Sacred Spaces

Creating a Mandala. Photo by Paolo Massa

Creating a Mandala. Photo by Paolo Massa

In case you missed it the first time, here’s “Sacred Spaces,” a piece I wrote for Hothouse on Oct. 2:

There’s something sacred about watching Tibetan Buddhist monks create a healing mandala, a temporary, artistic, geometric structure. Mandalas are normally circular, made of brilliantly colored sand. Monks use straw-like tools with pointed tips to move the sand into place and to shape it, sometimes while chanting, sometimes in silence. Building one is a meditation for the monks. They picture the mandala as a three-dimensional palace and believe deities reside within the confines of the structure, showing us all how to live.

As a woman whose husband is a pastor in a conservative evangelical Christian denomination in the Midwest, I’m not supposed to feel that there’s anything sacred in watching monks build a mandala or find anything healing in the exercise. It’s taboo. Some of my Christian friends might even believe it a sacrilege. Finding anything sacred outside of acceptable conservative biblical confines, especially in any other religion besides Christianity, might even cause them to say that I’m un-Christian. And yet, to me, there is an undeniable beauty in the slow work of the monks. Their labor begets a kingdom of sand, walls of dust, reminiscent of our impermanence.

While I don’t believe that deities live in the sand structure—after all, I follow a monotheistic religion that makes a distinction between Creator and creation—the monks’ belief in the presence of deity is not all that different from my Catholic brothers and sisters who believe Christ is literally present in the bread and the wine during Eucharist. Or my belief that God is present during a Sunday morning worship service as voices permeate the sanctuary in song.

The monks’ meditations and chants call upon the deities for their presence and to release their divine healing energies into the world. During a Eucharist Liturgy, a priest might repeat what Jesus said during the Last Supper, “This is my body,” and in doing so create a space for the divine within the bread and the wine so worshipers take God into their bodies as sustenance. It’s the same when I sing to my God in the car on the way to work and feel moved by something beyond what I can touch or see, compelling me to live my day in God’s kingdom—in love and peace. We’re not so different, many of us, in our desire to be in the midst of the sacred, whether in sand, bread and wine, or song.  

While I was a newspaper reporter, I followed the work of monks from the Drepung Monastery’s Loseling Institute in Atlanta, Georgia. Originally established in 1416 in Lhasa, Tibet, the monastery itself is exiled to southern India because of China’s invasion of Tibet in 1950. Monks from the Loseling (Hermitage of the Radiant Mind) Institute were invited to visit a private boarding school in northern Indiana and create a healing mandala. I kept track of their work for my readers.

Watching their progress brought two questions to mind:

 1. What’s the point if it’s only to be swept away?

 2. What’s the nature of the sacred in art created by human minds and hands?

Once the mandala was finished, the monks held a ceremony, sweeping together all of the colored sand. After watching their hours of effort and sustained attention swept up, the colored grains of sand mingled in a neat pile in the center of the platform where, all week, the beauty of the distinct colors and shapes took form, I was seized by a sense of regret. All their work, now only a pile of dirt. But it couldn’t be any other way. To release the healing energies of the deities from the chambers of the mandala, the monks would have to disperse the sand. And they did, partly into the lake next to the campus and partly to the students of the boarding school. Students were invited to take a small phial of sand, blessed by the monks, in the same way a priest might place the consecrated host into the mouth of a believer in Christ. It was in their meditation over the mandala, rather than a sense of completion in a job well done or the mandala itself, that brought enlightenment for the monks.  The created thing needed to be swept up and shared. Once the bread is consecrated, it needs to be eaten.

And maybe that’s partly the sacred nature of art. For some, like me, who need to feel a connection to the sacred, art can be the vessel, the medium through which we might come into the presence of something far more powerful and holy and other. As I’ve read and practiced creative nonfiction, I’ve found that searching memory, pulling out certain buried memories, and reliving them through the act of recreating them with words on the page is a sort of meditation that helps me feel closer to the people with whom I’ve lived those memories. In this way, art creates space for the divine, allowing us to see each other as we really are in all of our human frailty and impermanence. In that moment, we’re united as we see ourselves within the condition of others. In that unity, I see a divine image that points to something other than me. I realize how this sounds—like so much gobbledygook and mumbo-jumbo, easily dismissed. But it’s the peace that art offers, like monks finding deity in their houses of sand, or ephemeral voices raised in worship, that calls me to the healing nature of the creative process. In seeing or listening to or touching or making art, we can share in a moment of the presence of the divine, taking it into our bodies so that it fills us, sustaining us in the sufficiency that acts of creation offer and in the unity it nurtures among us and our God.

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