Carpe Diem, Seize The Day, Girls
In Tibetan Buddhism, there is a ritual art called dkyil ‘khor that demonstrates the impermanence of existence in the most perfect way.
Dkyil ‘khor, or sand mandala, are ritually constructed mandala created using dense, colored sand and small tubes that are blown into, as well as other tools or chak-pur, by Tibetan monks. A mandala is created over a period of weeks and then destroyed in a ceremony by releasing the sand into a river or sea. It is a beautiful art form that only a handful of people in the world know how to do.
You’ve most likely seen one of these beautiful, multicolored sand mandala before. There are smatterings of them preserved in museums across the U.S., and sand mandala ceremonies have been popular in this country since 1988, when Losang Samten, a former Buddhist monk, was sent to the U.S. by the Dalai Lama to spread the art of the sand mandala. I encountered my first one at the Buffalo Museum of Science when I was young and then later at the Denver Art Museum and also abroad at the Yonghe Temple in Beijing.
Sand mandala are beautiful, yet fleeting, awe-inspiring pieces of religious art, especially when you understand and witness the time and skill it takes to construct one. These aren’t your kindergarten sand paintings on sticky paper projects or layers of sand funneled into pretty bottles that you might remember making as a child in school. Sand mandala represent the Buddhist concept of anicca or anitya or impermanence, and once you learn this, there is something pernicious about their conservation in the U.S. and something comforting in their traditional destruction.
I learned the concept of impermanence long before I formally studied Buddhism, long before I traveled to Hong Kong and London to study Buddhist studies and art history. All of us have, really, learned that life is precious. All of us have encountered the fleeting nature of existence. But sometimes when you talk about it with other people, the idea becomes unreal and easily brushed aside. It becomes a colloquialism — YOLO — or a cheesy inspirational poster. And we feel as though we have all the time in the world, especially when we’re young. This is obviously not true.
One of the three marks of existence — which also include dukkha or suffering and anattā or no-self — the concept of impermanence is something that, no matter what religion a person may be affiliated with, affects us all. We are born, we grow old, we become ill, and we die; these are simply the facts of life. And yet, in Buddhism, this is a liberating idea, not a depressing one, and I have come to understand impermanence as a positive force rather than one of ill-will.
I learned about impermanence early in my life, and my acknowledgment of it has followed me everywhere I’ve gone. It became my personal mantra, my rallying call, in high school. I had been going through a particularly dark period. Low self-esteem and depression swirled around me, and death wasn’t far from my thoughts. But I had a grand “aha moment” during my junior year after my mum had a life-changing surgery. I suddenly realized that life was much too short to spend it worrying about what other people thought about me, and I started to embrace the everyday, the good and the bad.
I wrote my college entrance essay on this exact theme: carpe diem, momento mori, and live life to the fullest. The essay, which has long since disappeared, fit well with my undergrad’s motto, which was — still is — all Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. “Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.” Carpe diem.
For a long time, I seized as much of the day as I could, scratching my way through the good and the bad to the best of my ability, but a similar dark period crept up on me on the cusp of my thirtieth year, related to my inability to acquire a job in my field of work, museum studies. This time, however, it took an accidental brush with death, my own mortality square in my face, for me to realize that I wasn’t ready to die and that I had strayed from my carpe diem roots.
Life can become difficult, life will become difficult at times, but that doesn’t mean we should give up. Nothing ever stays the same, impermanence is the name of the game, and rather than despairing in the bad or even praising only the good, it is better to find a middle path and live to seize the moment.
As Slyvia Plath says in her unabridged journals, “I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible in my life. And I am horribly limited.” This is true now as it ever was before for me, perhaps even more so now that I’ve experienced my fair share of suffering and disappointment. I want to continue seizing the day as much as I can for as long as I can, because there are so many amazing things in the world to see and experience.
In the Mahāparinibbāṇa Sutta, an important text of Theravada Buddhism that describes the last days of Gautama Buddha’s life, the Buddha says, “Impermanent are all component things. They arise and cease. That is their nature. They come into being and pass away. Release from them is bliss supreme.” Impermanence is not a thing to cry over. Change is an exciting adventure, and impermanence is bliss supreme. So, “Carpe diem. Seize the day, girls. Make your lives extraordinary.”