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Thursday, May 12, 2016

Why Life is Like a Sand Mandala

As a much younger woman, I worked for a Buddhist chef as his Gal Friday.  I sort of plugged in all of the holes in his small operation, from office duties to running errands to working the front desk to bartending.  This was mainly a positive experience as he was a kind and gentle person and I got to don my beloved superhero cape on a regular basis, swooping in to save the day with my MAD COMPETENCE.  There are few things in life that invigorate me more than being of genuine help to someone, and this was the actual function of my position.  When I left, I missed that sense of purpose and accomplishment; it might not have been world changing work, but knowing you make someone else’s life better and easier is a pretty sweet gig.

One of my most indelible memories of that time is when the chef invited some visiting Tibetan monks to take up daily residence in the restaurant and create a sand mandala.  If you have never seen that done, I encourage you to check out this time lapse video: (  It is one of the most incredible things I have ever witnessed; the patience for minutia, the intense focus, the peaceful aura.  As I watched them transform a blank slate into a work of art with a level of skill and creativity most of us can only dream of, I found myself growing increasingly anxious.  I’m sure this sounds like an irrational response, so let me explain myself:
Once this intricate and painstaking masterpiece was completed, the monks fully intended to destroy it. 

I watched day after day as they gently tapped cups full of colored sand in tandem to create a mosaic of breathtaking symmetry and beauty.   I pre-emptively entered a state of mourning…why did they even bother to finish it?  What was the point?  An errant gust of wind could sweep it all away anyhow, why dedicate the heartbreaking hours of mind-blowing effort to something so fragile, so unsustainable???

I know you are laughing at me right now, because of course what I am describing is life.
But I was a young person, as I mentioned, and mortality had not yet impacted me meaningfully.  I was still trying to climb the mountain without any cognizance that all reaching the top would do is afford me a better view of the next highest peak.  I had not yet grasped what I now refer to as “the hamster wheel of effort”; or, more elegantly as “the sand mandala we call living”.

Before I go on, I would like to share with you the sweet irony of my story—the monks did NOT in fact destroy the mandala when they were done!  So we can add “worrying about something that never happened” to my mad skill set.  Somehow my sweet (BUDDHIST!) boss convinced them to allow him to sort of spray glue the sand into place (still not sure how it was accomplished, but it was accomplished) and he owned this magnificent work of art for as long as I was with him.
But the wisdom of the monks’ intention stuck with me:  nothing in life is permanent.  Most especially life itself.  And also, there is an even deeper wisdom to everyone who is engaged in the culture of “merit by accomplishment”…while it seems to be coded into the human experience to strive towards goals, once a goal is met there is always the “next” thing to achieve.  One sand mandala is swept away and we begin another. 

My son is rapidly approaching his eleventh birthday and I am watching the sand of his childhood blow into the wind.  When he was a baby, it felt heavy and almost eternal; but with each passing year I hold on to him tighter and cherish those moments I now know will too quickly pass.  He asked me once what I thought heaven would be like and I told him that if heaven is perfect happiness, then I will return right here to his childhood—always knowing where he is, always knowing he is well and profoundly experiencing what it is like to purely, fiercely love and have that love returned so easily and openly.
That Buddhist chef I worked for was an artist in his own right in the kitchen.  He had a magic touch with food and presentation and nearly everything produced by his hand was “to die for”, in the vernacular.  Of course his masterpieces were also instantly destroyed by hungry (but usually appreciative) guests and each day he would start all over again.

That is the reality we all live in; or as my Father would have said “It’s the GOOD news AND the BAD news”.  Most of what we work so hard on in life will eventually (and often instantly) be destroyed…much of what we accomplish will be quickly eclipsed by another accomplishment, either our own or someone else’s.  That is why it is pretty critical not to allow yourself to get too worked up about or overly invested in anything.
Hmmm, I’m sounding like a Buddhist now.  But don’t worry, I’m not going to go all “life is suffering” on you here.  Instead I will point out that when we are always fixated on the end result (or even worse, “what’s next?”) we are living from a very uncomfortable place.  We are sitting in the seat of dissatisfaction instead of enjoying the actual experience of things.

Working for the chef, I knew the job would never make me wealthy; I knew I wasn’t “going anywhere” in the position.  I knew it was impermanent.  But I derived tremendous satisfaction out of doing the job well and being truly helpful to someone.  Now that I am older, I figure if I can hit those marks on a regular basis in life, I am doing okay.  Especially if I remember to pause and notice the incredible and painstaking beauty that surrounds me each day before everything changes again.



  1. Beautiful post, Kara, and a great illustration of impermanence and the folly of trying to "get there." Thanks for the lovely reminder.

  2. Kara, thank you for this terrific post. I love it. I also love the Dalai Lama and have since first meeting him in 1979. My family and I were transformed by his teachings and his blessings--and thirty years ago before the wild security and huge crowds, he blessed everyone individually with his smile, gaze, and touch. Still, I adopted my first teacher's idea to not take vows in any one tradition. Better to explore many and find what works for me.

    My husband taught a course on Tibet for 25 years and had monks come to Colgate to do a sand mandala. I'd seen sand mandalas before, but this time my sons and I followed the whole process including the ritual of throwing the sand in the lake. It was exquisite. It was shocking. I learned about the power of ritual as a process, not a product.

    I have never seen happier people than the Tibetans in Northern India. Acknowledging the truth that there will be suffering seems to liberate joy and laughter.

    1. My Dad used to love this M. Scott Peck quote--"Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult-once we truly understand and accept it-then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”

      Acknowledging the truth of this is absolutely liberating, as you said!

  3. What a beautiful perspective--and a useful reminder on a daily basis, regardless of what we "do". :)

  4. Wonderful post.
    Someone said, or wrote, Life is not the destination, but the journey,
    or something very like.
    But it's nice to be reminded of that occasionally.

  5. I missed this one when it came out. When I see what day it was, I know exactly why. I was desperately trying to book a flight home because we thought my father was dying. A lot of sand was blowing about for my family that day. I have yet to write that chapter up, but soon. He did not die, but oh, the sand has shifted, and is shifting still.