By Mary DeMocker
Web Exclusive – February 20, 2009
I am here to witness the destruction. Five Tibetan monks are about to destroy the sand mandala that has taken them a week to create. To dramatize the impermanence of all existence, the monks will sweep up the mandala, carry the sand to the nearby river, and pour it into the rushing water.
Inside an area cordoned off with black satin ropes, an elderly monk hovers at the elbow of a novice. Bent over the mandala, the younger one rubs a rod along the ridged spine of a metal funnel. Out flows a tiny stream of yellow sand that the monk directs onto the sand painting very slowly, the way he’s been doing hour after hour, day after day. He looks as if he could be decorating a cake, and the colors, too, are birthday-cake-bright: fuchsia, lime green, tangerine. He puts down his metal funnel and slips from the room. The mandala is finished.
This takes place in the student union of my local university, part of the annual folk festival on campus. The instant I saw the announcement, I asked my husband to watch with our toddlers so I could attend the ceremony. Rundown and fragmented, I am desperate for space from children, housework—all of it. My identity is gone, and there’s no one to charge with the theft.
Returning to my alma mater doesn’t help. Reminders of my former, interesting student-self surround me. When I graduated from here eight years ago, it was with big plans for a life of creativity, world change, and spiritual growth. Now I try not to glare with stark envy at the students around me unencumbered by toddlers. I used to speak other languages, bona fide foreign tongues, not just baby talk. I traveled to other continents. I even performed solo harp music at this very same festival a decade ago. But at this moment, someone else bows to applause on the main stage.
I guess it’s fair to say I am the perfect candidate for a little contact with more-enlightened-than-I Tibetan monks. I’m not a practicing Buddhist; in fact, getting to this ceremony feels like the closest thing to a spiritual act I’ve performed since becoming a mother. But I’ve heard just viewing a sand mandala is believed to transmit blessings.
Aware that there are just these few moments between the mandala’s completion and demise, I drink in the sight of it: A perfect circle five feet across, it rests on a black table and resembles a colorful, fragile earth hanging in space. Concentric squares and archways dominate the center, suggesting a temple. Tiny flowers bloom everywhere. Miniature clouds float in royal blue air, and near them soar little birds, wings afire with gold and orange feathers. The whole luminous circle, with its complex lines and curves, radiates symmetry and balance. I don’t understand what the picture depicts, but it doesn’t matter. I’d still like to climb inside all of that vibrant color to bask in the organized beauty. This, I learn later, is what the monks want their deities to do: every mandala is home to anywhere from a dozen to several hundred gods.
A student organizer welcomes us. People shush each other, and I’m overjoyed that no little voice beside me demands attention. The student explains that Tibetan mandalas have many different meanings and purposes. This one is designed to heal an environment and every sentient being within it. The monks will pour the mandala into the river to send healing energies out to the ocean, and throughout the entire world. Those that live in the river, or next to it, may receive stronger blessings. Seated only a few feet from the mandala, I’m counting on the power of proximity to help heal my spirit.
At last the monks file in, adorned in magenta robes with saffron wrappings and canary-yellow hats that curve up and forward, like waves about to break. The room falls silent, and all eyes are on the procession that surges to the front. A barrel-chested monk starts to sing in a voice incomprehensibly deep. I try to enjoy the primordial, not-quite-human sound, but it is guttural and rough, lacking the usual melody or harmony to please the human ear. It is music intended for the deities residing in the mandala.
An older monk announces, “We now ask the deities to leave this mandala so we may destroy it.” Two monks bring out eight-foot-long horns meant for a mountainside, not a crammed room. They’re attention-grabbers, with a sound even gods cannot ignore, like the deep blasts of steamships leaving port. If my children were here, they would cry in fear and outrage. Each monk plays an instrument or chants loudly. I don’t understand the words, but I close my eyes and travel to the chilly high-altitude air of Tibet, where these mysterious voices make sense, and these horns are not ridiculous.
After several minutes, the noise stops. I exhale in relief. Despite the huge crowd, the room is still, as if the air has been shaken down, and anything ordinary—whispers and small talk—has been blasted out. But what moves into me is a painful longing, a red-hot poker of envy that stabs my throat: I want the peace these monks enjoy. I want a life steeped in meaning and ancient ritual.
