A spiritual lesson written in sand

I visited the Asia Society on my lunch hour where four Tibetan Buddhist monks are creating a mandala. It’s a rare treat. I’ve only seen one other before; created in the lobby of the World Trade Center many years ago.


Do you guys know what a mandala is? That’s all SAND, friends. A mandala is a beautiful, painstaking, time consuming, spiritual work of art.


It’s being created in conjunction with The Asia Society’s current exhibit, Golden Visions of Densatil: A Tibetan Buddhist Monastery. The monastery was destroyed in the 20th Century and its reliefs and sculptures scattered to the wind. As Holland Cotter of The New York Times wrote in his exhibit review, “You have to hate or fear something a lot to do what China did to Tibetan Buddhism.” The pieces are now being gathered and the Monastery restored. They’re on display until May.


They started the mandala on Thursday and it was scheduled for completion on Sunday. A pattern is designed and draw in pencil. You can still see some of the outlines along the perimeter.


Colored sand in copper bowls is poured into copper funnels tapered to fine point. The monks tap or scrape the funnels with copper rods and the sand slowly pours out in small increments.

The mandala will remain on view through May until the exhibit closes. Do you know what they do with a mandala once it’s completed?

Mandala3They destroy it.

A ceremony is performed and the monks who created it take a broom and sweep it away. After all that hard work! It’s a meditative lesson on life’s impermanence. Everything changes, brothers and sisters. Nothing lasts forever. Trying to hold onto something, be it a shiny bauble, your fading youth or someone in your life, is an exercise in futility that will only lead to an unsettled and agitated mind.

The sooner we learn to LET GO of things, the happier we’ll all be. Reet?

You are permitted to stand along the perimeter and observe. The room is dim and a quiet respect fills the air. The monks talk amongst themselves in low tones and will occasionally chuckle over a private joke. They work seven hours a day.

Mandala10Their philosophy is the closest thing I’ve ever come to being moved spiritually. I sat in Catholic churches and parochial schools all throughout my youth. I was never touched and, more often that not, was just bored. These are not negative judgments I’m espousing. Just my own personal experiences. My mother was saved by the Catholic church. She died peacefully because of her deep faith. She was always sad that I didn’t embrace the church’s teachings, but what am I to do? You can’t manufacture enthusiasm. It’s either there or it isn’t.

7-Year Old Daughter had her first Holy Confession last week. It’s one of the seven sacraments you can receive in the Catlick church. In confession, you sit with a priest, one-on-one, and confess your sins. Afterwards, you are given penance, usually a series of prayers to recite. It’s cathartic for a lot of people. 

Before their confessions began, the pastor stood in front of the congregation and said:

“I’m addressing just the children.

We are all sinners. It says so in the Bible! And if you say you’re not a sinner, then you are calling God a liar.”

What a heavy trip to lay on an innocent 7-year old! Always the beat-down. This is the oldest trick in the book. In the military they do it in boot camp. In fraternities it’s called hazing. It’s at the core of most theologies. You’re torn down, made to feel lowly and unworthy, and then rebuilt. You feel grateful towards your tormentors—the very people who damned you!—for making you feel whole again. I should take her to a monastery and save her from all this wrath.


92 thoughts on “A spiritual lesson written in sand

  1. They had some monks at our local museum working on mandalas recently. The kid and I happened to show up right when they were clearing a completed one away. I was surprised, but the kid “got it” right away. It’s definitely a beautiful thing to watch these being created.

      • I’m laughing because I would accidentally be calling it a trashing ceremony. Not real reverent, right?

        I am former Catholic, but I thought confession was being phased out? Or is that just the confessional? I also thought they got rid of the concept of original sin?

        It could be i was dreaming these mandates…so feel free to call me crazy or to tell me to look it up myself 🙂

      • You make an excellent point. What exactly IS that ceremony called, anyway? Everything’s got a name.

