Elijah Sullivan, 6, of Laguna Beach watches the monks create the sand mandala on Saturday during an open house with his mom, Sierra.(David Hansen / Weekend)
The monk was hunched over the mandala, one of the oldest artistic traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, when he stopped unexpectedly.
The brilliant sand painting was nearly complete, its rich, fine colors created an intricate pattern steeped in symbolism.
He walked away from the creation and stood about 10 feet away. He hesitated for several seconds, then brought his hand up to his face and sneezed.
Afterward, he offered a quick, wry smile then got back to work.
An ill-timed sneeze would not be good next to exceedingly fine grains of sand.
The monks of the Atlanta, Ga.-based Drepung Loseling Monastery visited Laguna Beach last week, culminating in the mandala ceremony at Neighborhood Congregational Church.
If you’ve never experienced it, it’s a mixture of ancient tradition and modern day hero worship.
The monks, after all, are treated like rock stars — not with the trappings of fancy tour buses or backstage buffets. But they do get fawning attention from iPhone carrying Westerners.
At the Christian church on Sunday there were more namastes than amens — and more selfies than confessions.
It was an iconoclastic sight that seemed absolutely normal for Laguna. The Neighborhood Congregational Church, which officially is part of the United Church of Christ, is known for its progressive and inclusive ministry.
Rev. Penelope Mann pointed out during the ceremony that everyone is interdependent and beliefs should not be “either or.”
“It doesn’t mean that other paths are not important to me or my journey,” she said.
The concept of a journey is fundamental to the mandala. The monks spend about a week working on the sand in whatever city they tour. For more information, visit drepung.org.
In Sanskrit, mandala means “world in harmony.” There is a belief that whoever views the creation experiences profound peace and joy. Given its intricacy, it’s hard not to feel impressed, especially when you know it’s going to be destroyed within minutes of its completion.
Officially, it’s called the “deconstruction process.” Symbolically, it brings home the point that life is temporary. Everything, in fact, has a beginning, middle and end.
Still, it’s a little painful to watch the work wiped away.
Amid bellowing and guttural chants, a monk takes a small whisk and wipes crescent shaped arcs into the sand, turning it from distinct colors and lines into an impressionistic flower with rainbow petals.
Young children at the church had a front-row seat and looked crestfallen, wondering no doubt why the adults had lost their minds.
Even the monks describe it as a “painstaking” process. Their fingers are curled and locked around the instruments for hours on end. Periodically, they unfurl their backs and stretch.
It’s during these moments when one remembers that yoga was invented in nearby Northern India — probably for good reason.
Yoga moms, in fact, are a popular demographic for the monk roadshow. For those practitioners who seek more than just exercise, the symbols of the mandala help empower a more enlightened existence, according to believers.
This particular mandala (there are several types) invoked the teachings of the Medicine Buddha, who has unbiased compassion for all living beings. The goal is to eradicate the “three poisons — attachment, hatred and ignorance — which are the source of all sickness and danger,” according to material distributed at the ceremony.
Despite the apparent holiness of the proceedings, however, there is no escaping modern indulgences.
Truth be told, in the race for social media perfection, the number of cell phones outnumbered crosses. In the middle of the mandala deconstruction, people jockeyed for the best selfie angle.
It was not about serene enlightenment; it was about looking good on Facebook.
Clearly, the new generation values documenting spirituality more than experiencing it.
During the closing ceremony in the church sanctuary, there were nine monks in their full maroon robes standing on the pulpit. They were blowing into their long trumpets, eyes closed in song and meditation.
The only distracting thing were the well-meaning parishioners walking around the holy stage — even behind the monks — with their camera phones perched high like movie producers.
Everything now has become a social media spectacle.
The sacred becomes profane real time.
Interestingly, the children at the event did not have cell phones. They just stood, eyes wide watching everything, trying to understand.
They studied expressions; they smiled for no reason. On some level, they understood innately the beauty, peace and transformation.
In the process, they could do the simple thing that seemed to elude the adults.
The children felt.
DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.