Yesterday I stopped by Simmons Hall where two monks have been working on a sand mandala of Arya Tara, the female Buddha in Tibetan Buddhism who, some believe, represents the Supreme Mother of Compassion.

A couple students entered the room with me and, like myself, they didn’t know much about the origins of mandala making or their significance. One student said she heard that  mandalas were created as microcosms of a perfect world or cosmos. A bit later, another woman came through and said she thought they were about impermanence. This seemed plausible since on Saturday, when the mandala will be freshly complete, a dissolution ceremony will take place where the millions of meticulously-placed sand grains will be washed into the Charles River.

Sitting in Simmons, I wondered aloud if it seemed funny to have a complicated time lapse photo/video system set up to capture a practice that, in many ways, did seem to be about impermanence. A guy next to me laughed. “You’re gonna go, those cameras are gonna break, and in a million years, the photos are going to go away too. You think it’s permanent,” he said, “but it’s not!”

Later I did some reading and found that a mandala:

  • can be a schematized representation of the cosmos (Random House unabridged dictionary)
  • may have derived from the circular stupa and the ritual of walking around the stupa in a circle (Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia)
  • can be an instrument of meditation (Encyclopedia Britannica)
  • can symbolize life’s impermanence (New York Times)

While the monks took a break, a protective glass layer was placed over the mandala.

Mandala and monk

The monks use a tool called a chak-pur to distribute the sand.

If you’d like to see the mandala before Saturday’s dissolution ceremony, check the schedule for viewing times.