Today at a church near our house, some Tibetan Buddhist monks are beginning to make a sand painting. It’s in the shape of a mandala. That’s right—real monks, schooled in the same tradition you are learning. Maybe you have even met these fellows, though that is doubtful since they’re from a monastery in California.
I was a little hesitant about stopping in to see what was happening, because at events like this, it’s not uncommon for someone to recognize me as the woman whose child was taken to India to serve as the new incarnation of the Dalai Lama. I haven’t mastered pat responses of what to say when someone approaches. Sometimes when a stranger brings up the subject, to my astonishment, I start to cry.
This mandala making seems like a high-risk activity in that regard, but it also felt like something that might help me feel closer to your world. The church was billing it as a way to help grieving people cope with loss. Their target audience isn’t narrow. It consists of everyone left alive in this post-apocalyptic world. I decided to stop by after I got out of work.
When I arrived, the mandala was already underway. Basically, it’s a piece of art where the design is constructed out of brightly colored grains of sand. This one is being put together on top of a square table with a light blue top. A stencil of the mandala’s shape is penciled onto the tabletop. This mandala looks to me like it will be about a meter in diameter when completed.
To lay down the sand, the monks use metal implements that appear as though they might be specially made for this task; at least, I don’t recognize them as tools from other more familiar tasks. The main instrument is about one foot long, and hollow inside. Like a cake decorating tube, it’s larger at the top end that the monk holds on to and smaller at the bottom end that faces the table. Sand is poured inside it, and the artist releases the sand grains onto the mandala by tapping on the side of this tool with a kitchen knife. This emits a pleasing tone, like the chime of a small bell.
Beside the table where the mandala rests is a work table. Metal bowls half full of sand—white, blue, orange, green, yellow, black—sit there, carefully kept separate from one another so the colors don’t get mixed up. Lying next to the bowls is the collection of special sand instruments.
The monks don’t speak as they work, either to us visitors or to one another. But they have a kind-eyed translator willing to explain things. He handed me a brochure that says that this artform “symbolizes the Buddhist doctrinal belief in the transitory nature of material life.” This reminded me of your colorful handprints in the snow that, within the space of a few hours, had vanished.
I watched the monks work for about forty-five minutes. After this brief exposure, here is the one thing that is clearest to me about the making of a sand mandala: I would be absolutely terrible at it. The planning, the precision, the tenacity to continue working at the same task for hour upon hour—none of this would I be good at. I have a difficult time patiently painting a single wall of a single bedroom one color.
I could stay only a short while, because I knew Griffin would need to be let out. But I’ll return so I can keep you posted on how the mandala develops.
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.