        Confession is still going strong. Are you kidding me?! With all that sin in our hearts?! Who would forgive us? But I think you might be right about Original Sin. I think that’s considered passé now. Is it? Next stop: Google.

  2. I’ve never understood the concept of being born into sin. Like as soon as you come out of your mother you’re already a sinner and all you’ve done is cry after the doctor smacks your ass. I don’t like all the guilt associated with Catholicism either, and I like their blatant hypocrisy even less.

    As for the mandala, that is quite impressive and the lesson it teaches is invaluable. It’s a lesson I still need to learn.

    • Right! What’s with all the guilt right away!? You should have seen the looks on these poor kid’s faces. Sheer terror. And when they were waiting in line to talk to the priest it was like watching the Death March to Bataan.

      I’m still working on the detachment-thingy but I’ve come a long, long way. It’s worth the effort, that’s for sure.

    • To be fair, buddhism recognizes man as sinful, they just phrase it differently and are less heavy handed about it. Buddhism would say man is ruled by appetite, passions, and attachments, which is essentially the same thing as being sinful. But they’re less dogmatic than christianity, which is probably what appeals to westerners. There’s an interesting scene in “Whore’s Glory” where the buddhist prostitutes offer incense to better their chances of scoring a john. I’m not sure you’d see that in a catholic church, or at least, they wouldn’t be praying out loud about it!

      • You’re pretty knowledgeable! Have you studied theology? The most valuable lesson I learned from studying meditation and Buddhism was the concept of attachment. I’ve been so guilty of that in the past but I’m getting much better at letting go. It helps when you grow older and have lost a few things. You see the truth in it.

  3. Wait – are you paraphrasing, or is that REALLY what they said to your daughter?

    I would FREAK if I spent all that time on something and then just brushed it away. Yikes! I guess I’m having trouble with the whole impermanence thing.

  4. What nice pictures. While it sometimes annoys me how buddhism is regarded as trendy and cool by westerners (you don’t see many rock stars trumpeting about the plight of coptic christians in egypt, for example), there is no doubt that buddhism is a beautiful religion. Probably one of the greatest cultural losses of our modern age was the taliban destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001. Buddhist monks remind me of the 3rd century desert fathers, in fact I’ve read the theory that christian monastic traditions were heavily influenced by buddhism.

    • The hipness-factor that attached itself to Buddhism can definitely distract but I still think it’s worth looking past the PC-ness at the core message. It’s valuable. Do you know what I like about Buddhism? They don’t prosthelytize. If you want to know about its teachings, you have to seek it out. None of that burning-to-damnation if you don’t agree with us nonsense.

      I remember when those grand statues were blown to bits. What a bunch of dickheads the Taliban are.

      That mandala will be on display through May. It’s worth a look if you’re in the neighborhood. The pics don’t do it justice.

      • In terms of practical application, Buddhism is probably a more humane religion, psychologically, than catholicism. Or at least traditional catholicism. They’re getting a lot more liberal since vatican II.

      • I really like this new Pope. I don’t see myself ever going back to the church, but if anyone is going to drag the Catholic church kicking and screaming into the 21st century, it’s that guy. He took the opulent home of a rouge priest in Germany and turned it into a soup kitchen. Brilliant!

  5. Isn’t that amazing? I’ve heard vaguely of this practice but didn’t know the specifics so this was a great read. Of course, as inspirational as I find their task, I can’t help but wonder how sore their backs must be after seven hours of hunching over like that!

  6. How I wish one of those children had said “God can kiss my ass” to the pastor. Any god that sends people to hell is a fictional monster created by humans to control other humans. Buddhism a god-free religion that doesn’t try to control people by fear – why don’t you encourage your daughters to learn about its teachings?

    • I was really, really mad, but I didn’t say anything out loud. Here’s the funny coda I left out of the post:

      All the adults had to have their confessions heard as well. When it was my turn, I walked up, sat down and the priest leaned forward. I skipped the whole “Bless me Father, for I have sinned…” spiel and said, in a calm, respectful, non-confrontational tone, “Look, Father, I’m only here for my daughter. I was raised Catholic but I left the church a long time ago. There are too many of its teachings that I disagree with.” He looked at me over the top of his glasses. Paused. Blessed me and sent me on my way. Does that mean I’m absolved of my sins?

