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In the foyer of the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City, Utah, during the course of the 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions a group of monks from the same order as the Dalai Lama slowly, painstakingly built an incredibly beautiful sand Mandala.  Two and three monks at a time spent the entire week crafting the work with delicate shading and precision.

The monks had set up a table, drawn the outline, then layered grain by grain several colors of sand to build up this intricate design.  With so much work invested in the piece I wondered how it was going to be preserved, and how they were going to transport it or protect it in the Salt Palace.

My friend Zenji (one of the only Buddhist monks in the world who can perform all the traditional rites in original Sanskrit) tried to explain to me what was going on.

It’s an exercise in, for lack of a better term, “un-attachment”.

“They invest all this time in a beautiful work of sand painting, only to destroy it in the end.”  That hurts just thinking about it, I told him.  “But it certainly helps to show you’re not bound by material things!”

Everything physical, according to Buddhist perspective, either ties us to the fallacy of impermanence or symbolizes those things which keep us from progressing and becoming spiritually mature beings.  Attachments to the physical plane, or binding ourselves to things which will never last, link us to pain.  The Buddha taught that the only reality was beyond our physical senses because our physical senses only responded to the transient, the material, and the illusory.

Huh?

The fact these things can never last means that if we anchor ourselves to them, we link ourselves to illusions which can never truly make us happy.  And ultimately, when we get hung up on this impermanent world we deny ourselves lasting joy.

It seems counter-intuitive, but it’s the process of enjoying the fleeting moments and letting them go when they’re done which leads to contentment and happiness, not trying to collect and hold on to the “things” of the world.

After the mandala was finished, the monks asked my friend Zenji to bless the proceedings and then they “cleaned up”, and it was as if the mandala never existed.

Over a hundred work hours of effort wasted?

All of us learned the monks were serious about unattachment and impermanence.  Very serious.

And that’s one lesson I won’t forget.

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