The Buddha’s teaching on impermanence is clear but sometimes we need help recalling even what is most obviously true.
The Buddha said it is okay to remain attached to anything just so long as it is yours. But what belongs to you? “The eye, monks, is not yours; let it go. The ear is not yours, let it go. The nose… tongue… body… mind… not yours; let it go.” Also sights, sounds, smells, tastes, bodily tangibles, thoughts and other mental objects: let them go as well. Apparently everything isn’t yours, and if not yours, it must be let go. The Buddha pointed out that he knows of nothing that one can cling to without pain resulting.
But what about sand?
After teaching children one Sunday afternoon last month I noticed a strange big bottle of something – was it sand? – left upon the dining table. It turned out indeed to be sand, a special type lightly combined with an acrylic to make a kind of sand Playdough for sculpting (BrookstoneSand). This sand has more stick-to-itself stability than regular sand yet remarkably does not stick to one’s fingers, making it a delight to touch and mould. And there it sat on my table with everyone gone home.
Hence, I did the only reasonable thing, which was to delve into it with both hands before trying to find the owner.
That task done, I sent around a photo of the dog sculpture by text to those most likely responsible for having left the sand, with the query, “Do you know anything about this?”
The bottle of sand turned out to belong to Jason, a member of Charlotte Buddhist Vihara’s Board of Directors. As a man who loves meditation, works as a kindergarten teacher and fathers a small child, Jason capably leads some children’s programs at the Vihara. He had brought the bottle of sand in case we needed a crafts project that day, and forgotten to take it home. He did not intend to forfeit it. Yet on seeing the sand sculpture photo he kindly opted to leave the sand at the Vihara on an indefinite loan, explaining that it would be useful in case I need to keep any visiting children busy. Perhaps he was actually curious what else this nun might end up making out of it, or realizing that I need artistic outlets? Whatever the reason, in letting go of this product that he had purchased for teaching purposes he demonstrated admirable generosity and the wisdom of non-clinging.
Yet why should it remain a loaner, not a gift? I can’t say for sure, but by leaving the sand with me on trust as a loan, Jason can feel assured that I won’t give it away in a spontaneous gesture of generosity – always a potential hazard for objects that belong to me personally (though not with things intended for the greater Sangha). In fact just yesterday a dear supporter named Heather, having seen my newly-discovered love of sand, kindly brought me a small container of sculpting sand for my very own, to keep. It came in a cute little glass-topped container, a delightful small gift that she had received during a training for her corporate job, like a party favor for businesspeople. Within a few hours I had already given it away, joyfully handing the cute container to an employee of the City of Charlotte, a nice young lady whose job is to motivate citizens to get organized in neighborhood coalitions; she will find it useful in her work. That was fun! Thanks, Heather!
Having created an image in the safely loaned sand, however, I faced an unexpected dilemma. It would have been nice to move on and make new sculptures in its wooden “sand box” container, but the highly unstable sand dog couldn’t be moved at all without tearing it up, and I simply could not bear to do that. The dog was, you know, too good, almost seeming alive, as though looking up at me as if to say, “You wouldn’t mush me would you?” In other words I had gotten attached right away. The image was neither ‘permanent’ enough to try to preserve longterm, nor so impermanent as to fall apart and go away gracefully when my interest waned, so my clinging held me in limbo. This dragged on for more than a week. I was stuck.
Despite all my knowledge of the Buddha’s teaching, including the part about pain associated with holding on, I needed help with letting go. Yes, of an image in sand.
Therefore I left the dog sculpture out in plain view during our New Year’s program. Children would attend. Enforcing and hastening laws of impermanence regarding delicate things is a special duty of children. Surely one child or another would stick his finger into the fragile dog sand sculpture, ruining any endearing quality and thereby setting me free from the dratted thing.
When our many guests had left at the end of New Year’s Day, I investigated the dog. Sure enough, clear damage had been done, the nose having been lightly squeezed into a misshapen triangle that indicated a frantic effort to undo the damage of a curious finger-poke.
As soon as I managed to stop laughing, I mushed the sand image into no-thingness, delighted to find letting go easy once the true shifting nature of sand was again made clear. Finally I could start anew.
Thus I could create this:
Yet whether dog or angel it is just sand. We all know that. Everything remains just sand, none of it ours, all to be let go.
Meanwhile I can’t use this sandbox.
Say, got any kids who wouldn’t mind coming over here to do me a favor…?
Ayya Sudhamma Bhikkhuni (Buddhist nun)
January 6, 2015