  7. I have to ask, even though it might come across as rude: why do you take your daughter to a Catholic church? What is it that keeps you going, when she’s scared and you’re not enthusiastic?

    As for the colors, which astound me… I’m terrified of things not lasting. I like change, but only the kind I choose. I’m in for a hard fall at some point, and am living today more tightly wound than I want to be. I want to learn from the monks.

    • There’s a long history of the church in both of our families. It stretches back many generations and to simply walk away is not as easy as it sounds. It’s not a COMPLETE horror show. You can get a pretty decent moral compass. I prefer they grow up in the church and then, when they are adults, they can embrace it, like my mother did, or walk away, as I did.

      Sorry. We don’t have a lot of control over the things that pass in and out of our lives. You should see the ceremony where it’s destroyed. They do it without blinking an eye. Here one second, gone the next! It’s astonishing to sit through.

      • I don’t have generations to contend with, that’s true, and I didn’t actually mind being raised in the church. It was far more good than bad – in fact, I don’t think there was ever any real bad, I just personally outgrew what I was finding there. I have a few friends who are on the point of having kids, and they’re considering rejoining the church just to have more of a community for their kids to grow up in, which is another thing a religious affiliation can be good for.

      • I don’t think it’s an unhealthy environment, necessarily. With proper oversight and course correction, I think it can actually help. What strikes me is how young they start. These concepts cannot possibly be understood by children. When I was 7, I received my first communion. I didn’t know what a metaphor or simile was. I thought the body and blood were literal. I thought those were wafers of human flesh and that actual blood was in the chalice. That’s scary stuff for a kid.

  8. I stand with the Great Ape on this. But I also understand your position. As you say, it can be very hard for one member of a family to break with tradition.

    Still…if I had children I would not have them schooled in a religion. Respect is the key factor, I think.

    I’ve seen the mandalas Indian women do at their doorways, sweeping away each day. And I’ve even tried the sand drawings in Vanuatu (I was hopeless!). There, it is a form a historical story-telling; each clan has its own totem and only clan members may illustrate it.

    • Tradition dies hard, that’s for sure. And for all my bitching and moaning, I actually think it’s good for them to have some exposure to religion. Please don’t ask me to justify that because I can’t put it into words. It’s just a feeling I have.

      You may have been hopeless in Vanuatu, but you’re supremely gifted in other ways. I have the physical proof framed and hanging above my dresser.

  9. I learned about these from you, way long ago… been stuck in my brain ever since. I still don’t know much about them, but I figure there is something tremendously humble and human about creating such beauty only to rip it down. As though it’s a lesson in what we have – if we can’t be happy without it, even without something we paintstakingly created with our own hands, what are we? I don’t have an answer to that question. But I can see why you have felt spiritual about this stuff. It’s mind-bending in the best way. In the truly pretentious way that this will sound, I feel the same way about my longest stories, the ones that sprawl into ten or twenty thousand words, the ones that stay mine. The ones I forget about after the last word’s done, and then they’re gone. Because the next one is out there, too, and it comes from me, so I fear nothing, and I am never finished. Perhaps I’m turning into a monk… well, we are definitely not having more kids, so…

    My parents would be happy to have my kids adopt their religion. And I’d be happy if they did, but of their own accord, and because they felt something in it. I never did. I don’t think I ever will. I figure that’s okay too. Thanks for this, Mark. It’s amazing.

    • To destroy what you’ve created and not feel bad about afterwards it is contrary to everything I believe about art. That whole not feeling bad about it is the tricky part. But I believe that if you can master that, you’d have the key to long-term happiness.

