For the past four days Tibetan Buddhist monks have constructed a sand mandala in the foyer of my office. Working in a group of four at a time, the monks first etched the outline in chalk, and then began applying millions of grains of colored sand in an intricate pattern they recall from memory alone.
Hunched over the table they held cone-shaped instruments with a grated surface called a chak-pur, which they lightly tapped with a metal rod to release the sand in a steady stream. Sand painting is a form of ancient meditation. Each mandala is home to a deity with various healing properties such as compassion. The monks invoke the spirit of the deity through this process of precision and patience.
Yesterday, I stopped to watch them work. Silently, carefully, they erected the mandala out in the open for anyone to see. Until they finish and tear it down.
The creation of a mandala is a testament to focus. To unity. And impermanence. It is the literal representation of the importance of the journey. Because the final product is left intact for only a matter of hours, perhaps days, before being consecrated with prayers, and then swept into a pile of ordinary gray and deposited in a nearby river. The idea is that the water will disperse the blessings throughout the world. The act is a reminder that nothing we do, nothing we create, is eternal. And that with this knowledge, we should do it anyway.
This morning I paused to watch from the balcony above as they neared completion of the design. A few people entering on the ground floor paused to take out cameras before heading up to their offices. The monks finished the mandala at 11. And at noon, they were going to wipe it all away.
By 11:45 the foyer was packed, and the banisters lined with more than 200 faces eager to watch the consecration ceremony.
The woman to my left, a softspoken mother of two, turned to me and whispered, “A few times when I passed it and no one was around, I just wanted to shake it. I wanted to ruin it. Isn’t that terrible?”
“No,” I said. “Isn’t that why we are all here?”
For some reason, watching it all come apart is far more interesting than watching it go up. I know this. Because not two hours earlier just a handful of people stopped on their way to the copier machine, as they returned from meetings, or headed to the kitchen to refill their coffee, to watch these men quietly invoking blessings for us all. I know this, because I was one of them. And I was also one of the many standing there to watch these men sweep away every grain of detail they so diligently placed over the past 96 hours.
As the monks began chanting dozens of digital cameras clicked, chirped, and flashed in the background. None of the photographers seemed to realize they were making a spectacle of the meditation. None seemed to understand that they were kind of missing the point of the exercise. The monks, however, didn’t appear to notice any of us at all.
After the final chant one monk circled the mandala and then cut through the design like a pizza until there were 12 equal parts. Then another monk used an ordinary paintbrush to push what remained into a pile on the center of the table.
“It’s still beautiful,” the woman to my left said smiling.
And it was.
This video is a timelapse sequence of a monks creating a very similar mandala. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ga5s_qYgJS8