Buddha taught of the impermanence of life and how quickly it can be taken away from a person. It is one of the three marks of existence—three characteristics shared by all conscious beings, stressing an importance. To remind themselves of impermanence, Buddhist monks spend weeks constructing intricate images out of fine grains of sand over days at a time only to destroy it within a short time after completion. The images were mandalas, spiritual symbols usually containing radial balance, holding special meanings to the monks.
This tradition of creation and destruction started hundreds of years ago but continues to this day. Just within this past month, Buddhist monks have created two separate sand mandalas. The first was located in Cowles Library, Drake University. The process took numerous monks about a week to complete and was promptly swept away. It was part of a weeklong event to make aware the various faiths within the world sponsored by the Comparison Project with the theme of “Religion Beyond Words.” It allowed the monks to demonstrate a key principle to the students of Duke University and how quickly something can be swept away. Although there is no description of the physical act of wiping away the sand, there is usually a ritual dictating how the mandala should be swept away and what should be done with the remaining sand.
Another mandala was created a couple weeks later in Savannah, GA. Yet again the process was done over a week’s length and after completion the sand was gathered, handed out to some of the audience and the rest was left to be swept down the river of Savannah. As mentioned before, the monks follow a specific order that the mandala must be swept away. In this case, and most cases, they swept away certain portions in a specific order with deliberate strokes starting from the outside and sweeping in radially to the center. The next step is the release of the sand into the river which reflects the original ways mandalas were dismantled with the sand usually wrapped in silk and left to return to nature as it floated downstream. The head monk, Gala Rinpoche, was quoted saying “We do the invocation ceremony to invoke the spiritual power within oneself and for the audience.” The creation of the mandala is not just for the artists, but for those viewing the formation of the mandala. The Buddhist monks hope that the audience can take something away from the experience and appreciate the frailty of life that is taught by Buddha. He stresses that the audience isn’t restricted to those present physically, but the whole world and all who view this through some media outlet. They aren’t looking to convert anyone, just to spread the message so everyone has the chance to hear the teachings.
Although the creation of sand mandalas was initially contained within the monastery, monks have moved the process to be within the public’s eye. They realized that it is not to be hidden but shared so others may gain from and possibly grow in character. Originally it still helped the beings of the world but without their knowledge. The sands contain healing elements that are released into the river to benefit the organisms within. From there the sands are carried to the ocean to benefit a broader range of organisms. Finally through evaporation and rainfall, the sands eventually benefit all sentient beings. Again, enforcing the ambition of the monks is to benefit everyone, but by bringing out of the monastery, the audiences are able to admire the act of creation, and more importantly, the act of destruction.