      You analogy is not pretentious in the least. It sounds like the essence of what these monks are trying to teach in their create/destroy cycle. Why worry when you have a bottomless well of inspiration to draw from? Send the bucket down and see what comes up.

      • That’s well said. I think you have to trust in your own ability to create, and to create again, and to leave behind whatever you have already created. That’s freedom.

  10. This is amazing – I’ve never heard of this before… thank you for sharing! I’m still hoping to get your side of the pond at some point this year. Fingers crossed.

  11. I come from a family of church-goers — the United Church of Canada, which is about as easy-going a Protestant denomination as you will find. It’s like church by committee. My parents are stalwart members of their congregation, and I’ve always felt their faith represented what religion should be: open-minded, gentle, trusting, respectful. One of my brothers is gay, another one converted to Catholicism, my sister and I turned our back on religion entirely, and yet our parents never judged or condemned us or loved us any less. My father recently had a health scare and had to undergo surgery. During the ordeal, I never sensed that either of my parents felt any great fear. Worry, sure, but not fear of death, and I think it was because of their faith. I don’t understand it, I don’t believe in it, but I kind of envy it. As these monks demonstrate, faith offers so much potential for peace. It’s too bad people let it be turned to darkness.

    • My mother was very close to the church. She used to do their gardening out front and cooked for the priests and nuns. Just like all good Italians should. But she never, NEVER, proselytized or judged anyone for their beliefs or lifestyles. She thought the notion of burning in hell if you’re not a Christian was bunkum. Buddha spoke of a middle path we can all walk. One that’s spiritual but isn’t consumed with religious dogma or life-consuming devotion. It’s this healthy relationship with the church I hope to foster in my kids.

      I have gay family members and, of course, living in New York all those years, had many gay friends. I feel bad for people who don’t know any gay people at all. The ones I’ve been fortunate enough to meet are smart, funny and successful. They add a little zing to your life.

      Nice, thoughtful comment. Thanks for taking the time. You make this a better post.

  12. What a profound message. If I lived closer I’d definitely go check this out… something about it calls to me – the dedication to it, despite the knowledge that in the end they are going to destroy it. We don’t see that a lot anymore. Most people, when they realize something is going to be trashed after it is completed choose to put in less than their best efforts, so they can spend their time on something “more important.” I think we, as a society, need to get back to the mind set where if you are going to start something, you need to give it your all no matter what the end result is going to be.

    I’m pretty sure I’d have pulled the Little Prince aside and said, “God is a liar,” before letting him go into confession. I may not have let him go at all… But, I have major problems with most organized religions. My parents are both very spiritual and I grew up in one church, then bounced around to a bunch of different churches in college, trying to find that same spirit my parents had in theirs… only to never find it, in a building, in a congregation, in what I saw as the hypocrisy of their teachings. I still have faith, but I don’t need to align myself to a specific religion anymore. I don’t need to go to a church to feel close to God.

    • I’m not 100% sure where you are but I’m willing to bet that this sort of thing goes on not far where you live. It’s more common that you’d think and it’s definitely worth seeking out, if not for its spiritual aspects then for its artistic merits.

      As I’ve said above, old, multi-generational traditions die hard. And despite the seemingly blizzard of negativity, there are some valuable life lessons you can pick up in the church. I just need to be diligent and teach them that acceptance of others is critical. “Toe the line or burn in hell” is not a truth. Not in my world, it isn’t.

      Thank you, very much, for this thoughtful comment. This takes time and I appreciate it.

      • I had meant to say, “I’ll have to look and see if there are any events like this near where I live,” but my mind had already gone on to the second part of my comment.

        I agree that their are valuable lessons that can be learned from the stories typically taught in churches. And, I will do my best to make sure the Little Prince gets those lessons… I’m just not sold on the actual need for the church to go along with them. I think we are on the same page there.

        Yes, old traditions die hard. Though, it is fascinating to watch the shift, especially near the end, when things start to move quickly and the people on either side cling desperately to what they’ve always known, and/or look upon the others with contempt for refusing to change with the times.

