Today I went to see the monks destroy their handiwork. That’s part of this whole routine—the act of creation followed by destruction. One of the monks pinched sand grains from the center of a medallion near the middle. Walking clockwise around the table, he removed grains from a medallion in each of the quadrants. Then he lifted a few grains from the very center.
Another monk took a kitchen knife, and made a line through the sand from the outer edge of the circle to the middle. Again walking clockwise around, he did this three more times, dividing the mandala into four even quarters.
All three monks picked up paint sponges, the little gray foamy kind on sticks. Working from the mandala’s outer edge, they pushed the sand toward the middle. The intricate design and crisply defined lines disappeared. With each swipe of the sponge, the sand went from being art back to sand.
There were no bright colors left. All mixed together, they formed an unremarkable, olive-brown pile in the center of the table.
The monks scooped the sand into little baggies. The remainder of the sand was brushed into a glass vase, the type a florist would use for an inexpensive bouquet.
The translator handed a bag of sand to me and bags to the people others standing by. “To cultivate good heart,” he said.
And then, the monks were out the door, with the vase in hand. They headed east, to Lake Michigan. The monks set a brisk pace, just barely shy of a jog. There were nineteen of us following the monks. We were given no instructions on what to do or how to behave. Some of us were silent. Others chatted. “We’re not exactly moseying along,” one guy commented, as he took a couple of running steps to catch up.
When we arrived at the lake, the monks didn’t pause for the group to gather. They moved directly out onto the rocks, with no hesitancy. We arranged ourselves behind them haphazardly.
“I don’t know if I’m supposed to stand or what,” one man said. The monks were sitting, so most of us followed suit.
The maroon and yellow robes of the monks made a vivid contrast to the gray waters of the foggy lake. They chanted. Then the monk holding onto the vase leaned forward toward the water. From our vantage point, none of us could tell what he was doing. His back shook, as if his arm was moving vigorously up and down. When he straightened up, the vase of sand was empty.
I’m accustomed to more build-up in religious ceremonies. There should have been a pause, a speech, a prayer asking for love and guidance from God. A minister would have turned to face us; he would have held the vase up high so all could see. He would’ve made certain that our attention was focused on him, and then he would have poured the sand into the lake from a point high enough for us to witness it flowing out of the vase and hanging airborne for an instant before sinking.
With the monks, you either saw the ending or you didn’t. Your eyes might have been closed at that instant, or open. The release of the sand happened, and then, an instant later, it wasn’t happening anymore. The moment had passed, and a new one had taken its place. All the while, the monks continued to chant. After a few more minutes, the same monk again leaned forward, farther this time. When he returned to his sitting position, the vase was filled with water.
The chanting stopped. The monks gathered their robes and their bells. As they lifted their robes so as not to trip, you could see their shoes. They wore identical brown shoes, not particularly fashionable. The monks’ faces were different from before. Their expressions were relaxed, ordinary. They spoke to one another, and their pace was calm. They were no longer leading us anywhere, but instead intermingled in the group as we started to walk back.
The translator explained that the water would be poured into a smaller container and kept at the chapel. The water was taken from the lake because something was given to the lake, the translator said. “For us, that sand mandala was sacred. We gave it to Nãga, so Nãga had to give us something in return.”
And that was it. The ceremony was over.
Jill Riddell is a writer in Chicago. She teaches at the School of the Art Institute and has a weakness for nature, magic, and pennies abandoned in sidewalk cracks.