The Mandala, Attachments and the Suffering of Change
Three D technology has successfully altered how we perceive reality.
The mandala is an intricate structure that Buddhist monks painstakingly construct and destroy. More on the mandala in a bit.
So, why not combine the two? The video below shows the results.
The idea was to construct a three-dimensional mandala of painted wine corks. The goal was to inspire an “Oooh, aaah” response at the tower’s collapse, the reaction given to an imploding building. Not an epic fail but not a rousing success either.
Monks contruct a real mandala by meticulously placing millions of sand grains in an elaborate pattern. The process can take days. I spent about four hours building this one. After the monks complete the sand painting, they slowly brush the sand inward and disperse it into a flowing river to represent healing. I threw mine in the trash.
The intent of constructing a bona fide mandala is to demonstrate the life cycle, to teach that everything is temporary. This ersatz mandala served no such purpose.
Physically, my mandala wasn’t up to snuff. It neither had the intricate detail of a real mandala nor the tight structure I envisioned. Also, it just didn’t fall down.
In spirit, the mandala succeeded. Despite its awkward structure, I put in the same extreme care that the monks use in constructing a real mandala. And, hopefully, you chuckled a bit at what’s essentially a blooper reel.
Since I co-opted a Buddhist tradition as inspiration for the “art”, prudence dictated that I examine the mandala’s success and failure from Buddhist perspective.
A little background. Buddhist teaching stems from the Four Noble Truths. 1) All existence is suffering. 2) The cause of suffering is craving/desire/aversion. 3) The cessation of suffering comes with the cessation of craving/desire/aversion. 4) There is a path to end suffering.
A critical idea to consider in the Second Truth is the concept of attachment. An attachment is more than just a file you send with an e-mail. We’re talking about a mental attachment, the desire to gain pleasure from a person, an object, an idea. Placing success in the realm of attachment isn’t too far-fetched.
Since I am not a Buddhist, that’s about as far as I should go on the subject.
The Venerable Geshe Phende teaches Buddhist psychology and philosophy at the Drepung Loseling Monastery in the Atlanta suburb of Brookhaven.
He entered a small monastery in Nepal when he was eleven and after two years moved to one of the biggest monasteries in southern India. Phende spent twenty years at this monastery, immersing himself in Buddhist philosophy, psychology and logic.
In 1991 and 1992, Phende travelled extensively through North America both in a teaching capacity and as a member of the Mystical Art of Tibet. Before teaching in Atlanta, Phende spent four years teaching in Johannesburg, South Africa. “A wonderful experience. Johannesburg is a huge, big city but you drive two, three hours and you see all those wild animals on safaris and it’s beautiful.”
On Tuesday nights, Phende leads a communal meditation on the Medicine Buddha, or the Healing Buddha. The meditation focuses on compassion for all sentient beings, that all suffering will end.
Phende teaches the class in a subdued and calm manner, offering succinct explanations of the invocations before each prayer. In person, Phende is gregarious and goes into extensive detail about Buddhist philosophy and psychology. He speaks with a poet’s precision, every syllable matters. To emphasize a point, he’ll raise his pitch and sustain a word the way a guitarist bends a string to alter a note. He uses broad, flowing hand gestures to bring home a point. As much as he captivates the listener’s attention when he speaks, he gives equal importance to listening with the intent to learn.
Phende begins by explaining our basic desires. “Buddhists believe that human being’s fundamental desires, our innate natural desires, are not influenced by culture, not by faith. Human beings have a natural desire to be happy. Nobody influences that kind of desire. It’s from birth, we have that.”
We all have different ways to interpret happiness, he continues. It’s the deeper way that affects how we seek happiness. Whatever influences us, whatever we’re thinking determines how we see happiness. “Money, power, reputation or fame are individual choices. Remove them and the fundamental desires stay the same. We just want to be happy.”
Explaining happiness complicates matters. When we gain something, we’re happy but it’s not true happiness because the happiness eventually leads to problems. In the first moments, we’re full of joy but the joy fades over time. It happens with any possession. “From the Buddhist perspective, we say that material happiness is part of the suffering of changing. The suffering of changing means this happiness will turn into problems. If you set your expectations too high, that’s risky. Any job you do, there’s always the possibility of stress, worry. You feel fear about getting the next thing.”
Connecting success or failure to happiness is a simple process, Phende says. “From the Buddhist perspective, achievement, success, whatever job you’re doing, success means your fundamental intention is happiness. As long as you achieve happiness, you’re a success. People interpret failure because you didn’t make money, you didn’t gain power or improve your reputation.” Or, your mandala didn’t do what you expected it to do.
