A Compassion Mandala and the Magic of Everyday Mundane Acts

This week in Colorado Springs, a local Buddhist group, the BodhiMind Center, coordinated with a group of touring Tibetan Monks from the Ngari Institute to create a week of Tibetan Buddhist ritual and practice centered around the creation of a Sand Mandala. All proceeds from the week went to support the Ngari Institute – and if you are reading this and feel compelled to donate, please Click Here for more information.

The Compassion Mandala Tour spread a message of love and kindness through the ritual creation and destruction of a Sand Mandala. But how? Through the mystery of how art, ritual, and practice can fuse into something beyond words, but also through the completely ordinary too, right here in the everyday mundane acts of sentient beings.

Two monks worked on the Mandala throughout. By the end of the first full day, the Mandala began to take shape. All throughout the day, visitors gathered around the Sand Mandala, from guests to the Fine Arts Center to classes of elementary school children. The Monks worked with single pointed concentration while people stood over their shoulders or watched from video screens set up in the hallway. At one time a young girl was nestled up next to a monk while he continued to work on the Mandala. When the monks took a break, they would talk with others around them, share tea, and walk up and down the hallway smiling, stretching, and relaxing. Surely in all this was love and kindness.

By the following day, hours into their practice, the two monks continued with the same single pointed concentration. Sitting on mats and cushions, slowly tapping out sand in intricate patterns and designs, they continued their work of compassion through their art and practice, through perseverance, through vital energy dedicated to a single task of love and kindness. Sitting alongside and watching in meditative inquiry, how could one not be moved by their practice and generosity? It filled the room and the city, as evidenced by the number of people who came to just take it in.

After it was completed, the Mandala was raised on a platform and surrounded by candles, Buddha statues, and flowers. Although the monks were done with their part of the creation, the effects continued to grow and spread. Visitors came to see the finished Mandala. Students around town were making plans to attend the Dissolution Ceremony. Pictures were shared on social media. The Compassion Mandala continued to spread far and wide.

The dissolution ceremony brought people from all over the town. Some just happened to be there because they were visiting the Fine Arts Center that day. Many arrived for the ceremony itself. After chanting, prayers, and music, the monks began to sweep the sand into a pile in the center of the platform. The Sand Mandala was no more. Small scoops of sand were handed out in little bags. The rest was placed in a jar along with flowers and brought down to Monument Creek where it was spread among the ten thousand elements.

So in all of this, where was the love and kindness? The compassion? Where was the Sand Mandala?

It was in the air, the ritual, the practice. It was radiating beyond anything that can be expressed with words. It was felt deeply without knowing how it was felt. It was in the air, water, earth, and fire and in the combinations of these elements. But it was in all of these ritual and spiritual and magical things because it was in the small everyday acts of love and kindness and compassion. It was in the small child sitting next to the monk watching him tap sand onto a platform. It was in the monks’ long hours of sitting and meditation. It was people stepping aside so others could see the Mandala. It was in the hugs and smiles and hellos of old friends seeing each other again there next to the Mandala. It was in the planning, the hours of preparation, the volunteer meals, the tea being offered, and all the other ten thousand acts of kindness to make the events run smoothly.

The magic of compassion arises from the everyday mundane acts, and the everyday mundane acts are what make the magic of compassion alive and beyond words. May you find compassion, love, and kindness in your everyday life! May you be well, at ease, and happy!

With a deep bow of gratitude from Colorado Springs…

 

 

Question your Teachers

My previous post (Humility and Belief Revision) ended with some questions I ask myself as a teacher. It posed further questions for students, but stopped short. The teacher-student relationship in any form is complicated, but that doesn’t mean it must be disempowering for students.

As the previous post made clear, teachers are bounded by history, context, and ideology (not to mention memory, age, and other physically embodied constraints). There is very little a teacher can say without some qualification as to their certainty about what they say. Of course the context may not warrant so many qualifiers. But if you get to know a teacher well enough, and the humility is not present, then let that be a sign to move on.

I find this most pressing in Buddhist teacher-student relationships. The dynamic requires a humbling on both sides, and so requires the student to bend toward the teacher – but in the service of developing one’s practice. That must always be kept in mind!

So ask yourself: what am I being asked to do? And is this teacher full of themselves? Or are they bending while I am bending? Are we both turning in to the Dharma together? If not, well – someone might be selling you something, or trying to control the situation. Not a healthy place to be.

