When I was in college, I remember a group of Tibetan monks came to visit our school. The main purpose of their visit was education and sharing one of their unique Buddhist traditions, the creation and destruction of a sand mandala. I had never heard of a sand mandala before so I had no idea what to expect or what the significance was. In short, the wisdom they would impart on me was that nothing is permanent in life, no matter how perfect or beautiful it may be.
The Significance Of A Sand Mandala
Before I dive into the philosophical lessons I learned from that experience, let me explain the basics of the creation and destruction of a sand mandala. A simple definition of the word mandala is “a geometric figure representing the universe in Hindu and Buddhist symbolism.” They are intricate, often very colorful, and patterned. A typical mandala is in the shape of a circle that contains an inner square with four quadrants or “gates” joined with a circle in the very center. They are commonly used for teachings and meditation.
Sand mandalas, you guessed it, are made from sand. Lots and lots of different colored sand that is. It may sound like no big deal, but you’d be surprised at the amount of time, focus, precision, and practice it takes to create one. The Tibetan monks who came to my school worked together as a group, starting from the center of the mandala and working their way outwards in unison.
It took about a week for them to complete with the monks spending many patient hours each day slowly forming this incredible creation. To me it was one of the most beautiful, impressive forms of art I had ever seen created before my eyes. To them it was spiritual, meditational, and one of many brief moments in the journey of life.
The significance of this experience for me was the message that nothing is permanent, even something so painstakingly crafted and aesthetic. Check out the video at the end of the post to see a demonstration of a sand mandala.
Impermanence Is Everywhere
If you take the time to stop and think, it’s undeniable that impermanence is everywhere. The universe and everything around us is continually in a state of change. The speed of change can vary dramatically, but everything is transforming somehow, even if it’s so slow or small that we don’t even notice.
Think about impermanence in nature: a running river is constantly moving and eroding soil, a snake seasonally sheds his skin, a field of green grass dries up and turns yellow in the heat of summer, a tree catches fire and falls after being struck by lightning. The world is in a constant state of change.
Growth and rebirth are gifts of all of this impermanence. I can’t deny that growth is hard; it can be so frustrating! Yet growth is the sustainability that let’s a seed turn into a sprout and eventually a delicate flower or fruit. Growth is also the joyous journey of a child learning to walk, communicate, and over time develop into an adult. You can not have growth without impermanence or impermanence without growth.
Suffering From Attachment And Fear
The opposing side of growth within impermanence is loss. A flower will eventually wilt, a piece of fruit will decay. Life in time, will always give way to death. Nothing is permanent. And the realization of this unavoidable and perpetual loss can cause fear, anxiety, and stress. It can also make us overprotective and very attached to things.
Think about some things in your life that are important to you. Are you constantly worried what you’ll do if they disappear? If you are afraid of losing something, a natural reaction is to hold on to it tighter. But don’t forget that type of response usually results in a negative outcome. Why? If you squeeze something, too much pressure will cause it to quickly break down. Just like all the great love stories have taught us, if you truly love someone, you have to let him/her go.
Attachment will wear you out. Your mind can’t be at peace if you are constantly clinging onto things whether physically, mentally, or both. I’m not saying you have to part ways with a sentimental keepsake or a loved one to find harmony. But you should learn how to part ways with things like clutter or a relationship you’ve lost interest in.
Acceptance & Liberation
The reality that nothing is permanent can be hard to accept. Why do our bodies have to grow old, why do things we buy have to break, why do things have to change, why did she/he have to leave me, why, why, why? You can drive yourself into a deep, dark place by constantly challenging the inevitable.
The wiser approach is to accept the ebbs and flows that are a part of life, learn from each experience, and share joy and happiness with everyone that you can. Set yourself free of anxieties and fear. Let go of attachments and don’t run from loss.
“Loss is a fact of life. Impermanence is everywhere we look. We are all going to suffer our losses. How we deal with these losses is what makes all the difference. For it is not what happens to us that determines our character, our experience, our karma, and our destiny, but how we relate to what happens.” – Lama Surya Das
Here is a video of a sand mandala ceremony that took 4 days to complete, very similar to the one I saw in school. Take a close look at how the monks use their instruments to “draw” the sand in place. You can easily see why it requires a lot of focus, practice, and concentration. Amazing!
Nothing Is Permanent
I used to be terrified of the unknown. I was afraid of losing things and the people important to me. Anxiety and fear had a strong grip on my mind. It was very draining and left me weary. If you feel this way sometimes, don’t lose hope. You too can overcome those heavy thoughts, and start to focus on the positives and learn to let go. We can’t control everything in our lives, even if we desperately want to.
The beauty and message of impermanence the Tibetan monks imparted on me with their sand mandala ceremony brought me an unexpected peace. I didn’t fully comprehend their message at the time, but I do now. Watching them brush the intricate patterns away, I’m reminded of the circle of life.
Bend in the wind if a storm passes through. And remember the sun is always shining above a dark, cloudy sky.
