Sometimes in these pages I am asked to speak as an authority on Buddhism. While I'm flattered at this, I also feel compelled to say quite honestly that I should not be regarded as any kind of expert. I am not a formal teacher of Buddhism, nor am I a veteran of lengthy meditation retreats that have given me the keys to the Absolute.
My practice is that of an amateur in every sense, and while it's true that I've avidly studied these subjects for a long time, it would be a mistake for anyone to see me as anything but a serious beginner.
While there are many various spiritual traditions that interest me, Buddhism has always held a special appeal for me. Partly this is because there is an intellectualism to Buddhist study that appeals to my need for cerebral exercise, and partly it's because Buddhism has a clean coolness and clarity that I find to be an enormous relief and antidote to the fiery emotional winds that once dominated my life.
But if pushed to really define why I see myself as a Buddhist, the reason can be summed up by one single experience.
About 15 years ago, one Saturday morning saw me shopping at a local indoor retail center in Minneapolis, a relatively avant guarde section of town known as Uptown. In one of the upstairs galleries at the shopping center, I came upon a pair of Tibetan Buddhist monks working on an elaborate geometric mural painted with colorful sands, known as a mandala. The exhibit was sponsored by some American-Tibet exchange program, and the room was sparsely decorated with a simple Tibetan alter with some small shrine objects, but it was extremely simple by most standards.
Mandala artwork is a well-known craft in Tibet. These large sand "paintings" are created on the floor, by artisans who sit cross-legged on the floor, applying the dyed sands to outlined patterns with tools that most closely resemble those pastry bags that bakers use to apply fancy frostings to wedding cakes. Sometimes the designs are purely geomentric; sometimes they resemble landscapes or other natural scenes. The artist sits cross legged, hold the nozzle of the bag where he or she wants the sand to fall, then gently taps on the metal tip so a fine layer of sand drifts down and covers the wood base. A variety of nozzles are used, depending on the relative coarseness or fineness of the design.
In can take days, weeks, or even months for a mandala to be completed, depending on its complexity. Ultimately, this is an exercise in understanding the temporary nature of existence, since the artwork is never preserved, but is soon cast to the winds or allowed to wash away in a river.
On this particular morning, the two young monks were nearing completion on the mandala; a small flyer announced that in a week, the mandala would carefully be carried down to the shores of Lake Calhoun and allowed to wash away. A number of observers came and went during the hour or so that I sat and watched the monks. Once, a man paused to ask me a question, a fact that puzzled me until I realized that the khaki trousers and Minnesota maroon sweatshirt I was wearing was very close to the saffron and gold robes the monks were wearing. I had by mistaken for some kind of tour guide or sponsor for the exhibit.
The work was painstaking, with the monks hunched over in a position that would have been agonizing for you or me. They were about three hours into a four-hour work session. Eventually, they'd be relieved by helpers.
Then a young family with two small children came into the gallery to watch, and something in me know that problems were brewing. The mandala could not have been any more delicate, and the boys were about 4 and 6 years of age. No genius was required to see what was coming.
The moment of disaster was both entirely innocent and quite dramatic. One of the young boys, as they sat off to the side to watch the monk, kicked off his boot---which sailed across the floor and smeared colored sands to all four corners of the compass, effectively ruining the portrait. Days worth of work were instantly ruined.
Now, I know that Buddhist monks were supposed to be patient and kind, but nothing prepared me for the response of these two young monks, perhaps 20, 25 years old. I would have supposed that even these fellows would have to wrestle with anguish and possibly impatience at seeing their work ruined. In my mind's eyes, I imagined that they'd struggle with a bit of anger, probably successfully fighting it back, then grinning and bearing it.
That's about the best I'd have hoped for for myself, on my very best day. But even though I was watching with utmost intensity, I saw not the least flicker of dismay in either of these young monks at seeing their hard work demolished in a moment. Instead, one of the monks simply asked for the boy's name, then lettered his name in finely scripted colored sands on the floor of the gallery using his bag of slendidly colored sands. The boy was at first startled at not being scolded in any way, then lit up like a Christmas tree when he saw his name emerge on the floor.
I watched the monks for another hour, long after the family left. When I finally stood up to leave, one of the monks stood, and bowed to me with a smile as I left. I wasn't asked for any contribution, wasn't handed flowers, didn't receive any literature asking me to join the club.
As I looked back through the storefront glass, the monks were already back at work, in intent and joyful concentration on a task they well knew was entirely ephemeral.
That day, I knew that I'd very much like to be like those monks. If not in this lifetime, then perhaps in another.