heard the exchange, and, being the most affected by the young man’s ascent to begin with, are now openly glaring at both his failure to comply. The young man, frustrated but nervous, studies Darryl.
“And who are you?” he asks, with false politeness.
“I work here, my friend,” is Darryl’s gentle reply. “It’s for insurance purposes I can’t have you standing on the chairs. You fall off a chair, you could have a case against us, I can’t have it.”
A gangly little boy, bored in his mother’s arms, hears this and can only be hopeful that it means something more interesting than what is currently happening. “He’s got a case, Mommy!” he announces. “That man has a case!”
The young man steps down, and those around him can see he is numbed with the sense of public humility that some manage to leave behind in childhood. He tries to reorient to the room, and his place on the floor with everyone else. It looks as though that he will remember nothing about this event but his own anger and his own shame.
The crowd surges forward. No one is as close as they wish to be. The monk has taken sand from various points on the mandala and put it into a glass jar. Now, with his sponge brush, from the center outward, he draws sand across sand, color across color.
“Shepa Gyatso now asks that anyone present who has children with them come forward, so that the children can participate in the dismantling of the mandala,” the woman in the white suit calls across the crowd.
There is a gasp of dissent. People have jockeyed for their positions upfront; these people are now pushed aside by relieved mothers and fathers, whose progeny, on their shoulders or slung on their hips, move towards the dais. “Don’t you just have the lucky ticket,” a woman in her sixties mutters, moving backward in the crowd to accommodate a family of four.
At the dais, the children are encouraged to press their hands into the sand, now meaningless without its tigers and lions and sections of distinct color. A blonde toddler looks with distaste at the grit on her palm and wipes it on the spangled blouse of a nearby octogenarian bodhisattva.
The crowd is now welcomed to approach to the table. They push, no longer caring about what they can see or hear, but stretching their arms into a blind vortex, hoping to feel when the dab of sand is deposited in their vessels, so they may move away quickly from the mash.
People emerge from the throng, sweaty, gasping. “God,” they are heard to cry.
Rushing past the security desk where Ottilie and Darryl sit, people begin to relax, feeling the cold air from the outside on their faces. They take care not to let it blow away the sand in their little envelopes or baby food jars. None of them have time to walk across the city with the monk, to make the pilgrimage to the river. He will be driving, anyway, and only his assistants will be walking. The seekers, who took time from their weekend schedule to bear witness, now light cigarettes with relief and sigh, exhausted from enlightenment. When the crowd disperses for real, Darryl will run out and get Ottilie her tuna grinder, and they will end their shift watching Maintenance sweeping grains of sand from the floor.
Kalachakra by Amber Dorko Stopper was read by Ben Farrow at the Liars' League Faith & Hope event on 14 December 2010 at Upstairs at The Fellow, London
Amber Dorko Stopper has published somewhere around thirty short stories, but only likes four of them. She is also a columnist for Korean Quarterly (www.koreanquarterly.org) and she knits as much as she writes. Her website is http://voluptuousstoicism.com.