Sand painting (or, a little knowledge about Buddhism is a dangerous thing)

Tibetan Buddhist monks have a tradition of building mandalas, beautiful geometric symbols with spiritual meaning, out of colored sand. They spend days building the pattern, carefully and ritually, and then at the end, destroy the whole, to show the impermanence of material existence.

Sometimes knitting is a little like that.

Just about a year ago I finished knitting a short-sleeved pullover in Madelinetosh DK.

As of earlier this evening, this is what it looked like:

I had been pleased with the way it turned out, in that it turned out exactly as the pattern would lead you to expect. But I only wore it once, and realized that the pattern was not the best choice for me. The round yoke and cap sleeves were extremely flattering; the wide ribs/welts and the wide neck did lovely things to my shoulders and neck. But a ribbed body with basically no ease is not the best choice for someone who carries her weight in her middle and whose waist bears a marked resemblance to a barrel. I don’t know that it looked as unflattering to others as it did to me, and I would never tell anyone else not to wear this style. But since I, personally, don’t like drawing attention to my waist, I didn’t feel comfortable wearing it.

So tonight I sat down with the sweater in my lap, picked my way around the bottom hem till I found where I’d woven in the end of the cast-off, pulled it out, and ripped the whole thing back.

Now, on the one hand, comparing the creation and destruction of my sweater with a Buddhist mandala, is pretty self-aggrandizing and inaccurate. My sweater was utilitarian rather than spiritual, and rooted much more in display and vanity than ritual purification.

But on the other hand, there is a ritualistic, meditative quality both to making and unmaking a knitted object, especially when that object turned out “right.” You begin by repeating the same stitches over and over again, carefully following the pattern before you, to match an ideal. The result is an intricate pattern where each individual stitch contributes to a greater whole. Then, when the time comes, you reverse everything you’ve done, and release the labor put into the finished object back into the universe.

I also can’t say what Buddhist monks think about this process of creating and destroying. But what I find particularly interesting, as someone who is both type-A and materialistic, is that I find having completed the sweater satisfying in itself, and don’t at all regret ripping it out. You’d think the perfectionist in me would see the creation of something flawed as a failure, that the greedy consumer in me would hesitate to rip back because then I would have one less thing in my life, and that the efficiency-addict in me would gnash her teeth at the waste of time devoted to something I didn’t end up liking.

But I don’t feel any of the above. Instead, I feel satisfied that I finished a project I started, and equally satisfied that I was able to let it go. It’s much more prosaic and mundane than a sand painting, although in the original meaning of mundane: of this world, rather than spiritual; temporal, not universal. But I come away from ripping back with maybe a similar recognition that not everything is permanent and fixed, and that unmaking what we’ve made might provide some perspective on attachment to pretty things.

4388571679_dafc696ca8_bMonks sweeping away the colored sand mandala of Shri Hevajra, Tharlam Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism, Boudha, Kathmandu, Nepal, © Wonderlane via flickr

3 thoughts on “Sand painting (or, a little knowledge about Buddhism is a dangerous thing)

  1. And here you are, once again being thoughtful about creativity and what we do with projects that require revision or recycling, not to mention the problem of gathering more materials than we can use, or things we know there will be a use for one day despite having a lot of other stuff to get through first. This sounds so familiar, somehow. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s funny how the same concerns recur, isn’t it? Research and acquired knowledge as yarn stash… Of course, the stakes aren’t very high in my knitting, but it would be nice to be able to approach other work in a similarly meditative way, leaving aside any anxiety about (career) success and just working.


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