I’m not sure exactly when or how the fascination emerged, but around the age of 19 or 20, I became somewhat obsessed with religious symbols, icons, and representations of the sacred. The possibility that an image or object or fabrication might be able to reveal something about the true nature of reality, the hidden depths of the cosmos, or the mysteries of the Divine was absolutely fascinating to me. Driven by a rather naïve belief in Truth (with a capital T) and a desire to apprehend Ultimate Reality (whatever that might mean), holy figurations seemed to provide a way to penetrate the veil the conceals the eminently real from everyday experience and mundane thinking. That which, by its very essence, points beyond itself, offered a route to reach beyond the rote.
So when I read the influential historian of religion Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane as a young undergraduate student in Near Eastern studies, I felt as though I had found a kind of key that might unlock a door to that which is unknown (except to those with eyes to see and ears to hear). My initial reading of Eliade probably involved a profound misreading,* but the concepts he introduced me to, like “hierophany” and “cosmicization” and “axis mundi,” seemed not only to provide insights about the phenomenological root of humanity’s religious sensibility but also the ontological foundation of the cosmos itself. A hierophany is a manifestation of the sacred, a revelation of an order of reality that is wholly other than the merely material or natural world, and the sacred is that in and through which the cosmic, the divine, or the real shows itself to us. It can appear in anything, from ordinary objects, like a stone or a tree, to human fabrications, like a building or a city, to human beings, like Jesus or Siddhartha Gautama, to events, like a ritual or a holy day.
The star of David, the dharma wheel, the cross, and the yin and yang are just a few examples of sacred symbols, but, in my judgment, very few illustrate Eliade’s notion of a sacralized cosmos as profoundly as the mandala. Mandalas have played a particularly important role in Eastern traditions for thousands of years, but ancient examples have been discovered in (what was once known as) Persia and Mesopotamia, as well as (what is now know as) Europe and North America, and they continue to inspire practitioners today. There is no single design, medium, or meaning that all mandalas have in common, but they typically contain geometrical shapes, such as concentric circles surrounding concentric squares, surrounding a circular center, with each layer containing numerous intricate details. When viewed through a cosmic lens, they begin at a central point (axis mundi), expand outward in the four cardinal directions (our world), and the entire piece is often encompassed by a circular boundary (numenous realm). The arrangement of the shapes connotes a cosmogony, such that its creation is simultaneously a re-creation of the cosmos, or a re-presentation of the sacred through a re-enactment of the founding of the world.
Beyond their significance as religious symbols, mandalas are stunning works of art. Particularly intriguing and impressive for my purpose here are sand mandalas. Take a moment and just reflect on the painstaking process undertaken by Tibetan Buddhist monks who spend days and sometimes weeks pouring each grain into place. Unlike a painter who stands with a brush in front of a canvas that sits on an easel, the surface on which the beauty of the sand mandala will slowly emerge lies beneath its creator, on a table or the floor. And unlike the work of non-religious painters, the pouring out of a masterpiece made from multiple shades of sand involves a ritual enactment and extended meditation. Hour after hour and day after day they sit with their legs crossed in a meditative position, chest leaning down and hunched over the legs with elbows resting on thighs. Their face hovers within inches of the delicate design as they focus simultaneously inward (meditating) and outward (creating), keeping the body still and breathing carefully so as not to displace the sand as they tap and scrape the copper tube from which each grain drops, one by one by one.
The completed work contains a multiplicity of meaning that is simultaneously cosmic (the universe), personal (the path to enlightenment), and metaphysical (the nature of reality). But, somewhat paradoxically, it is only after the last grains have been poured out that the full significance reveals itself most clearly. With the kind of visual artwork that those of us in the Western world are most familiar, such as paintings and sculptures, once a piece is complete there is a desire to preserve it, to solidify it, to somehow seal it, so that it will remain unchanged and can be enjoyed for generations to come. Our tendency is to mark the conclusion of the creative process by hanging it on the wall or placing it in a gallery or protecting it in some way so that it will remain identical indefinitely. There is thus a desire for permanence that often succeeds the successful production of a piece of art.
With sand mandalas the conclusion of the creative process moves in precisely the opposite direction. For Buddhist monk-artists the ritual isn’t complete until their creation undergoes destruction. Within minutes or hours after investing so much time, energy, and focus, the vivid, intricate, and beautiful fabrication is softly brushed away like the ocean that gently smooths the shore. And this is precisely the point, for it is only after its disappearance that the appearance of one of its most profound insights can take place. Like a river that resists rigidity with its undulating fluidity, the impermanence that permeates the cosmos vividly, intricately, and beautifully manifests itself as the colorful grains are swept together and swept away.
Think again about the many elements that are brought together in the sand mandala ritual: years of preparation and training for the meditative movement; carefully gathering, crushing, and dying the sand; preparing and consecrating the space to enact the rite; days of intense effort fabricating, focusing, and facilitating. And yet within moments of producing a stunning and profound achievement, the artists wipe the surface clean, leaving no trace of its former beauty. “What a tragedy and a travesty!” an onlooker might think. Such a discovery can indeed be quite disturbing and even painful once fully perceived, but it can also be quite profound and liberating; which is a significant part the point of the Buddha’s great insights that he so powerfully articulated in the noble truths of dukkha (suffering, unsatisfactoriness, dis-ease), the origin of dukkha, and the cessation of dukkha.
Now turn your attention away from the sacred symbol and consider the combination of countless elements that had to come together in just the right way to create any of the following: an orchid, a flamingo, a rain cloud, a clownfish, a river, a panda, a redwood, an elephant, a volcano, a glacier. Each, in its own way, is constituted by an extraordinarily complex interaction of particles and forces and molecules and relations. Each, in its own way, emerges over the course of an extremely long developmental process, requires an extraordinary amount of energy to produce, and expresses a unique manifestation of beauty. Each, in its own way, is comprised of a continuous flow of elemental events. And, each, in its own way, will eventually be swept away by the sands of time. The apparent stability and relative permanence of the things that make up our everyday experience can thus easily cover over the fundamental truth revealed by the ritual of the sand mandala: reality is a ceaseless cycle of emergence, development, and destruction.
What is so obviously true of the river, the cloud, and the wind is equally true of the rock, the pyramid, and the mountain. Each, in its own way, is intricate, vivid, and beautiful. Each, in its own way, has value in and for itself. And each, in its own way, is constituted by the cyclical process of becoming and perishing. But despite my confidence that an event-based ontology accurately expresses the character of the cosmos, I still cringe when I see the brush swipe away the bright colors and erase the perfect patterns that were arranged into an illuminating image. I still groan when the pristine pastels of pink and red and orange and yellow slip away as the sun falls beneath the horizon. I still mourn when the heart of a loved one stops beating. And because of this deep sense of sadness and loss, I still feel a longing for the fading to finally fade away, a yearning for a time of stillness in which the cycle ceases and a place of permanence where there is perpetual flourishing without perpetual perishing. But because there is no becoming without perishing, the obliteration of one would entail the obliteration of the other. So, rather than desiring that which cannot be, perhaps a better way to respond to the unavoidable dis-ease with the reality of an impermanent reality is to more faithfully attune to, care for, and participate with what matters most—namely, the people and places and things with whom we share our lives . . . right here and right now.
* The details aren’t important for the purposes of this piece, but I first understood Eliade as offering an account of the way the world works (i.e., a kind of ontology or metaphysical speculation), but instead he provides an account of the way the world appears to us (i.e., a kind of phenomenology or existential account of religion). The former tries to elucidate the nature of reality, the latter tries to illuminate the way reality shows itself to human beings. Eliade's project is a phenomenological not an ontological one.