“They do what?” I remember asking my spouse a few years ago when she first described what has become an annual ritual event at Elon University.
“They use colored sand to make art. It takes a few days and when it’s finished they destroy it,” Roselee said as if that explained everything anyone might need to understand. And you know what — upon further review — she was right.
At the time she had just attended a Tibetan Sand Mandala ceremony at Elon’s Numen Lumen Sacred Space. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of what she was saying.
“That sounds … weird,” I replied.
“You’re not getting it,” Roselee said with a sigh, something that happens, oh, all the time in our lives.
That was four or five years ago. This week Tibetan Buddhist monks from the Kadampa Center in Raleigh returned once more to the Sacred Space to construct a Sand Mandala. Geshe Palden Sanpo and Gen Norbu started Wednesday on a Green Tara Mandala for compassion, peace and healing — three essential elements of human existence in short supply in our society today. According to my reading, Tara is a female Buddha whose qualities include enlightened action and swiftly removing obstacles to spiritual growth, happiness, health and prosperity.
I know of absolutely no one who couldn’t use all of those things these days.
I visited the Sacred Space on Thursday to watch a little of their progress. It’s painstaking and deliberate — a process steeped in a faith tradition that requires extensive training in rituals along with otherworldly patience. Both monks have a long history in creating Mandalas, which the Kadampa Center calls a “rare and beautiful practice.” I can attest to the latter. The extraordinary art is created by hand using particles made of colored marble, which is ground to powder by the monks. It requires deep concentration, focus and not a small amount of bending over a special table. The art itself looks almost like something generated by a kaleidoscope.
The mandala itself represents “the sacred space that is Tara’s universe, and in creating the mandala Tara is invited to be present.”
After leaving on Thursday afternoon I decided to make sure I returned on Friday to witness the ceremony where the mandala, so thoughtfully and skillfully created, is “deconstructed.” It’s a clever and tranquil way of saying destroyed.
The deconstructed part is what I originally failed to understand when Roselee first tried to explain it. Why would the artist destroy his or her art? Over the years I’ve lost millions or words to the gluttonous nature of failing computers. I mourned every single time a chunk of text was eaten, digested and lost into a great digital lavatory never to be seen again.
As it turns out, I was learning the wrong lesson for all those years.
Friday I attended the closing ceremony in the Numen Lumen Sacred Space. A little more than 50 people were there to watch, document and grow from the experience. Many were taking photos or video. The mandala itself was completed by this time and it was spectacular and complex yet unpretentious and simple in its presentation.
I secured a place on the second-floor balcony. A man stepped up beside me before it started and set up his cellphone precariously perched on the lower rails to take time-lapse photos every 10 seconds. “With any luck we’ll get something,” he said to me and moved back to the ground floor.
The two monks began the closing service meant to symbolize the impermanence of things on earth. Tearing down the beautiful mandala is a message that nothing is here forever, life changes and that feelings of sadness, anger, hopelessness or anxiety someone might have will pass.
A period of chanting followed, punctuated by a ringing bell. The sounds were comforting in their simplicity and purity. I had no real idea what the two men were saying or why. But that didn’t really matter.
As they drew to a close, one began pushing the intricately placed sand toward the middle in narrow rows, followed by a series of sweeping gestures that first blurred then cleared away the image that was so clear and colorful only moments before.
The grains of sand were collected into plastic bags and given to those in attendance. The table a blank canvas once again.
A tag on each bag of sand offered this information:
When the monks build a sand mandala, they are creating a pure land of a Buddha, so you are taking a part of that special place with you today. Having this sand in your home is very auspicious, and it should be kept in a clean and special place.
If you are a Buddhist, keep it on your altar. In addition to bringing a blessing to your home, it can be used for very special rituals.
I went downstairs into the small sea of people and awaited my plastic bag of sand. I’m not sure what special place I might find for it in our house. I’m not a Buddhist, after all, just a guy trying to find his way in a world that grows more curious and seemingly dangerous or confusing every day.
But now I understand it doesn’t have to stay that way forever. Nothing is permanent.
That’s something to remember.