The sand mandala was beautiful. And now it is no more.
A group of exiled Tibetan Drepung Gomang monks was in residence this week at Episcopal High School and staying on the campus of Virginia Theological Seminary. Throughout the week, they constructed a World Peace Mandala from multicolored, fine grains of sand. I was able to see it yesterday afternoon after it was finished, and then I showed up this morning for its deconstruction.
As an Episcopal clergy person, I was drawn to the liturgy and music of the occasion, and I left with many questions. One monk led the group with his deep bass throat-singing, and the others joined in, chanting in a higher register. The music felt harmonically imprecise, though I later learned that this perception was based on Western musical assumptions; in fact, the harmonies are very precise. The rhythms were clearly delineated and precise, and they changed periodically. Eventually the lead monk brought out a pair of cymbals, and another brought out a bell. The music went on for about twenty minutes before anything else happened.
Finally, one monk stood and used a small metal tool to subdivide the mandala into eight portions. Then several monks came behind him with paintbrushes and swept all the sand to the middle. They collected some of it in an urn and put the rest into little plastic bags to distribute to many people in the room. Then most of us walked down to the pond on campus, where the monks emptied the urn into the water.
Impermanence was clearly the main theme of the liturgy. Many people took pictures, but I chose not to. It felt as if this would contrast too much with what was going on. And my classmate Aidan mentioned to me on our walk to the pond, “It feels so appropriate to be here just before Ash Wednesday.” Indeed! “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
As the sand fell gently into the duck pond, I also remembered the words of Peter on the mountaintop: “Lord, it is good for us to be here. Let us build three dwellings: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” We want permanence, but we cannot have it. Everything changes, everything fades, everything dies.
And yet …
Maybe impermanence is, itself, an illusion. Maybe everything is actually permanent. If we remove the barrier of our one-way relationship to time, we might be able to say that. There is no undoing what has been done—ever. From outside of the perspective of time, everything in the universe matters, and everything belongs.
When I try to see the universe the way God may see it, the illusion of impermanence brings me great comfort. Despite the permanence of evil, good still overcomes it. As we hear in the prologue to John’s Gospel, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not [does not, will not] overcome it.”