The Mandala Sermon

I knew exactly what was going to happen–I had even seen it happen once before–so I shouldn’t have been so surprised. But I was. And shocked, and saddened, and embarrassed about feeling shocked and saddened. And then revelation happened.

This week, my university has been hosting seven Buddhist monks from the Tashi Kyil Monastery in Uttarakhan, India. As these particular monks are wont to do, they spent all week painstakingly creating a beautiful mandala out of colored sand. They finished it at about 12:00 this afternoon. And at 12:15, they destroyed it, swept it into an urn, and took the now-brown sand and dumped it in the Ohio River.

I’ve read books and stuff, and I know why Buddhist Monks do this. It is a way to teach the core Buddhist principle of the transitory–and ultimately illusory–nature of everything. Desire produces attachment, and attachment causes suffering. It’s Buddhism 101. I’ve given the lecture in dozens of World Civ. courses. Don’t get attached to stuff, because it will just go away and make you miserable.

But the mandala was beautiful. And it was meaningful. It depicted the world’s eight great religions in a circle of harmony and vibrant color. Each grain of sand was meticulously placed in harmony with others. Seven monks, in seven days, shook their fists at entropy and wrenched both truth and beauty from common sand. They cooperated. They completed a project. And then they destroyed it. What a waste!

This, of course, is the point. The construction of the mandala was half of a sermon. Its destruction was the other half. The first half of the sermon tells us that, with cooperation, skill, and intense effort, we can make nice things. We can have of meaning and purpose and great beauty all at the same time. We can do hard things and do them well. And we can matter. But we can only do it for fifteen minutes and then everything gets swept away and dumped into the river. Or something like that.

Western writers have taken these facts and drawn exactly the wrong conclusions from them: Shelly’s “Ozymandias,” Johnson’s “Vanity of Human Wishes,” Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” and even the Book of Ecclesiastes. All of these works (and oh so many more) point to the transitory nature of human striving and say, in effect, “what’s the point–it’s all going to end up as dust.” Even the 70s rock group Kansas said so in their most famous song.

This cluster of Western classics about the transitory nature of everything generally end up coming to one of three conclusions: 1) everything is transitory, so be really depressed and wear black all the time and die tragically; 2) everything is transitory, so eat, drink, and be merry because, hey, why not?; and 3) everything is transitory, so focus on really meaningful things like the making sure you get into heaven by being really, really good.

All three of these conclusions are wrong. Or, at least, that is the lesson of the mandala.

What I learned from watching the monks create and destroy is that the transitory nature of a thing does not make it any less valuable or the effort in its creation any less worthwhile. It’s OK to be temporary. Everything else is too. The beauty is still beautiful and the truth is still true–even if it all crumbles to dust fifteen minutes later. It is not the impermanence of things that makes us miserable; it is the unreasonable desire for things to last forever–which, in fact, nothing does.

This, I think, is what Buddhists mean when they say that attachment makes us unhappy. The point is not that we should avoid loving people or things because they will go away someday. It is that we should love them and cherish them while they are part of our lives and not let the fact that they will go away interfere with our ability to love them now. “Attachment” is not love; it is the expectation that what we love will last forever. It is the unfair and unrealistic condition that we create when we say, “I will only love you as long as I can be sure that you will never go away and make me sad.”

Human beings have a strong tendency to equate value with longevity–whether it is relationships, lifetimes, truth, spiritual choices, used cars, or works of sand art. Such a view cannot make us anything other than unhappy, since nothing will ever meet the requirements that such a view imposes. Happy people have figured out, I think, that  things like beauty and meaning and truth don’t have to last forever to be beautiful, meaningful, and true. Things change. 

Impermanence is not a flaw in anything. It is an unavoidable fact of everything. This, to me, is the great lesson of the mandala ceremony. I know that there are theological matters that I am ignoring. But my objective is not to convert you to Buddhism. It is to convince you that all of the things that give beauty and meaning to your life are temporary. They will stop being, or they will stop being beautiful and true. And that is OK, because the boat is not the shore.



All photos by Tamara Geiselman, University of Evansville Campus Minister


  1. This is lovely. I love the sand mandalas, although I’ve never seen one myself.

    One of my life lessons (if you want to call it that) in terms of being an artist/creator, is that it isn’t the finishing that matters as much as it is the process of creating. The creative process itself is sacred (and fun and frustrating and painful and wonderful). There is a joy in the finished product, especially the egotistical part that gets to say, “I did that!” and pick up money/awards/compliments. But that joy isn’t sacred in the same way the process is sacred.

    I hope that makes sense.

  2. Thomas Parkin says:

    Interestingly, to me, the mandala is a symbol of the whole self. In Buddhism, the most Eastern religion, the self is as transitory, and this is key, as everything else. In Mormonism, the most Western religion, the self has an eternal nature – whatever might be transitory about it, it is metaphysically grounded is some enduring thing. As I increasingly detach from everything, I often think I’d make a good Buddhist. But, finally, I prefer a suffering self in an enduring , real, and romantic reality to non-being.

  3. Thanks, Mike. I needed this today.

  4. I agree Thomas has way more to do with attachment than “But we can only do it for fifteen minutes and then everything gets swept away and dumped into the river. Or something like that.”

    Thought Mike would have been more aware.

    Love Phil Barlow’s thoughts on this.

  5. It is probably the life experiences I have undergone recently, but what I really appreciate about our faith is its focus on things lasting forever. So much of what I have given my life and heart to has been taken from me through death and sin and theft. I want what I do to last, not be purposefully destroyed. That disturbs me greatly.

