Curriculum Opinion

A Mandala’s Message

By Thomas Bonnell — October 01, 2002 5 min read
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Like grains of sand art, all students have their place in the school community.

This past spring, a Tibetan Buddhist monk spent a week at the Manhattan private school where I am middle school director. Lama Tenzin didn’t come to introduce students to Buddhism or to explain the plight of the Tibetan people. Instead, he came to create a piece of art that is a specialty of his and his brother monks’: a mandala.

On Monday, Lama Tenzin set up a table to one side of our lobby and readied his tools. Using two slender metal instruments, he gradually arranged small grains of colored sand into a design of increasing complexity. Students stood around his table between classes, fascinated by the monk’s quiet concentration and the strange process. They were impressed by the beautiful patterns swiftly emerging at the experienced hands of this small, orange-robed man. He would cheerfully stop and answer the students’ many questions.

By Friday, the weeklong process of creation was finally finished. But the manner of its completion was a shock to some. Aided by a small group of students and teachers, Lama Tenzin carried the mandala five blocks to the East River and, with ceremony and reverence, brushed the artwork into the waters of the river. An unusual end for any work of art.

Why destroy something on which so much labor and time have been lavished? Part of the answer comes from the Buddha himself, who taught that all things are characterized by impermanence and that clinging to them is the root of our suffering as human beings. The destruction at the end of a mandala’s creation is a powerful symbol of this truth.

There is another reason, however, and from my perspective as an administrator, it’s an even more useful one. The goal of making a mandala, ultimately, is not to create a work of art but to create and transform oneself. In the outer act of arranging the sands of the design, the inner pieces of one’s self find their appropriate place, their harmonious relationship to the whole.

In many ways, a year in a school bears a striking resemblance to this process. While much of our time is spent doing tangible work—the papers, projects, and paintings that fill classroom walls— these works, like the sands of the mandala, are impermanent and will be swept away at the end of the year. Sometimes I find it almost painful to walk the halls of the school after teachers and students have left for the summer, stepping between the papers and projects that have fallen from the walls, like flesh from the skeleton of some ancient, extinct beast.

Some of the skills, of course, endure and become the mental framework upon which future knowledge and skills will be built. But it is humbling and instructive to realize how little of the content will remain. Roland Barth, in his book Learning by Heart, describes his shock upon discovering a box full of old exams and papers from his undergrad days at Princeton University 40 years before and realizing that he remembered literally nothing of them. If so little remains, why do we work so hard—and require our students to do so—at mastering content that will be forgotten?

Here, again, the metaphor of the mandala is helpful. Just as the goal of creating a mandala is to find the appropriate place for each bit of colored sand, surely a major goal of any school must be to help each student find a place within the school community where he or she can—for want of a better word—shine.

This process of finding the right relationship of the part to the whole is one that a child (indeed, a person of any age) must accomplish. And it must be accomplished at several different levels. One is the psychological, as the child struggles to integrate the various elements of the personality into a coherent whole. Another is the social, which entails finding a harmonious relationship to others. And then there’s the spiritual, as the individual strives to find the meaning of his or her life.

While this process is easy for a few children, it is difficult for many. It is also particularly painful for the adults who stand outside the circle of children looking in, forbidden to intervene and relegated to giving advice from the sidelines. This process of a student’s finding his place within the group is never more difficult than during the middle school years. At this age, children don’t have the ego strength to differentiate from their parents and seem almost programmed by nature to band together in groups.

Sometimes the relationships within and among these groups are amicable, but often a group seems to take pleasure in rejecting those who want to join its ranks. I learned long ago that these groups play a very significant role in determining the experience of many students— and the school as a whole.

The saving grace for many children during these years is discovering a gift or talent that can win recognition from the group and a sense of identity for themselves. The development of such a talent and the confidence it provides is far more valuable than adults’ endless, hollow-sounding mantras of “you’re terrific.”

The task of schools, in part, must be to ensure that all students have certain common skills and a fund of common knowledge. But it must also be to help students discover what is different about them, something that will allow them to make a contribution to the whole. Child-development expert Mel Levine, in his book A Mind at a Time, suggests that a goal of every school should be to assist each of its students in becoming the expert in something, the person at the school who knows more about pachyderms or Mozart than anyone else and who will be called upon when knowledge in that area is needed. The certainty that you have something crucial to contribute is the basis of genuine self-esteem because it is founded on knowing that you matter.

Such a vision of school is completely compatible with rigorous expectations and accountability and doesn’t diminish the importance of excellence and achievement. Yet it does mean expanding the circle of skills and knowledge, the excellences we assess in schools, along the lines suggested by authors such as Levine and Howard Gardner. It also means paying critical attention to the place of the arts in a school and even to the extracurricular options a school provides, making sure that a rich array of activities offers students multiple arenas for discovery and success. And it means rethinking the awards we give, not necessarily doing away with them but ensuring that we are recognizing and celebrating accomplishment in all meaningful areas of school life.

Shaping such a vision, however, will mean letting go of something. We can no longer view education as a pyramid or a bell curve in which each student finds his or her appropriate level in the hierarchy of academic success. Rather, we must come to see ourselves as a community of learners in which the measure of our success is not how many students make it to the top but how well we manage to help every student find his or her place in that mandala we call school.

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