I read something yesterday that brought to mind an incident that happened while I was at seminary.
September, 2002. A group of Tibetan Buddhist monks were visiting the city, and part of their visit included the construction of a sand mandala of peace. The sand mandala is an intricate design made of colored sand, painstakingly placed into patterns. They were scheduled to finish it in the afternoon.
Image from http://www.rangzen.org/mandala.htm [Accessed 17 September 2010]
At that point in my life, I didn't know much about Buddhism. I was a religious studies major in college and went to seminary to get my master's in theological studies. I interned at the Islamic Society of North America during the January term of my junior year and at a conservative-reconstructionist synagogue the summer between my junior and senior years. I was fairly well-versed with Western religions, but, like most of us, knew very little about Eastern ones.
I remember sitting on the floor, wearing a skirt because I'd been at work. I remember the discomfort of trying to find a way to sit without either flashing the world or sitting on my clunky heeled dress shoes. I ended up sitting with the heels stabbing me in the bum, trying not to squirm in the midst of all that calm. I remember watching a few people meditating in their comfortable flowing pants and shirts--smart clothing choices for that environment. I tried not to feel out of place and failed, even though it was an event in my seminary, a place in which I felt very much at home. I realize now that nobody cared how I sat or what I knew about Buddhism. All of us were welcome to experience the blessing of that time and space. It's something I often forget.
The completion of the mandala was scheduled for 4:00, but the monks weren't ready. There was a mistake, a tiny portion where the sand wasn't perfectly laid out, and they carefully repaired it until it was perfect.
Some chanting, some praying, some admiring of the beauty of the mandala.
Then the monks took paintbrushes and ran it through the mandala, destroying it. I knew it was going to happen, but it made my breath catch and part of me wanted to look away.
The image of that moment has stayed with me. To labor over something so minute, so intricate, so beautiful, and then to destroy it with a deliberate stroke of a paintbrush--it is at once beautiful and tragic.*
The destruction of the mandala was an illustration of the impermanence of everything. Another way Buddhists teach impermanence is to encourage practitioners to meditate on the mental image of yourself dead, body rotting. It sounds grotesque, but it's forces you to realize that all this importance you impart to your body is misdirected. This body is going to become plant food, even though we try to fill it with chemicals and enclose it in vaults to keep that from happening.
The monks then gave a small amount of the colored sand to anyone who wanted some. The sand was a blessing. The remainder of the sand was then poured into a waterway (the canal, for us) to travel through the water and bring blessing to the city.
In my head, they had small baggies for us, but they ran out. In any case, I was searching through my purse trying to find something to carry the sand. The ceremony had impacted me, and I wanted something to remember it.
And then, I found it. It was to become a metaphor for my life:
A plastic Tums container that had a partially-eaten roll of Tums inside. I removed the antacids, cupped the container in my hands, covering the words, and took it up to the monks to have it filled.
For the last eight years, that Tums container has been a reminder to me. We all live in the midst of paradox--stress and calm, confusion and wisdom, muddy and clear. Antacids and sacred sand.
It's not a bad way to live.
*I've thought about knitting something beautiful and then ripping it out as a spiritual exercise. Thus far, I've not found the umph to do it.