After completing the early phases of the mandala, I felt brief satisfaction. Painting the corks was a breeze. I expected each later stage to go as smoothly as dipping the corks in paint. Then, the final result would exist just as I had imagined. Not so. After the first two tiers, the corks started bloom out like a flower. I intended for the structure to stand like a monolith. That would have made me happy. When I sprayed the acetone and nothing happened, frustration and bewilderment kicked in. I wasn’t getting what I expected so I presumed failure.
Remember attachments? There’s a strong connection between expectations and attachments.
“Expectations come from attachments and attachments are one of the troublemakers. They bring high expectations,” Phende says. “Attachments are part of our consciousness, the mind. Attachments are invisible, a mental phenomenon. Attachments are a mistake in consciousness, that’s what the Buddhists believe. Our minds influence our deeper level of consciousness so attachments have so much influence in our consciousness.”
Attachments form as soon as we take possession of an object or idea. When we think of self-centeredness or selfishness, we tend to imagine a petty, childish person. On a smaller scale, when we think of my house, my car, my children, even in passing, ownership becomes an expression of our preoccupation with the self. “As long as it doesn’t belong to you, nothing happens,” Phende explains “The object never changes. The mind changes. That’s how we understand attachments come from a self-centered, selfish mind.”
When I built the mandala, I painted my corks with my paint. I fastened them together with my glue. I sprayed them with my acetone. In Home Depot, these objects were inanimate. As soon as I bought them, they were working for me and should follow the rules to my satisfaction. However, they just didn’t act right.
Phende explained that attachment creates negative emotions and to deal with attachment, we have to transform self-centeredness, reduce self-centeredness. “How should we change it?” Phende asked. “That’s the process of the Buddhist teaching of impermanence. Everything is impermanent. Everything is changing.” That’s the point I missed in my mandala.
Phende watched the mandala video earlier in our discussion and was genuinely amused. He laughs easily, like a person watching their favorite comedy again and knows every joke before it happens.
He calmly explained that the mandala’s purpose is to teach people the reality of impermanence. Everything we create will collapse one day and we need to accept the impermanence. “The reason we dismantle the mandala is to help people understand nature. Our goal is to help others reduce attachments.” He asked what the point of my mandala was, what kind of information I was trying to convey. My point was, watching a tower of corks implode could be fun. Success there. I wasn’t trying to give any information. The thought never crossed my mind. Failure there. In addition, the mandala didn’t collapse. The thing I created in order to collapse didn’t collapse. Pretty sure that’s an ironic failure.
Phende further explained that we live in Samsara, the suffering of existence. In Samsara, we grasp at objects, tangible and intangible, to achieve happiness. This grasping leads to attachments, attachments cause suffering and the cycle repeats itself. And, since suffering comes from within, easing the suffering also comes from within. Phende says the best way is with logic and philosophy. “Think more. Investigate more. Prepare your mindset. Then, when your mind understands more clearly, that will change your grasping.”
Phende clarified that when we reduce our attachments, we can see our lives completely change. “Day by day you’ll become mentally happier, physically your life changes, physically your actions change, your life becomes happier and happier. That’s how Buddhism is mainly to deal with one’s own negative mind. We always say keep expectations low but hope high. Begin from a low level and anything you reach is something you never expected. How should oneself, when doing a job, make oneself happy? How should I be happy doing what I’m doing? Keeping your expectations lower makes you happy.”
I suffered through several attachments in assembling this portion of the piece. From building the mandala to conducting the interview and writing the piece, attachments popped up at every turn. Each attachment brought tiny bouts of suffering-each component succeeded on its own and with each success came new and exciting problems. The failure of the mandala became a left-handed success. The interview with the Venerable Geshe Phende brought a mother lode of information. As a result, writing the piece brought the dilemma of processing the information and presenting it in a coherent, informative and interesting way. Despite all the hangups (a dressed down way to say attachments), I feel satisfied that I’ve succeeded in passing along some useful information from a knowledgeable, objective source. “It doesn’t matter what kind of job you’re doing,” Phende said. “As long as it makes you truly happy, you’re a success.”
If you found this article helpful, please like and share and leave a comment, too. I’ll keep my expectations low.
2 thoughts on “Success and Happiness Part I.(Video)”
Excellent article. The video was fun.
I’ll have to read this again after it has soaked in for a while.
The Venerable Geshe Phende seems very friendly and generous.
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Thanks! The Venerable Geshe Phende was even more friendly and generous in person.