Today, I walked over a second time to watch the monks make their sand mandala. By the time I arrived, around five thirty or so, their masterpiece was complete. In most respects, its finished appearance was rather ordinary, as if it were the illustration on the cover of a college textbook on eastern philosophy. You’ve seen the approximate design of a mandala before, I’m sure; the style and bright colors of this one were nothing exceptional.
The entire miracle of this particular mandala lay in the fact that each little bit of this complex design was composed of grains of sand, and that each grain had been meticulously placed by one of the monks.
Many years ago, I had a conversation with a friend who is a gifted writer, the type who can toss off an engaging short story with a weekend’s worth of work. He consistently undervalued his own work, denigrating it as too easy and therefore unworthy. When he brought his concerns up with his therapist for the umpteenth time, she became so exasperated that she accused him of being the sort of person who would walk into an art gallery and ask the owner how long each painting took for the artist to produce it. “And then you’d base your decision on whether to buy something not on how much you liked the painting, but how painful it was for the artist to do,” she said. “You’d pay much more for a painting that took an artist two hundred hours to do than one that took twenty.”
“What did you say to that?” I asked.
He looked embarrassed. He changed the subject to death and dying, a topic he was more comfortable with.
I sat in a pew near the mandala. The Tibetan Buddhist monks were nearby, tidying up their work area. They didn’t gloat over the resplendent mandala. They didn’t stretch out their back muscles or express discomfort over working for so many days for so many hours at a time. They did not stand back and admire the handiwork.
They seemed neither visibly pleased nor displeased. In fact, they seemed to have already forgotten their labor and its fruit. Their task now was to clean up, and cleaning up is what they did.
Jill Riddell is a writer in Chicago. She teaches at the School of the Art Institute and has a weakness for nature, magic, and pennies abandoned in sidewalk cracks.