To the right is a beautiful sand mandala being constructed by Tibetan Vajrayāna Buddhist monks. After long, careful construction lasting days, the gorgeous art is then swept away as a symbol of impermanence – the inherent transient nature of reality which is a central principal in Buddhism.
Many Western Buddhists idealize art as coming from the non-discursive mind–art which is free, immediate and creative. “True Art”, they feel, comes from the original mind, the true self, the inner unhindered creativity in all of us. Yet this Mandala is far from that. The monks spend years memorizing meticulous patterns and color rules, practicing precise, defined layouts and intricate symbols. Their “art” is more a highly practiced science. The mandala is not spontaneous in any way.
To most by-passers on an American or European street the mandala most likely appears as merely a quaint Asian art but to the Tibetans and Western Buddhist enthusiasts, it is much more. The mandala is used for magic and is not just an abstract mystical symbol. After destroying the Mandala, the sands are swept up and half is distributed to the on-lookers (as if containing some essentialist magic) and the rest is poured in a nearby body of water where it is envisioned as “spreading throughout the world for planetary healing” (see here).
The romanticizing of “the East” is common in Buddhist and New Age circles. This idealized view of the Orient is a vessel to hold the Utopian hopes, blistering critiques and many strivings of those who embrace it. It can also serve as an identity security blanket. This Eastern-mystical-mind romanticism has permeated modern culture, partly as a joke (in movies and TV shows) and partly seriously. But for anyone who has lived in Asia for any length of time, the naive simplicity of a romanticized Eastern-mind is blatantly clear.
Post’s Take-Home Message:
What I am NOT saying:
- I am not criticizing this art form — I love it.
- I am not criticizing the emotions of hope and healing.
- I do not believe “True Art” comes from some original mind or true self.
What I AM saying:
- I am criticizing the idealization of the ‘intuitive’ or ‘mystical’ or ‘spiritual’ human mind while disparaging of the rational, careful, practiced mind.
- I am pointing at a rightful use of all sides of mind.
- I am also criticizing the simple view that idealizes and generalizes about an entire continent.
This post was inspired while reading McMahan’s excellent book, “The Making of Buddhist Modernism” — but the opinions are my own.