Friday, June 29, 2007

mandala, and letting go

A friend said to me...
"you can't keep everything. sometimes its best to let things go in order to make room for the really important stuff."

...and in my mind's eye, I saw the mandala.

The sand mandala, first created in Tibet at least 2,000 years ago by Buddhist monks, is a prayer to the Buddha to spread compassion in the world. "Mandala" is Sanskrit for "circle" and it's a flat concentric circular design rich with brilliant colors and symbolic shapes that grows outward from its center. It serves as a picture tool for meditation, and represents the central Buddhist value of compassion. (You can watch this video and see the footage from the opening ceremony and construction.

Before starting the mandala, the monks pray and chant, in an intense meditation. They start by blessing themselves, and those around them, continuing with ever-expanding circles of purification and compassion that eventually extend to the entire universe.

After the opening ceremony, monks begin drawing the line design for the mandala. This is precise work that's based on sacred geometry found in the ancient scriptures of Tantric Buddhism. Each mandala symbolizes a particular existential and spiritual approach. The artists measure out and draw the architectural lines using a straight-edge ruler, compass and white ink pen.

Then the sand...white stones ground and dyed with water colors, 14 colors in all. The monks painstakingly pour millions of grains of sands from traditional metal funnels that are called chakpur, beginning from the inside and moving outward and symbolizing how at birth a child is just a drop of sperm and ovum, and then steadily grows, until eventually the entire universe becomes experienced through the senses. Each monk holds a chakpur in one hand, while running a metal rod on its grated surface; the vibration causes the sands to flow like liquid.

The entire process usually takes from three to five days of almost around-the-clock work.

Traditionally most sand mandalas are destroyed shortly after their completion. This is done as a metaphor of the impermanence of life. The sands are swept up and placed in an urn; to fulfill the function of healing, half is distributed to the audience at the closing ceremony, while the remainder is carried to a nearby body of water, where it is deposited. The waters then carry the healing blessing to the ocean, and from there it spreads throughout the world for planetary healing.

I was lucky enough to watch this entire process once, from its ceremonious beginning, to its construction and eventual dismantling. The strewing of the sand over the Androscoggin River was haunting and beautiful, and, for whatever reason, it was also one of the most heart-wrenching things I'd ever seen.

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