  6. Thoughtful and challenging words and images, Michael; thanks for sharing them. I suppose it’s my own somewhat heterodox take on things, but I’m not sure the attitude you call for–“that we should love them and cherish them while they are part of our lives and not let the fact that they will go away interfere with our ability to love them now”–is necessarily so absent from Old and New Testament teachings. We have certain interpretations of the Book of Job, which begins with “naked I came into the world, and naked I return; blessed be the name of the Lord,” and which ends with God placing all thing great and tremendous and awesome into a transitory context. We have Jesus’s warning in Matthew’s gospel that that which opposes the good is unavoidable, but that which must struggle against such opposition nonetheless. It’s not a major Christian theme, to be sure, but it’s there, I think.

  7. I enjoyed a beautiful sunrise this morning.

  8. I love this post, Michael. I agree with Russell, though. It’s not what gets emphasis, but it is there. It’s also a repeated theme in Tolkien’s books.

  9. “Dust in the Wind” would’ve been a great addition to the new hymnal.

  10. your food allergy is fake says:

    This gets at the heart of my current spiritual struggle. The losses that time inflicts are becoming increasingly painful. I wish I understood time better; what is it? Right now for me time feels like my enemy. And what is eternity? We often think of it as endless time moving unidirectionally, but if it’s the absence of time then that model doesn’t work. And most importantly, in the Buddha’s metaphor, what is the shore? You say that ALL things that give beauty and meaning to life are temporary. If that’s true, what is the permanent thing that one strives for?

  11. Perfection says:

    Here’s what should be done. The monks will set to work on a new mandala that–given the level of complexity and their staffing–should take two weeks. Upon dropping the first grain of sand, a randomized timer is set with a range somewhere between one second and four weeks. No one can see the timer or know how it was set. When the timer runs out, big industrial fans click on, sending robes a-flapping and rainbow sand flying in every direction. This would improve the mandala show in several respects:

    First, it makes the lesson Michael draws from their work more poignant. Michael writes that, “the transitory nature of a thing does not make it any less valuable or the effort in its creation any less worthwhile.” That point is sharpened, when there’s a 50/50 chance the monks won’t be able to finish the work.

    Second, it makes the monks more thoughtful as they’re working. If they drag their heels, maybe they’re sending a message of resignation and complacency (or, as Michael put it, “everything is transitory, so be really depressed and wear black all the time and die tragically”). If they work too quickly, perhaps that teaches that, since life is short, you have roll up your sleeves, get in there, and *hustle.* That internal tension could make them ponder on whether the lesson they thought they were teaching, in the pre-timer era, made any sense, or whether they can really believe it in a universe with time and uncertainty. Maybe it was all a costly signaling schtick–ice sculpture dressed in “deep thoughts.”

    Third, one great “lie” in the pre-timer mandala system is that the transitoriness is *scheduled.* All things must pass, sure; but they pass when the monks *want* them to, after they’ve done what they set about to do. Ha! No, the timer keeps things honest. No man, no woman knows, the hour that sorrow will come.

    Fourth, it’s great for ticket sales. Without the timer, few visitors will sit and watch the monks work for more than twenty minutes. It’s tedious stuff. You go watch for a few minutes, snap a pic to throw up on Instagram, then hit the road. But with the timer, you have *suspense.* The mandala is there, before your eyes; but in twenty minutes, it might *not* be. Stick around just a little bit longer, and you could be there when the fans blow. (A mandala Instagram pic will get a handful of obligatory “likes.” But your “Monks get REKT” video on YouTube could go viral!) More visitors is good for the monks, their message, and the hosting venue.

    I’m no Buddhist, but I see no downside to instituting a timer. It’s good for the message, for the monks, for the spectators, and for the business.

  12. Wow! If Mormon-land had a gamemaker in the style of Hunger Games, I would nominate Perfection to the post!

  13. I hate this. I obviously hold the exact worldview the monks are trying to educate me out of, but theirs looks like a disaster from a practical standpoint. Are they saying “Yes, the world is beautiful, and yes, global warming is going to change the world, but it will still be beautiful, just different, and its current beauty will not lose value by its passing. Don’t become attached to it.” Alrighty then. Burn that oil and coal. That part fits in with the western mindset.

    As for relationships, I’ve been striving my whole life to make them something worth keeping forever, and yes, they’ll change and grow, but I don’t intend for them to vanish. That would indeed be painful. But rather than simply letting them go, I think it would just make me want to work harder on the others.

    It’s nice you took a picture of their mandala (you know, made it last), otherwise the impact of them destroying it wouldn’t have affected me and got me considering their message. Though I’m clearly missing the point.

  14. Important and lovely, thank you Michael.

    Gentle remembrances
    Wash the whited frame.
    I know this place,
    Where young lovers meet,
    And old friends
    Sit quietly outside the gate.
    Somewhere behind me,
    Perhaps on the mantle,
    Or the wall,
    A stone face keeps vigilance.
    Meting out each embrace,
    Striking in the rise and fall.


  15. This really means a lot to me today, as we are facing a painful move just 2 years after my brother moved to the city. I had visions of our kids growing up side by side like a big, happy family, but it’s not to be. I will try and be happy for the time we did have.

  16. Amen amen amen. You’ve summed up perfectly a train of thoughts I’ve been having for a while. Mormonism teaches that the only things that matter are those that last forever, but the profound truth is that even temporary things can be profoundly good and beautiful.

  17. Glenn Thigpen says:

    ” It is to convince you that all of the things that give beauty and meaning to your life are temporary.” Bertrand Russell would agree with you. I do not. I believe love trancends time and death. That is the only thing that gives my life beauty and meaning.

    I do see beauty in the inpermanent things around me, but they are not what give my life beauty and meaning.


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