Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Tibetan Buddhist Mandala

I spent a lot of time at the Gyuto Monks’ mandala at the 2009 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne, Australia. The mandala is the traditional Tibetan Buddhist form of sandpainting, practiced by Native Americans in the Southwestern United States, by Indians, by Australian Aborigines, and by Latin Americans on certain Christian holy days. In modern day Mexico and the United States, sandpainting is most often practiced during Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Streets are decorated with sand paintings that are later swept away, symbolizing the fleeting nature of life.

At the opening plenary service for the Parliament of the World’s Religions the audience watched a sandpainter’s hands on a screen as he created fleeting symbols for each tradition, like the Hindu OM, the branches of a Jewish menorah, a Buddhist friendship knot, a Shinto yin-yang, and natural images celebrating the Australian Aboriginal population.

Six Union Theological Seminary students traveled to the Parliament with Dr. Paul Knitter and we were exposed to a wealth of religious practices and new concepts. I spent day after day sitting with the Gyuto Monks and their mandala as it grew by their painstaking efforts. I found the mandala to be an apt representation of the anatta concept. In Buddhism, the purpose of a mandala is to attain enlightenment and to attain a correct view of reality.

For Buddhists, cessation of delusion is enlightenment. Thus, a correct view of reality is a cessation of the illusion that everything, including the self, is fixed or permanent. Everything is always changing, and if we grasp at experience to keep it permanent we will suffer. Thus, cultivation of detachment and of mindfulness can help lessen grasping and lessen an obsessive fixation on a concretely defined end goal. Detachment and mindfulness can help us lessen attachment to the fruits of our labors, instead helping us to concentrate on the experience of living itself. The focus is on the process rather than the goal.

From the very beginning, the teachings of the Buddha have been concerned with fulfilling the wish of every living being to find peace and happiness and avoid suffering. These mostly deal with the need to develop clarity of mind, purity of behavior, and a correct view of reality. The mandala is a teaching device for these qualities. The mandala process demands a combination of practices toward the cessation of suffering: focus of mind and hand, acceptance of the impermanence of all things, a detailed knowledge of traditional symbols and ceremonial blessings, collaboration and interdependence, total present-mindedness, and patience with detail and complexity over time.

Throughout the week-and-a-half at Parliament I spent a lot of time sitting and watching the mandala grow, talking to people about it, meditating with the monks and being together through the mandala destruction ceremony. The monks begin the mandala sand painting process with a ceremony of chants, music and mantra recitation for blessing the site to make it conducive for creating the mandala. The site is consecrated and the forces of goodness are called forth. The artists focus their minds and visualize the mandala. They chant their classic liturgy together.

After the opening ceremony, the monks start drawing the line design for the mandala. This is very exacting work based on sacred geometry as presented in the ancient scriptures. For six days, the two young monks building the mandala hunched over their workspace and crafted their drawing intently, with contentment and focus. Throughout its creation, the monks pour millions of grains of sand from traditional metal funnels called chakpur.

In various spiritual traditions, mandalas may be employed for focusing attention of aspirants and adepts, as a spiritual teaching tool, for establishing a sacred space, and as an aid to meditation and trance induction. In ancient times in Tibet, sand ground from brightly colored stone was often used for making the mandalas. Today, white stones are ground and dyed with opaque watercolors to produce the bright tones found in the sand paintings.

Mandalas are commonly used as an aid to meditation. More specifically, a Buddhist mandala is envisaged as a “sacred space,” a microcosmic representation of the nature of experience and the intricacies of both the enlightened and the confused mind. As it is a pure space, the artist who creates it, who shares in its creation and who grows with it and relates to its coming into being, also learns to understand reality, and experience reality and their own selves as pure, and as the abode of enlightenment. By creating something beautiful and pure they themselves become beautiful, and pure. Building a mandala teaches focus, and engages contemplation upon enlightenment and self-realization. As the artist brings forth cosmic images the process helps them to internalize Buddhist cosmology and symbol in the minutest detail. It can then later be summoned and contemplated at will as a clear and vividly visualized image.

The monks worked side by side all week. Always with a palpable serenity and contentment. Every morning and afternoon they sat for chanting in the Tibetan tantric style.

As it grew I began to get stressed out. What if someone sneezed? What if the monks went crazy and destroyed it in a post-office-worker-like explosion of pent-up rage? I took picture after picture because I never wanted to forget it. I didn’t want it to go away. I was getting attached. Even though the whole point of the mandala is to teach non-attachment.

The monks, of course, were pretty chill.

I showed up nervous on the last morning of the mandala. Everybody knows what happens to a mandala, right? It is ritualistically destroyed once it has been completed. This symbolizes the transitory nature of material life (or anicca), and the notion of non-self (anatta) in the sense that everything is always changing, nothing is ever fixed, and thus nothing will stay the same even when we grasp at it.

I, in a classically Western move, had become very attached to this mandala. I had something to learn and I was not looking forward to it. But that morning, things looked pretty normal. Things sounded pretty…gutteral.

