Recently, I had the opportunity to watch a group of Tibetan monks as they worked to complete a sand mandala at a local university. For six consecutive days, seven hours a day, they labored to create the design, which they filled in with sand released from a metal funnel called a ‘chak-pur.’ On the final day, the mandala was displayed for public viewing and a closing ceremony held.
And then, just like that, they swept it up.
How is it possible to create something and then so nonchalantly, destroy it?
How do they place a flower in the middle of their design, continue to bisect it with neat lines until it resembles the pie piece from Trivial Pursuit, and then sweep it away? How do they smile during the whole insane process?
Before my mandala experience, I had always believed there was some sort virtue in saving one’s creative work for posterity. As Westerners, we want to house our works of art in climate-controlled museums. I, for one, still possess all of my Thanksgiving turkey drawings from elementary school and all of my book reports from high school. They reside in a large, plastic tote in the basement, where I avoid them like the plague.
Perhaps I have not yet reached the critical stage of personal evolution where I am not seized by the urge to throw myself atop the completed sand mandala, like a human shield, to prevent the process of dissembling. Maybe I can find a piece of glass and carefully put it atop the design? There’s certainly enough room in the Student Union to just keep this thing here, some supply closet or something, isn’t there?
That, of course, would defeat the purpose.
Mandalas, in other words, are made to be broken.
According to Tibetan Buddhists, everything — including pleasure, pain, happiness and unhappiness — is impermanent, subject to change.
The mandala-making process illustrates the central tenets of Buddhist philosophy: denial of ego, non-attachment and impermanence. To cling to a particular social identity — be it occupation, appearance, social standing or a personal relationship — is a form of violence to the spirit. A mandala, however beautiful, meaningful or inspirational, is essentially impermanent as well.
Remember that old adage about loving something enough to let it go?
The eternal dance of destruction/creation/sustaining is a motif common to many of the world’s faith traditions. Likewise, yoga practice illustrates the concept of impermanence. On certain days, we feel mentally, emotionally and spiritually connected to our bodies. On other days, not so much. The practice of yoga is meant to destroy tightness and rigidity to create clarity and openness. This plateau persists for a while, until more destruction is warranted.
In the Tibetan culture, the forces of life and death, creation and destruction are inextricably woven into the fabric of daily lives. There, atop the roof of the world, mountain winds slice through with the zeal of screaming banshees. Sometimes they rip up the fragile soil on dangerous mountain footpaths to reveal the skeletons of those who had gone before.
The natural world is well versed in this process as well. The summer season melts into fall, the fall into winter; during this time, earth lies dormant, preparing for the renewal of spring. As the mandala is swept up, it actually bears an uncanny resemblance to The Big Bang. The sand lingers there on the table of creation, a misty, amorphous bowl of primordial soup. The flower serves as the singularity without which we would not exist.
I wonder what came before our universe. Did God use a paintbrush just like these monks, for tracing and bisecting and sweeping up?
As the monks give me a small bag of sand from the mandala, I contemplate the value of destruction in the creative process. As a writer, I sometimes long for that big bang, that fresh, new idea. I realize I am often too reluctant to scrap what has come before, to create, in my reality, a place for the new. I judge myself. It must be perfect, my ego-body says with the malevolent gaze of a Roman emperor releasing a crop of pretty-good ideas to a coliseum filled with lions.
So, I procrastinate. I do the dishes. I watch some television. I take a nap.
Hello, writer’s block.
How to approach my creative process much like the monks, distributing colored sand with the aid of chak-purs? How can I just allow the process to flow, with the understanding that what I write must be destroyed many times in order to be created and re-created anew? How can I maintain a sense of humor while doing this? Is it possible for me to smile while hacking apart the pages it took me a week to write?
Autumn leaves crackle underfoot as our somewhat unorthodox procession, accompanied by the sound of traditional Tibetan instruments, winds its way to a local stream. It was the perfect fall afternoon in Western Pennsylvania. The monks wear traditional red robes and saffron-colored headpieces that crest forward like waves against a shoreline. Eventually, we arrive at the stream. The monks chant, at first sharp and staccato, and then softer, more flowing, the circular, twangy cadence of the moving water. They release the sand, along with milk and flowers, into the stream.