The monks bring out three-inch-wide brushes. I wonder what each monk feels or lets go of as he prepares to destroy the mandala. One of them is elderly, and must have lost his homeland in Tibet. What are my mothering struggles compared to that?
Now it is time to remove the Sanskrit symbols depicting the deities. I expect something—here-we-go smiles, a crackling in the air—but the youngest monk makes the first sweep as if it is merely the next task. He brushes quickly. Birds and lotus blossoms become mounds of gray sand. I cringe as the beauty disappears. There is a cookie bite, then a big black hole, half a mandala, and finally just a black, lacquered table with white lines drawn within a circle. The monks sweep half of the sand into an ornate ceramic and silver urn. They funnel the other half of the sand painting into tiny plastic baggies, and we line up for a chance to take one home to sprinkle on anything—or anyone—in need of blessing. I am self-conscious standing in line for my baggie, as if I should be above this need for a souvenir. But I really want some of the magic. To be honest, I want all of the baggies.
With my sand safely tucked away, I join the procession to the river, chatting with a friend I meet on the way. We cross six lanes of traffic, grinning at the surprised faces of motorists who watch the five brightly dressed monks and two hundred paraders. As we arrive at the footbridge over the river, we jockey, however discreetly, for our places. I am a few yards away when the monks, chanting, lift the urn.
Suddenly they really do it. They pour the colors into the river 40 feet below. We stand together in silence—Tibetan monks and American participants—and I feel held, somehow, no longer comparing my losses against others’, or measuring out the compassion each of us deserves. We simply witness together, each heart assigning weight and meaning.
As I watch, I catch my breath. Nothing lasts. And if the diaper phase passes, so, too, do childhoods, and marriages, and solar systems, and each one of our own precious lives. The sand rushes headlong into the space, making a smoky ribbon that connects the bridge to the clear, green river.
I ask myself, “How could they throw away all that beauty and hard work?” As the grains fall, a cloud of dust rises straight up, and at that moment, I answer my own question with a sudden knowing. Tears spring to my eyes as the revelation hits me full force.
I am a mother. I do this every single day. The monks dramatize my own life in its raw truth—that my children are not mine, that their lives are tenuous, that I can—and will—pour my lifeblood into them over and over, and then release them to the whims of the world. My children are the mandalas not of a week bent over in concentration, but of a lifetime bent over stewpots and scuffed hearts. What I do matters terribly. Who they become matters, to them, to me, and to the world that receives their shining gifts, or the weight of their troubles. Building a centered home inside of them, a colorful and joyful temple, can only be accomplished by me giving myself completely, if imperfectly.
So I will labor to educate and feed them. Partaking in the most ancient of rituals, I will repeatedly prepare the child’s plate, edible mandalas I will create tens of thousands of times over the course of 18 years. And while there may not be monk robes, ancient hand-carved tools or instruments, there is different, equally important splendor: the princess dress and pirate cape, the kitchen pot drum, the handmade bow-and-arrow.
One small grace: I don’t have to pour my children out to the world all at once. Like a didgeridoo player who makes continuous music through circular breathing, I let go of one aspect of my child while helping to build the next. First steps help them walk, then run, away from me. Later, I release my children to teachers, coaches, and the influence of extended family and friends. Finally, there will be a day when each moves out fully into the world with its shifting sands, climates, and fortunes. And like the monks with their repeated mandalas, I don’t stop practicing. My children pass most milestones without applause or fanfare. The pouring of the colorful sand is private, its meaning wrapped in the quilt of family.
The ceremony on the footbridge is now finished. I walk back to the folk festival on campus, and from far away can spot my blond family digging in the sand at the volleyball court. I weave through the crowd as energetic folk music invites me to stay and dance. My children’s faces brighten when I kneel on the sand.
“Wanna dance?” I ask, but they are ready to go. It’s my husband’s turn for a break, so I take the children’s hands and we walk home. The music follows us much of the way, and it’s all really OK. I belong in the center of this one little mandala. I am its co-creator, its initiate, and the one who must one day—lump in throat—let it go.
Mary DeMocker lives in Oregon where she teaches folk and classical harp, and raises her son and daughter with her husband, Art. She still possesses the little baggie of sand, and uses it sparingly.