This week, Lama Deshek, the Tibetan Buddhist monk and teacher at the Losel Maitri Tibetan Buddhist Center, created a Mandala for Peace at Birmingham Southern College. According to Lama Deshek, "Mandala means circle in Sanskrit. They often symbolize the natural perfection and harmony in nature. Tibetan monks create sand mandalas symbolizing the residence of Enlightened Beings in order to people imagine the vast and profound enlightened state. They are also used as meditational aids."
Mandalas are common symbols throughout various Buddhist sects, as well as for Hindus and Christians (many stained glass windows and mosaics found in Catholic cathedrals evoke the same circular patterns.) The intricate process of creating a mandala would be difficult enough if it were a simple circular design—say, one lotus blossom—but they are designed with layer upon layer of pattern and symbol AND they are created entirely from fine sand, which is handmade from crushed marble and then dyed. Each grain of sand is placed through the use of slender copper cones that allow the artist to modulate the precise amount of sand required for each stroke by rubbing a second copper cone across the vertebrae of the first cone. And I'm talking about precise placement of each grain of sand into an impossibly intricate pattern that is all in the head of the creator—in this case, Lama Deshek.
Watching this process is indeed meditative. I found I could not take my eyes from the copper cone and its issuance. The high-pitched scraping sound of one cone rasping against the nodules of the other became a melodic accompaniment to the work in progress. The word spellbound comes to mind.
Lama Deshek's creation of the Mandala for Peace was made more amazing by the fact that he was doing the work of four monks. You see, although the mandala itself is a circle, it is created in the center of a square, which allows the four monks to work in concert, each on their own side of the mandala. Four of course, is an auspicious number. The number four evokes Buddha's Four Noble Truths, the four directions of a compass, the four seasons, the four elements.
Tapping ever-so-lightly on the copper cone, Deshek circled the table, placing the grains of sand in exacting pattern. The work would take seven days, at least, for one monk to complete. Once completed, does this phenomenal work of art remain in the gallery under glass to be admired for generations to come? No. It is destroyed. The heartbreaking truth is that all this incredible labor—from grinding and dying the marble to the precise colors required, to the tapping down of each grain of sand into the impossible pattern that will never be recreated exactly in the same manner again—is swept together when it is completed and the sand is then tossed into a local river to go back into the earth. The mandala is ultimately an exercise in impermanence, which is one of the great practices of Buddhism. To accept that this life is temporal, that all must pass away, and that change is the only constant is one of the more difficult concepts for humans to truly wrap our heads around or embrace. Yet, the principle is evident throughout all of Nature: Everything changes.
The metaphor is not lost on me.
For the past sixteen years, I laid down a pattern, grain by grain until I created a life—for good and ill—of an intricate design. My marriage. My career as a freelance writer. The birth of my son. The move to Birmingham. The death of my parents. My career as an editor. My divorce. The resignation of my editorial duties. The pattern is beautiful, but it is now complete, and I can't hold onto it. It must be swept into the ocean just as Lama Deshek's beautiful mandala will be swept away and returned to the earth. Such is the nature of life. It is often difficult to accept, but once we see that by wiping the board clean, we are at once ready to start anew.
And of course, it is not so simple as all this! I have not deliberately come to this point in my life only to sweep away a fifteen year marriage and four year relationship with Time. But I do clearly see that starting anew is the only way for me to get back on the right path with my life. And it is the only way for my soon-to-be-exhusband to journey forward as well. How do I know this? How do I know how to breath? It would be easier to answer the latter query. How does Lama Deshek know where to place those grains of sand?
I will never be able to recreate the exact pattern of the last sixteen years, nor would I want to. That mandala of my life is now complete, and although it may be difficult for me to begin again, already I'm laying down the fine grains in an impossibly intricate pattern that I will not be able to fully discern until years from now when I step back from it and appreciate its design.