One of the most beautiful manifestations of Buddhist meditative practices is the creation of mandalas of sand, those elaborate and colorful works of art that once completed are swept away. I have always admired the painstaking precision and care of the monks who create them. Yet I can’t imagine in this lifetime having the time or commitment to engage in such an undertaking.
What can the Average Buddhist do to approximate a similar exercise in creation and destruction?
There was a long period in my life during which I forgot about the joy of puzzle building. When I was a child, I used to voraciously build puzzles on the weekends. My parents enjoyed puzzles as well and we sometimes turned them into family projects.
About two years ago, I was poking around in my parents’ basement sifting through old things and I found a shelf full of their old thousand-piece puzzles. I felt like I’d discovered buried treasure! Before the end of the evening, the puzzles were dusted off, packed up and stacked in my car heading home with me.
Before long, I discovered that puzzle holders had been developed since I had last engaged in serious puzzle building. These are cloths with cylinders you can use to roll your puzzle up to keep it out of the way when its in an unfinished state. What an invention! Soon, I had found some additional puzzles at the toy store and AC Moore that I added to my stash.
Initially, I didn’t recognize any potential connection to my Buddhist practice. I just thought about how I had rediscovered an old joyful hobby. First, I finished on puzzle that I had purchased partly because the design matched the colors of my office. I went out and got the puzzle glue and framed it and it’s now hanging over my desk.
Then I finished the second puzzle – a thousand-piecer of tropical fish – that had come from my parents’ stash. It was challenging. It was…too pretty to just disassemble…So, I slipped it off of the puzzle holder and under the glass of our family room table, where we could all enjoy looking at it.
I moved on to a puzzle given to me by a friend. The center of the puzzle was in the shape of a house. The design of the puzzle itself was a map of our town with the house-shaped piece centered over our address. This puzzle was smaller, only a few hundred pieces, but it was a real bear! I discovered that the way the puzzle was build, I could accidentally put together two pieces that didn’t actually go together. Ahhh! It took a loooooong time to finish that one. Once it was done, I decided that it was worthwhile to replace the fish with this new masterpiece.
Then my daughter had a temper tantrum.
This is when I first figured out that puzzles are a good exercise in embracing impermanence.
The next puzzle I worked on came in a cute little suitcase-shaped box and had a design of Boston and various symbols of Boston. Once again, the pieces were deceptive and easy to link together incorrectly. This one was larger than the town puzzle though. So, it took longer to put together. Under the glass it went.
This time I knew my plan. I would leave it there long enough to enjoy for a while and then take it apart. When I sat down with the box and started pulling the pieces apart, my daughter asked me why I was taking apart the pretty puzzle? My reply was simple:
“It’s just time.”
In the course of applying practice to my daily life, I have come to the conclusion it is necessary to be brutally honest with myself. It has also proven to be necessary to consistently question that trickster Memory – recent and remote, personal and cultural – lest it hock me lies that increase my suffering and undermine my ability to effect positive change in the world.
Sometimes cultural lies are the hardest to circumvent. These are the ones that have seeped into the collective consciousness and which friends, acquaintances and strangers propagate as “common knowledge”. They may become rallying points for cultivating our feeling of oppressed self-righteousness. After all, it feels good to be the only one who can see the real truth.
Today, while browsing my Facebook wall, I came across this status update from a friend:
“Since when did we stop looking at each other as equally important as ourselves?”
I love my friend. He’s so dear to me, I consider him family. But AB’ers, this statement just strikes me as decadent. Perhaps this post was just the tipping point for me in what I see as a fashionable trend to denigrate our current world and our current lives by painting the olden days pink and calling them roses.
What in the history of humankind indicates that we have ever been anything but selfish first and compassionate later? Sometimes, this is observed at a group level and sometimes an individual one, depending on the society, but parochialism is the modus operandi of humanity.
Here we are, practitioners of Buddhism, a more than two millennia-old tradition focusing on just that – how to cultivate an expansive compassion in our daily lives. In studying the core teachings of Buddhism, it becomes clear that the people of the time were coping with the same interpersonal and psychological barriers to compassion and lovingkindness that we encounter today.
Sure, there was more space between populations at the time. This allowed for a greater ability to mind one’s own business – especially between groups of people who were so distant that they were unaware of each others’ existence. Our close proximity to one another and our ability to communicate across the globe disintegrates the luxury of ignorance and forces us to rub up against more people and ideas that are threatening to us (both real and imagined). Ironically, this is precisely the kind of situations that Buddhist practice is designed to help us cope with.
I suggest it is possible we are more aware of our interpersonal, intercultural and international conflicts in a way that we historically have not been. In addition, I assert that our fundamentally selfish nature is tested more frequently and under more extreme circumstances than ever given the factors outlined above. The congruence of these things, however, makes me feel we are actually making progress rather than backsliding.
Coming back to honesty, it is important to recognize the fundamental “wrong thought” inherent in these nostalgic revisionist pastoral histories and to jettison them from our worldview. Cultivating these incorrect notions lead us to the incorrect assumption that “all” we need to do is to go back to some mythical time in the past and everyone will be happy and peace will reign.
This wishful thinking increases suffering by increasing our dissatisfaction with what is. It prevents us from recognizing the need to engage in creative problem solving to generate new solutions and new ways of doing things to help humanity continue on the path of increased awareness and interpersonal joy. Instead, we find ourself always trying to look back.
Perhaps a new perspective is in order…
“When did we recognize the need to look at each other as equally as important as ourselves?”
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