Humility and Belief Revision

774bdfc898db2100b01ea0fdeae9ba8bI am starting a project on Descartes’ Meditations. More than just in the title, Descartes’ work has a deep affinity with the tradition of meditations or spiritual exercises of his time. And beyond the traditions he was familiar with, there is the larger tradition of meditation via doubt especially among the Zen schools that resonates with Descartes’ writing and practice. Although I stumbled upon these connections after I brought my Buddhist practice together with my reading of the Meditations, I am in no way the first to think this; indeed, part of the joy so far has been to read about these connections from authors across various disciplines!

My first encounter with Descartes was at UCLA. It was my first college philosophy class. Professor Joseph Almog strolled in, rolled back his sleeves, and started right in on the Meditations. All we covered that quarter was the Meditations. In fact, I think we only covered various sections from the text primarily around the mind-body problem. And the professor taught it all without notes – just the chalkboard, his mind, our minds, the text somewhere in the background, and abstract philosophical analysis. It was breathtaking (for a naive freshman like myself)!

I took other classes where we covered the standard topics in the Meditations. I taught them in various classes and made sure students understood the role of skepticism, the reasons and arguments for foundationalism, the arguments for God’s existence and their obvious problems, and more. Students questioned me and I gave them my most definitive answers in return. Of course there were subtleties of interpretation, but this was how the Meditations were to be understood.

And from where I stand now, all of that was horribly superficial, and just wrong as a reading of Descartes.

So what happened? History and context and ideology happened. We all learn from someone, and they are informed by their context and history. And learning is constrained by the context of learning – its aims, its political and pedagogical agenda. And we are human and take stands, both intentionally and unintentionally, and that ideological formation impacts our teaching. All this is obvious once you immerse yourself in this way of thinking. And yet just today after reading an article it dawned on me how full of myself I was teaching Descartes as if I knew the work, the arguments, the problems, the answers!

The beauty of this process is belief revision: we can change what we believe. And this impacts action: we can change how we act. And this impacts speech: we can change what we say. And putting all this together requires humility: recognizing our limited or bounded understanding, and bending ourselves to change unboundedly, to unknowing mind, to not being full of ourselves, over and over again.

The inquiry continues. It must continue. Not just about Descartes. But about everything we believe and encounter in our daily lives. And I am left thinking about how to teach in the face of bounded understanding and unbounded change. What does it mean to be a teacher when all these constraints are salient? How can I empower students by guiding them, when I know their guide is positioned in this way? How can I be honest in my limited understanding, while still positioning myself as someone who has something to teach?

There are similar questions for students, whether students of philosophy, Buddhism, or any discipline at all. And there are not so simple answers to all of this. But for now – its on my mind and in my heart. Making amends for my previously limited understanding, moving forward while keeping in mind and heart the way I am formed and bound by history, context, ideology, and teachers, and reminding myself that unbounded change is the path of humility and awakening.

Eating for Self and Other

Student: Teacher, I hear you when you say treating thoughts and feelings as if they were not mine is practicing not-self. And as not-self, I can let them go as they arise as I let go the thoughts and feelings in others that have no pull on me. But I’m hungry! I have been watching this hunger for a day now, not eating, not holding on to the thought of food in the face of this persistent gnawing in my belly, and still the thoughts of food come up and my belly is loud and obnoxious now! Is this the practice of not-self? Do I just starve myself to death?

Teacher: Not death, no. If you die without waking up, what good is any of this? Then even I have failed you, complicit as I am in your delusion and liberation.

Student: OK, OK. Not death. I think I’d eat by then. But how is this not-self if all I see is the continual arising of self? All I feel is my belly chewing away at itself – is that awakening?

Teacher: Not this and not that. Both this and that together. Obstruction and Path – not two, not one either. Hunger and release from hunger are not separate and not the same.

Student: I’m not following you – partly because I’m hungry but also because you are not making any sense.

Teacher: What if your child is hungry, what do you do?

Student: I make her food.

Teacher: Simple. No thinking. Obstruction and path work together in harmony. And so when you are hungry, what do you do?

Student: I used to eat. Today I am starving. I am not sure what I am supposed to do anymore.

Teacher: Obstruction and path in disharmony. What is your vow? Your aspiration?

Student: To practice, to wake up, and serve all beings as if they were Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

Teacher: OK, but sometimes to help others, you have to help yourself. And when you help yourself to help others, when you practice eating as eating for the body that is not just your body, you are practicing not-self. The hunger becomes freedom from hunger and you more freely embrace the hunger.

Student: But if I eat I take food away from others and that is selfish.

Teacher: Look around you! Is there anyone here asking for your food? You only deprive your idea of someone wanting food, which is no deprivation at all. What if you starve and get caught up in your hunger? How can you be present to the world in front of you?

Student: What is that world?

Teacher: Eat and find out. Just enough to see clearly….