Finding Peace in Sand 

by Kristine Mietzner

Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive. —Dalai Lama

On Key West, Florida’s Duval Street, tourists meander past trendy boutiques, seedy bars, and not-so-dodgy restaurants, including Jimmy Buffet’s original Margaritaville—American kitsch at its best. When I noticed something different -- a banner outside St. Paul’s Episcopal Church announcing the “Dreprung Gomang Tibetan Monks Sacred Art Tour” -- I turned away from the steady stream of winter tourists and stepped inside the sanctuary.

Here, a cosmos away from the outside world, Buddhist monks labored over the creation of a brilliantly colored sand mandala. Seated on a platform in the sanctuary floor directly below the wooden crosses and cerulean blue stained glass windows, the monks from southern India, applied millions of particles of dyed sand to a peace mandala. 

The sand, colored with vegetable dyes or opaque tempera, is poured onto the mandala platform with a narrow metal funnel called a chakpur which is scraped by another metal rod to cause sufficient vibration for the grains of sand to trickle out of its end. The two pieces of the chakpur symbolize wisdom and compassion. In the sand mandala ceremony, I found threads of wisdom for life and a bit more compassion for others and myself.

When I travel and enter an Anglican Church – or the American counterpart – an Episcopal one, I sense the father (and mother), son, and Holy Spirit of my childhood God. I carry my love for my children inside my heart. I feel what Christians call the peace that passes understanding.

Another kind of solace is found in the Buddhist tradition, a sense of acceptance of the world as it is rather than as I wish it could be. The monk’s dedication to the time-consuming construction of the sand mandala echoed the years of tender loving care I spent raising my son and daughter.

As I watched the monks at work, I discovered that the sands of the colorful mandala would be swept up and deposited into the sea in a few days. According to the monks, students of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, the sand mandala is used as a vehicle to generate compassion. The mandala’s construction and deconstruction is intended to help us realize the impermanence of reality. As the sand journeys around the world through rivers and oceans, the mandala is also meant to promote a social/cosmic healing of the environment.

In the sand mandala experience, I found solace for the loss of time with my adult daughter.  When our relationship careened into an on-again-off-again one, my life sometimes resembled the Greek goddess Demeter who searched the world over for her daughter. Demeter was the mother of Persephone, a beautiful young woman who had been spirited away to the underworld by Pluto. I felt my daughter, too, had been taken from me during a litigious divorce.

As time went by I consulted friends, pastors, priests, psychologists, psychiatrists, and spiritual directors and did what I could to make amends. These days, I no longer search for answers. I can simply sit still and wait with acceptance that my adult daughter is on her own personal journey, has her own feelings, and is living her life as she chooses. Sounds simple, but it wasn’t easy coming to terms with this understanding.

I pondered the release of the sand into the ocean and pictured the particles drifting away. Instead of holding on to my grief, I realized that like the dissolution of the sand, I could let go of these persistent thoughts.

Mentally and spiritually, I could send my emotions into the vast ocean of life. The way the sands of the mandala are poured into the sea, I could release a million concerns into the universe. Instead of feeling grief-stricken, I could accept the world and my daughter on their terms not mine.

A Buddhist story tells the tale of an inconsolable mother who seeks help from the Buddha. She was told to visit every house in the village. The woman does this and finds that in every home there is some kind of great sorrow. This story has helped me realize that I’m a mother among mothers; the pain of estrangement is far from unique. To be human is to have joy and sorrow in one’s life.

In the past, saddened over the estrangement, I sometimes compared the loss of time with my daughter to a death. Then, when breast cancer threatened her life, I realized more keenly than ever before how lucky I am that she is still alive.

On Sunday afternoon the monks, along with spectators, traveled to the Key West harbor where the sand was ceremonially poured into the sea to spread the healing energies of the mandala throughout the world. The elements of the ceremony filled me with peace.

Imagining sweeping up the minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years that I spent with my daughter and pouring them into the ocean provided a sense of releasing heartache. More than merely letting go, my heart changed. My thoughts and feelings have been balanced by a greater acceptance of the temporary nature of life and the existence of healing energies.

The current carried away the sands of the mandala. Some of the sand may be washed back ashore by ocean waves. In the same way, the chance to spend time with my daughter may or may not return at some point in the future. By becoming a beginning student of Buddhism, I’ve started to accept the world I live in and my daughter as she is and our situation as the way things are. I’m grateful for the times we have had together.

To be human is to have joy and sorrow in one’s life. The sand mandala ritual, beautiful and inspiring filled me with compassion for my daughter and myself. The Buddhists teach that all humans are connected. And like the vastness of the ocean, there will be no end to my hope for reunification. So much of love is patience.

Love doesn't make the world go 'round. Love is what makes the ride worthwhile. —Franklin P. Jones

For more information about the:

Medicine Buddha (healing) mandala, click here.

Chenrezig (compassion) mandala, click here.

 Amitayus (long life) mandala, click here.


Writer Kristine Mietzner is happy to return to the pages of "Your Life is a Trip" with the name on her birth certificate as a byline. She used the pen name C.Z. Cantrell for the story she contributed during her tenure as an academic teacher in a California state prison. She recently escaped from the Big House and recovered at the Key West Literary Conference as a scholarship recipient. Kristine invites readers to check out her dog blog --  The Tideline, Travels with Kristine and Max the Golden Retriever. 



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