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?
Copyright 2014. Original content and photography authorized only to appear on Untemplater.com. Thank you for reading!