The destruction of a sand mandala is highly ceremonial. Even the deity syllables are removed in a specific order, along with the rest of the geometry until at last the mandala has been dismantled. They divided the mandala with long strokes through the center of the sand, from one side to the next. They began to sweep up the sands with a little brush. And…the mandala was no more. The sand was collected in a ritual container, then wrapped in silk and processed outside to moving water, to be released back into nature and rejoin the  common source from which all things interdependently arise.

We walked together to the Yarra River and gathered on a bridge. The monks chanted before releasing the sand, and then poured it out. The mandala floated away.

On the way back to the convention center, I asked the youngest monk if he was ever a little sad about destroying the mandalas. He smiled at me and said, “We will make another.”

The other monk said to me, “Can you think of anything that lasts? What else can we do but make it as beautiful as we can and then let it go?”

I’ve been thinking a lot about what the Gyuto monk said to me. “Make it as beautiful as you can and let it go.” Can I make something beautiful and then just let it go?

Destruction of the mandala, the physical fruit of long labor, can actually strengthen the self, the spirit, that is the foundation and motivation of the artwork. The artwork is a material representation of the self, but is not the self. The entity who creates this art is not physically dismantled and poured into a river. Letting go of the material expression of the self helps solidify one’s spiritual existence, because then spirit is lifted up as the thing that is really real, the thing that lasts even when the physical object is destroyed. The destruction of the physical artwork reminds the artist not to uplift the ego and hang cleverness on the wall for all to see.

You have to internalize that you are capable of creating beauty. The letting go is a stripping away of possessiveness and clinging to your own gifts and trusting that they are yours, but also being detached about the material things of this world and the fact that all efforts and creations are transitory and ephemeral. It is the act and process of creation, not the object of creation, that the mandala highlights. Focus, creativity, vision, love, awareness and discipline: these are the elements of the mandala that remain when the physical body of the mandala is released.

Appreciating the sand mandala as a work of art, we are also challenged to see beyond a Western definition of art. For example, from a “Western” perspective, making art is a channel for self-expression, identity, innovation and personality. The process isolates and elevates the ego.

As a songwriter, I have spent years crafting songs about my experiences and perspectives. Seen through the lens that art is an outpouring of the self, the destruction of the mandala might also be viewed as “self-destructive.” But this imposes a Western idea of self as it is expressed in art onto the mandala. More “Buddhist” ways of making art place their interest in preserving tradition and creating something in community, and the process of destroying and releasing it signifies change, impermanence and non-grasping. In Tibetan ritual arts, collaboration in the execution of the sand mandala is considered to be more valuable than originality.

Also, in Buddhist teaching, there is no self to be expressed. We are not individuals. We are in relationships that make us feel like individuals, and the Buddhist strives to be fully enlightened to interbeing. If I were practicing realization of anatta, of non-self, hanging my art on the wall for all the ages to see gives too much priority and permanence to my ego expression. Destroying a mandala, in a way, clears the channel for more expansion of consciousness. It is spiritual Drain-o.

I think I failed the mandala test, or, at least, it taught me how far I have to come before I am a non-reactionary and compassionate enlightened being.

At the mandala destruction ceremony I spent the whole thing jockeying competitively for a great photograph, pushing in the throng of tourists, feeling entitled because I had been there all week, I deserved a better picture, it meant more to me, I was more attached!

I actually remember looking at other tourists and thinking, “Why do you care? I was here all week every day! I’m the one that deserves a front row seat!” I was aggressive with my camera, stressed out the whole time, agitated with myself and the other onlookers. Looking back at the shots of the ceremony, my lack of enlightenment stares me in the face. I took all these pictures so that in the future I could look back at the past at an event I had not enjoyed in the present! I missed the whole point of the mandala. But observing that behavior in myself, and getting real about how competitive and possessive and attached I can be, is also the point of the mandala. I am now enlightened as to my lack of enlightenment.

With that realization, the mandala gives me a gift. The mandala gave me another gift too: the intention to make whatever I am doing as beautiful as I can, and then let it go.

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3 thoughts on “Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Tibetan Buddhist Mandala

  1. Jenn, I enjoyed your emphasis on recognizing your inner capacity to create beauty. I experienced a mandala creation and release just once, and I’ve always focused my attention–my memory–on the reality that all is impermanent…the temporal reality of life on this planet. You’ve lifted up another aspect of this amazing ritual.

    I also appreciate your honesty about the clutching, grasping, attached feelings you carried in the final ceremony. I sometimes wonder if we have such magical memories of my daughter’s birth because we were fully, fully, fully present….and the camera was somewhere in our car until about 45 minutes after she was born. There’s something about that lens that separates us from what is.

    Beautiful piece–thanks so much–Jennifer

    1. I totally relate to you on the camera piece. I realized last summer that my camera was a sort of stand-in to placate my fear of death and insignificance because it creates the illusion that me and my experiences will endure forever (well, with digital, the photos might…but not me, unless they figure out some really cool hologram thing soon).

      Thank you for sharing 🙂

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