      • Speaking of a quick shift; this new Pope is going to ruffle some feathers. I’ll bet there are a lot of Cardinals in the Vatican who are saying to themselves, “What the hell were we thinking?” That guy’s heart is in the right place. It’s not all P.R. and bullshit. But I still don’t think the only road to heaven runs through the Catholic church, as they would have us believe. If there even IS a heaven, for that matter.

      • He’s great! For instance, right out of the gate he said the church needs to worry less about abortion and gays and more about the poor and disadvantaged. There was a priest in Germany who accumulated a lot of suspicious wealth. The Pope threw him out of the church and turned his opulent home into a soup kitchen. Harley Davidson gifted him a very expensive motorcycle. The Pope promptly sold it and gave the proceeds to the poor. I can almost get behind a guy like that.

  13. If someone destroyed my mandala after such painstaking patience, I think I would kill them. This is why I’m not a Tibetan monk. I get upset if someone touches my snowman! I have much to learn.

    • That is hilarious. Here what you should do: Come here to NYC for the ceremony in May when they destroy it. You and I will try to hold the monks back and prevent them from sweeping it away. It’ll be so funny! People will laugh and laugh and laugh. Then the monks will probably kung-fu our asses.

  14. I heard about the mandalas, and I get them, I really do. Some of the most beautiful views, like sunsets, clouds in the sky, a forest right after the snowstorm are fleeting and disappear in a matter of seconds, minutes, maybe hours if we’re lucky, and they are beautiful and special in part because of that short time when we can see and experience them.
    I’ve never done an actual mandala, except, maybe, in a manner of speaking – working on something for weeks nearly every night and weekend, so that your work can be shown for two or three hours just once, and never repeated again. Those were comedy shows, so they have nothing to do with beauty or whatever meaning actual mandala is supposed to convey, but the general idea is still similar.

    • That’s an excellent analogy you drew between the mandalas and nature’s beauty. They’re both ephemeral.

      I have more respect for comedians than pretty much any other performer. I see a TON of plays and all the actors are surrounded by a support group; playwrights, directors, fellow actors, etc., etc. Comedians are out there on their own. The only thing separating them from disaster are their words. No help from anyone. It takes guts!

      • At the risk of losing your respect, I have to admit that it wasn’t stand up most of the time – it was a sketch/improv comedy, but all the writing, directing, acting, singing, prop-making, fundraising, etc., still had to come from within our group.

  15. I’ve never seen a mandala, but I’ve read about them and seen photos, and think that is one of the most valuable lessons one can learn. I started early when my dad died (I was 13), and have continued to lose pretty much everything on a fairly regular basis. The interesting thing is: most of it gets replaced in some way. Even my father was kind of replaced by my father in law. I guess the only thing that could not be replaced in any way is a child.

    • I’m sorry to hear of your father’s untimely passing. And for all your other losses, as well. But you seem to be the resilient type. That’s what I take from your blog, anyway. It took me a long, long time to embrace NOT embracing, but the lesson is finally starting to sink in. Better late than never.

  16. Your blog reminded me of my 12 years in Catholic school starting in 1956. I was convinced I was sinning several times a day without even thinking. Vatican II planted the seeds of the church’s problems. I left because all the things I was punished for while attending Mass are now the norm.
    I get the message about destroying the mandala, just don’t think I could do it.

    • I had all kinds of exposure to Catholic doctrine but I have to say, none of it ever got under my skin. Some of it is kind of mean. And it’s exclusionary. Why can’t women be priests? What a dumb rule. Among others.

  17. So, you disagree with Catholicism, but you’re prepared to make your children go through with all that shit, so that they can later reject it? That’s utter indocrtination into a vile ideology of self-hate, and totally against all the values you express elsewhere. Can’t understand that one my friend. You’ve got a chance here, to let them make up their own minds, not steer them into it when they’re too young to question your otherwise reliable authority.

