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Lessons in the Sand

Many years ago I attended a closing sand mandala ceremony. For two straight weeks, monks from a Tibetan Buddhist monastery had worked tirelessly to create an exquisitely intricate sand mandala in our local museum of Asian art. Millions of tiny grains of colored sand were painstakingly tapped from their small metal instruments, working from the center of the mandala outward. The entire mandala was about five feet in diameter and mesmerizing in its complexity and detail. I arrived about a half hour before the closing ceremony was to begin and was astonished to see the monks still laboring on the outer edges of the mandala, patiently, steadily, tap, tap, tap, each tiny detail completed with full attention and great love and care.

Mandalas are considered sacred in Buddhist tradition, representative of the interconnection of all things and the great web of life. The monks who worked on this one were doing so with clearly evident joy and enthusiasm; their smiles were as broad as their fingers were nimble. As time for the closing ceremony drew near, they quietly completed the finishing touches on the mandala without fanfare. By this time quite a crowd had gathered to admire this awe-inspiring and incredible work of art. The moment was brief, however, for the closing ceremony soon began. Ritual blessings were offered and then the mandala, this beautiful, exquisite mandala which had taken two full weeks of work to complete, was swept up into piles and small vials of the multi-colored sand were filled for the attendees. Quietly, reverently, we lined up to take our vials, the receipt of which is considered a great blessing in Buddhist tradition.

The vast intricacies of our lives are all, like the sands of the mandala, eventually swept away. Nothing is forever; there is no permanence, no enduring thing. All of life is ephemeral, fleeting. To acknowledge this, to really know this truth and take it into your heart deepens you, enriches you, allows you to appreciate the grand web of life, complete with all its joys and its sorrows. This lesson, learned well, connects you in a very profound way with all people and deepens your compassion. When we cling too tightly to life, when we fear death, when we resist change, we struggle and we suffer. The Buddhists call this dukkha. The quality of non-attachment, which flows from the lesson of impermanence, is essential for an enlightened, joyful life, and allows for a vision of life in all its glory and wonder from a far higher vantage point.

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