A Message in Sand

(The church to which I belong, Mt Hollywood Congregational, was represented at Burning Man recently – check out this short video about it, which includes shots of Valarie James’ and Antonia Gallegos’ display of artifacts left on the desert trails by migrants entering Arizona from Mexico.)

(My office hosted a group of Tibetan monks, who made a mandala in our Fishbowl Room at the USC Office of Religious Life. I watched them create it over the course of a week, and then watched as they ritually destroyed it in an elaborate ceremony. As I watched them sweep their creation away, I wept for mother, who had died the week before. After 88 years of creating her life, it was swept away like the sand of the mandala.)

A Message in Sand

Rasping a brass stick across grooves on a narrow brass funnel full of sand,
A monk, leaning over a table, listening to a recording of deep, throaty Tibetan chants,
Deposits a few grains at a time onto an emerging symmetrical pattern,
Ordering the soul’s cosmos into an intricate mandala.
Across from him, another monk in a robe of cardinal and gold
Rasps out a tiny line of a different colored sand, reflecting a pattern etched in memory.
It takes a week, or an eternity, depending on how and if one counts,
Moving from the inside out in four directions bounded by a circle.
Students arrive on their beach-bikes, lock them up outside,
And give themselves a minute to observe the monks,
But end up staying longer – half an hour? an hour? – lost in the sand,
Vibrated away from assignments, test anxieties, computer screens,
Smart-phones, schedules, and expectations.
The mandala focuses them on the universal here and the eternal now,
On a constant indefinable center surrounded by change.
Reaching the outermost circle, the monks lay down their brass funnels,
Don their golden crescent head-dresses,
Lift ornate brass horns to their lips,
Close their eyes to chant from the bottom of their voiceboxes,
And wave their whisks through the ordered sand in spirals of release:
A creation including its dissolution,
A creativity embracing its impermanence.
 
JIM BURKLO
Website: JIMBURKLO.COM Weblog: MUSINGS Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

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