Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Tibetan Sand Painting

                            He who binds to himself a joydoes the winged life destroy.
He who kisses the joy as it flies, lives in eternity's sunrise.


                                                        -      William Blake


Many years ago, a group of Tibetan monks came to my school. Working steadily over three days, they created an exquisite mandala design on a table working with colored sand. Grain by grain, minute by minute, hour by hour, the kids could see the beautiful design slowly emerge and witness the immeasurable patience of the monks working with such disciplined precision. 


When it was finished, the whole school gathered around the painting and knew the original meaning of the word “awesome.” A profound silence settled in the room as the monks talked about the process and the meaning of the work. And then a collective gasp as they swept the sand away. Without even taking a photo of it.


Three days of painstaking labor to create something of beauty. Three minutes to sweep it away. The children—and teachers—were astounded. This went against the grain against the very core of modern culture. Everything must be saved and documented to be bought and sold and owned and kept, everything made, even in joy and beauty, must be packaged and shelved and given a monetary value and prominently displayed. The very idea of working so long and so hard and then sweeping it all away into a random pile of sand goes against the grain (so to speak) of the very fiber of our being, especially our Western consumer being.


But welcome to the Buddhist tenet of impermanence, the uncontestable truth that all things arise and fall away, are born and die, in the lion’s paw of Time. That no matter how much you amass on this earth, you can’t take it with you into the other world. And so disciplines like sand painting are the ritual enactment of this Noble Truth, the invitation to be fully present in the act of Creation, to kiss the joy of Creation as it flies without attachment, knowing that another opportunity to create again awaits. 

I don’t believe the Buddhists are suggesting burning the Buddhist Sutras or Bach’s creative output or Miles Davis’ recordings. Of course we want to save what gives us happiness and generously preserve it for the next generation to enjoy. But the binding of joy until all life is squeezed out of it, the obsession with consumption and material wealth, the now hyper-documentation of every moment of life with the cell phone, is something that cripples the Soul and covers eternity’s sunrise with storm clouds and black smoke. 


This memory of those monks came from a lunch with a fellow retired school colleague who shared the miracle of the school we built through decades of working together. Like the monks, each class was another colored grain of sand that gave a beautiful shape and form to the emerging design. Now we both lamented that so much of what we worked to create is being swept away by a vision-less administration trying to make the school like everyplace else, at the cost of some six million dollars of unneeded fundraising. We acknowledged how it hurt us to see it all swept away so unthinklingly. 


And make no mistake. There is a big difference between the bully on the beach knocking down your sand castle and you yourself doing it. The Tibetan lesson is that you consciously choose to do it yourself. Again, not always in the literal sense, but deep in the heart, to love and savor each minute of that beauty we created with the children and then knowing that life is change and new mandalas await us, to let it go, release the pain of impermanence and watch it fly freely into the sky. It’s not easy. But it’s necessary.

Check out this Youtube video for a short look at the sand painting process. Note that even the sweeping away is done artfully and consciously, with love and care.

What in your life is asking to be lovingly swept away?


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