Dandala’s & Tibet

There is a beautiful Tibetan Buddhist tradition known as the sand dandala. It involves creating colorful, intricate works of art; usually by a group of monks working together using dyed sand or crushed colored stone. It is painstaking work to create one. And as soon as it if finished they destroy it in a ceremony paying homage to the transitory nature of material wealth.

The works can be incredible in their detail. The best belong in a museum. But, alas, such is Buddhism. Such is life.

Today is my birthday. I am 62 years old. Not very old, by modern standards. But suffice it to say that I’ve beaten the odds. Most of you have, too.

I am not maudlin, if you’re wondering. But I have never lost my youthful curiosity and I credit it for all of the good things that have happened to me in my life. (Number one, without peer, is the birth of my two daughters.) So I thought it appropriate to sit back and reflect for a moment.

In case you are wondering I won’t wade into the question of whether or not Tibet is legitimately part of China. I take the same position with New Mexico. I can say, however, that I have yet to meet a Chinese person who does not believe that Tibet – and Taiwan, for that matter – are not a legitimate part of China. That’s good enough for me.

I won’t argue history. History is a movie, although we try to make it a post card to serve our purposes. I will, however, argue culture.

As is typical of writers, I am an avid reader. I devour books, although never more than one at a time. And I submerse myself in them. I figure we owe the author that.

I used to read only book-books. You know them. The actual book kind. But I did give in years ago to reading e-books. I guess it was all of those 13-hour flights from Beijing that made reading real books akin to climbing a small mountain in achievement.

Today, however, I downloaded my first free e-book, from my local library. My wife, a Chinese immigrant, found out from another immigrant that, in fact, my local library is more up with the times than I might have guessed. The process was painless. And did I say free.

But back to China.

There are roughly 250 million Buddhists in China, the largest concentration of Buddhism in the world. And while the total population of Tibet is debated, it is estimated to be less than 3 million people.

In other words, there are a lot of Chinese Buddhists outside of the autonomous region itself. Beijing, the country’s capitol, boasts an abundance of Buddhist temples, and shrines. In fact, the celebration of Spring Festival – or the Chinese New Year, as it is commonly known in the West – begins with the Laba Festival.

Like everything associated with Spring Festival the purpose of the Laba Festival is to bring prosperity in the coming year. And it’s modern day custodians, oddly enough, are the Buddhist monks who serve warm Laba porridge made with rice, beans, nuts, and fruits, on that day. In Beijing, which is inevitably cold that time of year, you can see a long queue of office workers on their way to work waiting at the many Buddhist temples in the area for some of the sweet and warm soup.

But I believe the Buddhist culture runs much deeper in the over-arching Chinese culture. And I think that the sand dandala is the symbolic heart of it all.

Since moving to the US several months ago I have been continuously reminded of just how devoted we American boys and girls are to our toys. We wear them on our sleeves, to say the least.

The Chinese do the same, of course. That’s why Mercedes and BMW are doing so well there. Which, of course, is why Ferrari and Lamborghini are doing so well there. If everyone drives a Mercedes you have to drive a Ferrari to really stand out.

Having said that, I do believe that the status means much less to them. Sure, the nouveau riche want to brag about their success. And they do. At the same time, however, I truly believe it means less to them.

I’ve often thought that if Jack Ma, or another of the Chinese billionaires, lost their fortune tomorrow, they wouldn’t shed many tears. They might lose face, but that’s different. Few tears, however. I honestly believe they would just get up at the same time the next day and start the process all over again.

And, in that respect, they are the cultural twins of the same people who make the mandalas.

So, who is to argue that Tibet – or Taiwan – doesn’t belong to China?

Not me.

Contact: You may reach the author at understandingchina@yahoo.com