Life happens. A sudden job change. A familiar leader moving on and replaced with a newer, stiffer model. Unexpected physical limitations. Land development consuming yet more trees. Change triggers our attachment to things, people, circumstance, or just about anything that’s been a comfortable shoe-of-a-feeling. Tibetan Buddhists, on their path toward non-attachment, embrace the concept of impermanence.
For them, the sacred art of mandala sand painting is a metaphor of the impermanence of life. I had the good fortune to see this firsthand as I walked by an open doorway one afternoon near the Plaza in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Inside a large adobe building, three red-robed Tibetan lamas of the Drepung Loseling Monastery were carefully creating a mandala sand painting. Hunched over a large table in a local rug gallery, the monks worked with colored grains of sand arranged in brass bowls like paint pigments. Sifting the sand through narrow metal funnels, known as chak-purs, each monk held a chak-pur while running a metal rod across its grated surface. The vibration caused the sand grains to flow onto the design with incredible precision. Meditation in action.
At the center of this intricate mandala was the White Tara, the female Buddha who brings longevity and prosperity. The initial drawing for the intricate design took several hours. The finished mandala, at approximately five-by-five feet, would take up to two weeks to finish. I visited this mandala every day, even for just a few minutes, until the masterpiece was complete.
During the closing ceremony, eight monks wearing the traditional yellow hats and robes of the Gelug tradition stood in front of the mandala. Their deep-throated chanting was a tone like nothing else on Earth. Using a brush as simple as one you might use to paint walls in similar colors, the sands were swept toward a white chrysanthemum in the center, creating a tiny mesa-like shape that echoed the surrounding landscape.
After days of creating this magnificent work of art, the monks swirled the sands together, erasing the mandala in mere seconds, symbolizing the impermanence of life. Some of the consecrated sand was given to people gathered for the ceremony. The remaining sand was poured into a flowing river nearby, from where it was carried to the ocean to bless the world.
Change is mostly undesired, even viewed as painful, yet so many of us love the change of seasons, especially fall. Perhaps it is all of the good smells, cozy fires, promises of knitting or settling in with a good book and a warm cup of tea? What if we found a way to make unexpected change a little more welcome, or manageable? Rituals can help sooth the rocky ride toward the unknown. As the monks meditated during their daily creation of the sand mandala, the design they created was ever changing and evolving. Although they knew the end represented the destruction of their work, they remained unattached to the inevitable outcome.
Awareness of the impermanence of things encourages us to meditate on the preciousness of life. Coming to know our true selves, our deeper strengths and gifts, provides a lifeline through change. Tibetan Buddhism teaches us that one of the main causes of suffering is grasping and attachment. Although we may grasp for things in the present, or for things we’ve destined for the future, many of these things represent a need from our past. A wise person once said, “Don’t look back. You’re not going that way.”
May we fall into change with just a little more grace.