    • It doesn’t make a bit of sense on paper but it is what it is. I’m not sure how to defend it other than to say I’m vigilant against the dark stuff and try to focus on the useful stuff. Some ceremony in their lives offer some structure, I suppose. I dunno.

      • Ceremony, order, morality, a sense of awe and wonder in the world, and lessons to ingrain a sense of our responsibilities to others — you hardly need a sexophobic bunch of child molesters to give that to a child. “It is what it is” — no, you’re perpetuating this horrible cycle as some kind of test from which they are then expected to escape. It’s a repellent institution which seems to be able to float with impunity from all the disgusting things it perpetuates and the crimes it has committed against children. And people still send their children to its officers. I don’t understand it one bit.

        Sorry Mark, the section *is* called Vent Central.

      • I don’t know how to respond (for once). I’m in total agreement with what you say. But it’s complicated. We’re not just dealing with my wishes and desires. I have to respect the opinions and desires of many people, both living a dead. Seriously. As I said, it’s complicated.

        Vent it says and vent you should! The only person I ever censor is myself, and that’s to protect the innocent.

  18. Well I don’t see how you can agree with me and still send the children there, but there you go–this is perhaps one for when I find some money down the back of the sofa for that flight to New Jersey. All the best — C.

  19. I love an artist, Andy Goldsworth, for similar reasons – he’s the only artist that has touched me deep inside because most all his works are ephemeral. His doc, Rivers & Tides is so excellent. And like you, growing up Catholic (Italian NY Catholic to boot!) – I never felt anything at church.


  20. I’ve got to agree with all that Looby vents here. I read this post and was sort of disproportionally troubled by it but didn’t feel I knew you enough to spout off.
    You come across as a great Dad and introduce your girls to lots of interesting stuff so the whole Catholic thing seems an anathema to me. Breaking with tradition isn’t as hard as it sounds, and once you’ve done it there’s no looking back. Although my family weren’t hugely religious they were traditional and were mortified when I became pregnant while at college and didn’t marry my daughters father. Another baby later and years down the line everyone has come round to the idea and I’m glad I didn’t toe the party line as it were.

    • You both make sense yet I don’t feel compelled to suddenly, out of nowhere, (because that’s how it would seem) rise up and demand that the girls stop going to church. It’d be me vs. a whole bunch of other people. And they really do seem to enjoy the community aspects of it. They meet some nice people and enjoy socializing. Can you imagine if they had to explain that dear old Dad put his foot down and demand that they break with the church? It’s been a part of their lives since they were born. I guess I’m asking you to put yourself in my shoes but I’m not sure you can imagine what it’d be like.

  21. I’ve got to agree with all that Looby vents here. I read this post and was sort of disproportionally troubled by it but didn’t feel I knew you enough to spout off.
    You come across as a great Dad and introduce your girls to lots of interesting stuff so the whole Catholic thing seems an anathema to me. Breaking with tradition isn’t as hard as it sounds, and once you’ve done it there’s no looking back. Although my family weren’t hugely religious they were traditional and were mortified when I became pregnant while at college and didn’t marry my daughters father. Another baby later and years down the line everyone has come round to the idea and I’m glad I didn’t toe the party line as it were.

  22. Oops, sorry, didn’t mean to post it twice !
    I do understand where you’re coming from and really I’m making no judgement. I’m sure your girls have a great time socializing with the other kids and get to meet some good folk too.
    I suppose for me, aside from all the guff and vile behaviour sanctioned by the Catholic Church it’s what I see as a lack of intellectual rigor being a believer involves, that really concerns me. I have to confess I’d be mortified if my girls ‘found God’. But I’m sure you add a great balance to all that, it’s clear from your writing that you’re an open minded sort of chap.

    • The church really does like their parishioners to me mindless followers. The “sheep” metaphor they frequently employ is not accidental. The fact that I only go to church twice per year I think sends a pretty strong message without my actually saying anything. They’re bright kids. They know what I’m thinking.

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