Earlier this month, the Dalai Lama worked with other Buddhist monks to create an intricate sand mandala the size of a queen-size bed in the middle of the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. They worked on the mandala around the clock for nearly a week, literally placing the colored sand one grain at a time to produce an intricately designed piece of art.
If you’ve ever seen monks working on a sand mandala, you can appreciate the image and effort. If you haven’t seen it, imagine a dozen or more grown men working in silence as each places individual grains of colored sand in geometric designs. Usually, the process takes weeks.
When I first saw the monk mandala process years ago, I thought, “Isn’t that beautiful?”
And that’s about where my thinking stopped—until I learned what happens when the monks finish creating the mandala. When they’re finished creating the masterpiece, they ceremonially destroy it. Yes, they take all those different colors of sand and sweep them into jars. Then, they pour the sand into a nearby river.
All that work.
All that time.
All that effort.
The point of creating and destroying a sand mandala is the metaphorical representation of how much time and energy we put into things, and the subsequent impermanence of everything. Plus, there are many other lessons far beyond my capacity to absorb. For me, simply understanding the primary and “easy” lesson has taken (and continues to take) plenty of time.
My grandmother and her only daughter collected things. Mainly, my grandmother collected the things other people didn’t use anymore. She thrived on way she could create or appreciate beauty in something someone else used long ago. Surely, there is some virtue there. But somewhere along the way, my sweet grandmother got caught in that cycle that is so enticing.
Together, my grandmother and aunt spent untold hours spanning decades conversing and conniving about who would get what from whom. During the 80s, the better part of every conversation they had wound its way back around to some dishes owned by a woman we all called “Aunt” (who really wasn’t an aunt at all)—and who would get those dishes upon Aunt’s death.
They also cared about individual pieces of silver.
And serving dishes.
Hearing so many of these conversations for so long made me assume these things mattered to everyone.
Who got what.
My grandmother’s health started declining earlier than any of us expected. When my aunt suddenly and unexpectedly passed away at a very young age, we all recognized the goodness in my grandmother’s mind that had wandered away. She didn’t realize her understand her young daughter’s death and then passed away a few years later.
All those plans and conversations about who gets what were for naught. Neither of them ever got the chance to enjoy those dishes they had dreamed of for so long.
I am uncertain if my grandmother would have ever known who or what the Dalai Lama was, but I wish the two could have spent some time together. I’m certain she could have mended his robes as beautifully as they’ve ever been sewn. He would have liked her fruitcake too. As far as him sharing some of his wisdom with her, I have to speculate if some of that insight would have changed the course of her days. Perhaps she thought material things were so important because she was a product of the Great Depression. Maybe it was because there were times in her life, before and after the Depression, when she needed more.
Here I sit in my home of overstuffed closets and bookshelves filled to the brim, clear signs of my nurtured tendency to hold on to too much. After all, I am my grandmother’s granddaughter, but I’m beginning to see the humor in holding on to stuff.
And the joke’s on me.