In the permanent collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA). there is a work called the Yamantaka Mandala (pictured here). The circumstances surrounding the museum’s acquisition of this work give it a somewhat paradoxical significance.

It was created for the museum by a group of exiled Tibetan monks. The medium of the work is colored sand. In Tibet and Nepal, such mandalas are constructed with great care and effort over a period of several weeks. When they are finished, they are brought outside and left to the winds, which blow the sands away.  

It is this final act (an ancient form of performance art?) that provides the deepest meaning for the Mandala. It is symbolic of the impermanence of all being; the whole activity, from its creation through its return to the natural elements, is a promotion of the virtues of non-attachment and non-acquisitiveness.

That this sand painting did not suffer the typical fate of these works was part of an agreement between the monks and the museum. Engineers at the 3M corporation developed an adhesive technology that could hold the sand without discoloring it, which allowed for the work to be preserved and hung on a wall.  The monks who created the mandala agreed to preserve it as a memorial to the estimated 1.2 million Tibetans who were killed for political and/or religious reasons, primarily after the Chinese takeover of Tibet.

Buddhism is deeply concerned with suffering and locates the base of suffering in desire.  The impermanence of all things is a central tenet of Buddhism. Given this impermanence, Buddhism considers attachment to things an invitation to suffering — that to which you are attached will inevitably change and you will experience the unpleasantness of deprivation. Buddhism considers acquisitiveness one of the “three poisons” (aversion and ignorance being the other two); attachment is an aspect of acquisitiveness. The cultivation of non-attachment is considered an essential aspect of freeing oneself from desire.  

Western culture also places a great emphasis on reducing suffering and enhancing well-being.  It’s strategy, however, is not in reducing desire, but attempting to modify the external world in order to increase the means of satisfying our desires. We have been quite brilliant at this, but satisfying desires is a little like picking dandelions — they tend to come back fairly quickly, and often in even greater abundance.  

Part of our strategy of modifying the world is to battle impermanence. Again we have been quite brilliant at this, even using our knowledge of entropy’s inevitability as one of our weapons in this fight.

Buddhism and mainstream Western culture could hardly be further apart in their evaluation of acquisitiveness and responding wisely to the world’s impermanence.  Far from being considered a vice, for us in the West aggressively acquiring and defending what we acquire is considered a virtue. A bumper sticking I’ve seen humorously sums this up as “He who has the most toys, wins.”  

But it’s not only in commercialism that acquisitiveness and the fight against impermanence is conducted.  Acquisition and preservation are also an emphasis of the environmental movement. Even though Nature itself doesn’t cling to its past — by one estimate there are a thousand extinct species for every currently existing one — preservationists often claim they are acting on behalf of Nature.  I have a great deal of sympathy for natural preservation (though I consider it is a human value, not a natural one). I also love art museums and the collections they have acquired and preserved. So I have rather mixed feelings about which strategy is best.

The Yamantaka Mandala, carefully preserved and hung on MIA’s walls, is a wonderful representation of these two different strategies for dealing with the world. One could read in the story of MIA’s acquisition of this work a triumph of the Western strategy over that of the Buddhists. But one could also look at it as one more example of non-attachment — in this case the monk’s non-attachment to the traditional significance of the work.  

Rather than a triumph of one point of view over another, I prefer to see this mandala as a representation that both strategies have something to offer. There are both external and internal goods and we can best enhance our overall well being by understanding what each form of good is and what it offers, and by developing the resources to acquire or develop each in a proper way.  If we have adequately developed the internal good, which I think is properly called virtue, we do not need a lot from the external world to satisfy us. But a few choice possessions can bring real enjoyment, particularly if we don’t become too attached to them.


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