Are you Enlightened?Observations from the Deprung Loseling Monks’ annual visit to Aspen
The Deprung Loseling Monks made their annual summer trip to Aspen last week where they performed a number of ceremonies and blessings, including the creation of a sacred mandala at the Aspen Art Museum. While Buddhism is one of the more peaceful and accepting religions, it is also one of the most opaque, especially for the pragmatic, I-don’t-really-do-Eastern-mysticism Westerner.
However, in case you have ever fantasized about shaving your head and moving to Tibet, or perhaps you’re just wondering how enlightened you really are, here’s a quick test to see if you are on course for Buddhahood.
1.) “Ends” and “Beginnings” are not in your vocabulary.
The Endless Knot or Shrivatsa is one of the eight auspicious symbols in Tibetan Buddhism. It has no end and no beginning. Don’t believe it? Let your eye take a few spins and notice how uncomfortable it becomes. We like beginnings and endings, lovely fram es, arcs and bookends. It’s there, and then it’s gone. Buddhists see the world more as an endless cycle, limitlessly connected and interdependent.
2.) You have a deep understanding of your pencil.
What could be more basic, right? But, wait, as Lexie Potamkin pointed out in a special talk at the Aspen Chapel last Sunday, it took thousands of people from all around the world to make that pencil. The wood is cedar from the Great Lakes. The wood was cut from a saw made from steel, made from iron ore. The graphite is from Sri Lanka and mixed with Georgian clay and Mexican wax. The metal piece, which holds the eraser, is made of Canadian zinc and Chilean copper. The eraser is made from a rubber tree in the Congo of Africa, mixed with seed oil from Indonesia and pumice from Italy. The wood is painted yellow, which comes from a glossy lacquer made of castor oil, which came from … You’re getting the picture, yes?
All these people all around the world are at once deeply isolated, and deeply connected even if they don’t know each other exists.
3.) You look amazing in yellow and maroon and can pull off a big hat in church.
The chougu, or Kasaya clothing worn by the monks dates back centuries. Saffron was easy and cheap back in the day (not to mention it really catches the spirits’ eye.) The hats are auspicious, naturally, and date to around the early 15th century. You know, when people actually dressed up.
4.) You have a great baritone chanting voice.
It’s a sound you’ve heard before, re-appropriated in film and television, but to experience a chanting session live is at once peaceful, reverent and a little scary. It begins as deep, long pulses along low frequencies that reverberate in your chest. The pulses grow and repeat in escalating numerical patterns and then, just as you become totally immersed in the sonoric chaos, they break into song.
5.) You know the difference between happiness and joy.
White truffles on your pasta, powder days, watching your kid hit a home run — these are all examples of joy. If you spend time in this valley and are fortunate enough to partake in its many blessed activities, then you know all about it. But joy is not happiness. Happiness comes from within. Happiness stares circumstance — any circumstance — right in the face and says, “Not interested.”
6.) You can let go of hate and resentment, even on a genocidal scale.
Tourists are annoying, but what’s really annoying is when the country next door attempts cultural and physical genocide on you and everyone you love. So, why did the Chinese so brutality attack the Tibetan monks and are comfortably approaching their seventh decade of occupation?
“Because they could,” Lexie Potamkin explains. “It’s the oldest story in the world. But, you know I have spoken with the Dali Lama about this and he has absolutely no hate for the Chinese. He has forgiven them completely.”
7.) You’re a house guest of the Potamkins.
Lexie and Robert Potamkin host the monks here every summer. Lexie, a self-ascribed “Inclusiastic,” was raised in an open-hearted, open-minded Methodist family. Former Miss World USA, former New York PR exec, she went back to school and earned a master’s in religion and inter-spirituality. Twenty years ago she attended a lunch with the monks and was gobsmacked. We have her generosity to thank for their annual visits. A spiritual and community leader in her own right, if Lexie flies you to Aspen every summer, you’ve got something special going on.
8.) Monks spend five long days evoking your spirit through an intricately patterned geometric graphic made of brightly dyed sands, and then throw you, ceremoniously, into a river.
This, of course, is the process of the mandala. The monks each become versed in a number of different designs and they choose a specific one depending on what diety, or enlightened being, they think is relevant. This year they choose one that specializes in healing conflict. This is the third year they they have constructed the mandala at the Aspen Art Museum, moved from its original location at the Aspen Chapel to be more central and accessible.
The process ends with its “dismantling.” After they smear the pattern into oblivion, the blessed sands are passed out to spectators. The remaining particles are taken to the river and dumped. Water is the most effective way to disburse the spirit back into the environment. As the Drepung Loseling’s spiritual director, Geshe Lobsang Tenzin, explains, “Embracing impermanence can be very healing. And always remember, the enlightened presence is everywhere.” Do keep that in mind the next time you catch a rainbow in the Roaring Fork.
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