Untemplaters, how comfortable are you with the truth that nothing is permanent? What are some things you’ve been attached to and have struggled to let go? How have you learned to accept impermanence?
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The only permanent thing in the world is change. LOL. Well I do believe in that. By the way thank you so much for sharing your ideas and I am very happy reading your post.
Pura Vida Nick says
The only thing we can be sure of in life is change! Thanks for these insights.
Glad to share. Thanks Nick!
Rank My Video says
And those sand mandalas are pretty awesome. I have witnessed the creation of them before by I believe some Hare Krishnas. So intricate and amazing.
Crazy they just destroy them once they’re done.
The intricacy is what blows my mind. They way the place the sand in such fine lines and speed is like watching an artist with a paint brush.
101 Centavos says
Indeed. There was a show on either the history channel or Nat Geo, titled “Life After People”. Some buildings and structures we may think as solid took surprisingly little time to moulder and decay.
I think about that every time I watch the TV show Revolution. Things can quickly crumble and fall without regular upkeep. I can’t believe the amount of dust that constantly accumulates in my house even with me living in it lol.
101 Centavos says
You know, we had started out by liking Revolution, but eventually got exasperated by the lead characters getting captured, and then miraculously escaping, just about every week. Which leads one to believe, the good guys were idiots by constantly getting caught, while the baddies were equal idiots making sure they were hot-tied 24/7.
101 Centavos says
( hog-tied )
Fun fact: This actually has Hindu roots. Google Kolam. Very common sight in India.
But Sydney, that was a beautiful post! Very touched by it.
Yes you’re correct. I used to think that religions were vastly different from each other, but there are actually a lot of similarities among them. Kolam are very beautiful and colorful too! I love the symmetry.
Buck Inspire says
Amazing post and video Sydney! I do get anxious thinking that one day my parents will pass and eventually I will too. However, this is life and nothing lasts forever. Best to live life to its fullest. Thanks for sharing.
Thanks Buck! I worry more about what’s going to happen before my parents passing instead of their death itself. We must treasure our health as much as possible!
Pauline @ Make Money Your Way says
In Guatemala they do similar floor decoration with painted wood chips and flowers for Easter. The streets are filled with those flower carpets and religious processions step on them as they go, destroying them on the same day.
I am fine with the non permanency of things but have a hard time when things or situations don’t last the time I hoped they would.
Oh that’s fascinating! I’ll have to google some pictures of that. They sound beautiful.
Yes I can understand what you mean about when things end quicker than we expected. It’s hard not to feel disappointed in instances like that. We just have to figure out what the positives are and focus our attention on them instead.
Nice article, Sydney. Yep, you can’t step into the same river twice; hence the beautiful paradox of change being a necessary condition of constancy!
Thanks Chaz! Things are always in motion! 🙂
Shane @ Financial Debauchery says
Rather than fear, I feel excitement dealing with the unknown. I see life as more of a flowing, unpredictable journey really. That nothing is permanent works well for me. I have become more accepting of things especially in times when I am at my worst. There’s always the thought of hard times eventually passing. “This too shall pass” as they say.
Yes, “this too shall pass.” That has helped me cope with the difficult and uncomfortable feelings that accompany change. That’s great you get excited about the unknown!
Sean @ Small Business Billionaire says
Great article. Personally I am fascinated by impermanence, although I admit, I have a lot to learn about being present. I can understand and even expect that change is life. What’s hard for me is to appreciate my life as it is right now…I’m always striving for something better. At a certain point and I think I’m at that point, the striving has become a weakness.
I can understand what you’re feeling. Although I am content and very happy with my life, I put a lot of pressure on myself. My self inflicted striving can stress me out and make it harder to do things. What I’m trying to focus on doing is allocate priority items on my giant to do list for the day that I can reasonably get to. Having a mini to do list is helping me stay present.
Bryce @ Save and Conquer says
As you mentioned, we are all going to die. Unless she has a bad accident, I am sure that my wife will outlive me by many years. It doesn’t bother me. The thought of her being around for a long time to help our son through life makes me happy.
I don’t know if I will grow uncomfortable with death as I get older, but I am okay with it now. We don’t know when our time will come so we must make the most of today and learn not to live in fear.
I used to read books about monks, but I never came across Tibetan monks. I guess I didn’t know what I was missing.
Isn’t it so neat? I was watching some other sand mandala videos on youtube and was completely mesmerized at the skills these monks have and the spiritualness of it all. I like how the destruction ritual breaks down the patterns to a pile of sand that gets returned back to the Earth from which it came.
Financial Samurai says
I love the message. My mother taught me a lot of Buddhist teachings when I was growing up. The Dhamapada was a good book to read of parables if you’re interested.
Desire is suffering, and thinking about this helps really get rid of material things and a constant goal to want more, more, more.
Thanks for sharing!
It is a great message that has made more and more sense to me as I get older. Desire can be debilitating and material possessions can be so constricting. The more one has, the more one can lose. Simplicity is freeing and something I am actively working on.