This past weekend a group of Tibetan monks arrived in Grand Rapids. Two of them are from the Gyudmed Monaster in southern India, and two from a monastery in Mongolia, near Ulaan Baatar.
Early Sunday afternoon, at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts , they began the creation of a sand mandala. First they cleaned their work surface, a table perhaps six feet in diameter. Then, using a protractor, string, and folded paper, they drew the detail lines of the mandala. Fine lines of white sand were sprinkled over these lines; then, starting from the center and working to the outside, they drew gates and flowers and fields and religious symbols one grain of sand at a time. The final mandala was a little over four feet in diameter, and was built in three days.
And the monks did it all from memory. I asked one of the Gyudmed monks how he learned to do this extraordinary thing. He explained that the physical creation is only a part of a ceremony which, depending on the size and intricacy of the mandala, can last for many days. The monks first learn the meaning of the symbols, and all of the prayers which are recited as the sand is placed. They need to know the prayers which go before and after the work, and the reason behind these things. The mandala is laid out with exact geometric precision, and the colors are balanced and perfectly placed. The act of creating the mandala, a two-dimensional representation of the house of the gods, is itself a form of prayer, There are many different mandalas for different deities and concepts within the Buddhist religion.
Earlier this evening they destroyed it and threw the sand into the Grand River. Having been created, the mandala had served its purpose. The sand, and the prayers which had been focused upon it, was returned to the universe.