Why Tibetan Monks Sweep Away Those Precious Mandalas
A seemingly incomprehensible act bears an important teaching.
Perhaps many of us are familiar with sand mandalas. They’re made, ritually, in some Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. Complex creations, they’re prized for their detail and the refinement of their development. They also bear a quality little understood outside of Buddhist belief. When the work is finished, often several days of work by numerous participating monks, the mandala is destroyed. This is often done with the same patience, even the same ritualism with which the mandala was drawn.
The act can seem incomprehensible to the Western mind where the notion of endurance is often a critical component of the work being carried out. Poems, paintings, sculptures, sometimes even the actions of our daily lives; our works are destined to outlive us, or so we believe. The idea fits well with the colloquial recommendation to “plant a tree, have a child and write a book,” three basic symbols of posterity.
But not so for Buddhism. Here the doctrine is that the transience of life teaches constant transformation and above all, that the real purpose of life is to rid oneself of the very “wheel of life.” The samsara is nothing more than the threshold of nirvana. Before enlightenment, is not what pales but when men would call a “work of art”?
When one of these mandalas is swept, the sand is poured into a container and this is wrapped in silk and deposited in a river, so that it arrives once more in the sea; a final metaphor for the return to that which truly matters in life.
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