A World in Grains of Sand

Story by Derek Ferrar. Photo by Elyse Butler

For a transcendent week this past winter, my place of employment was transformed into a makeshift Himalayan temple.

Braziers of incense perfumed the air by the entrance to the East-West Center in Mānoa, where I labor in the media mines. Inside our cultural art gallery, a saffron-swathed lama intoned Buddhist sutras at a small altar while a steady stream of curious visitors roamed through the gallery’s exhibition on the mountain kingdom of Bhutan and its social philosophy of Gross National Happiness. At the center of it all, two monks painstakingly sprinkled brilliantly hued limestone powder to create a stunning mandala image.

Integral to Himalayan Buddhist belief, intricate mandalas serve as a kind of map to the metaphysical universe, and monks have been creating these ephemeral “sand mandalas” for centuries. Not only are they astounding works of art, but they’re also a kind of spiritual performance: When one of these masterpieces is completed, the monks dispassionately sweep it away in a stirring demonstration of life’s impermanence. “The message for the people is that nothing lasts in this life,” explained Kinley Penjor, the master artist monk the gallery brought over from Bhutan, along with an assistant monk and Lama Thinley, the delegation’s spiritual head. “So as long as you’re living as a human being on this Earth, be compassion-ate, be kind to others, do no harm.”

The monks brought forth vivid images using just their thumbs and forefingers to trickle pinches of sand, which had taken six brother monks back in Bhutan an entire week to grind and color with natural dyes. At the center of the mandala was the small, blue figure of Mithrup, the deity of death. That choice astonished many visitors, but Kinley Penjor laid out the rationale through translator Thinley Choden, an East-West Center alumna from Bhutan who had helped bring the monks over. “Death is something that all people share, no matter where they are from or what their belief systems are,” he explained. “And through contemplating death, you can truly appreciate life.” All Bhutanese, in fact, are encouraged to ponder their own deaths five times daily as a means to living righteously.

Whenever I had time, I sat quietly in a corner to watch the monks work. And because the Honolulu Civil Beat news site was streaming a live webcam of the proceedings, my colleagues and I found ourselves keeping an eye on the mandala’s progress online throughout our day. It was kind of like watching a child grow up, one coworker remarked.

The mandala drew in a remarkable assortment of people—families, seniors, artists, seekers, dignitaries—you name it. A group of residents from a homeless shelter were captivated by the Bhutanese idea of happiness as the key social indicator. University of Hawai‘i football coach Nick Rolovich came by after seeing the mandala on social media, saying he’d like to show it to the team as an example of ultimate focus and excellence. One little girl captured the experience with charming innocence, blurting out, “This takes a lot of work!”

At the end of the week, about a hundred people circled around as the monks put the finishing touches on stylized lotus blossoms at each corner. After the last grain fell onto the curl of a leaf, Lama Thinley, wearing a resplendent ceremonial cap, performed a short closing ritual. “Imagine yourself as the god in the center of the mandala,” he told the crowd. “Pray for peace and harmony. Have compassion. Use your thoughts and words wisely.”

Instead of destroying their masterwork as soon as it was finished, the monks broke with tradition a bit and allowed the mandala to remain on view for the run of the exhibit. After that it was solemnly swept up and taken out to sea, each grain now considered a jewel of blessing for all creatures. For those of us who’d been lucky enough to have the mandala bloom forth into our work lives, it had certainly been a blissful refuge from the mundane. “Thank god for the mandala,” one stress-prone colleague declared afterward. “It’s the only thing that got me through last week.” HH