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A Monk, a Mandala, And the Meaning of School

By Thomas Bonnell — August 07, 2002 5 min read
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Part of schools' task is to help students discover what is different about them.

After setting up a table to one side of our lobby and readying his tools, Lama Tenzin worked with quiet concentration, gradually arranging small grains of colored sand into a design of increasing complexity. Our students stood around his table between classes, fascinated by this strange process and the beautiful patterns swiftly emerging from the experienced hands of its small, orange-robed creator. Lama Tenzin would cheerfully stop his work and answer the students’ many questions.

By Friday, the weeklong work 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 the five blocks to New York’s East River and, with ceremony and reverence, brushed the mandala 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 it is our clinging to them which is the root cause 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 a principal, an even more useful one. For the goal of creating a mandala is not to create a work of art, but to create and transform oneself. In the outer act of arranging the sands of the mandala, 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. 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, do 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 S. Barth, in his book Learning by Heart, describes the shock he had upon discovering a box full of old exams and papers from his undergraduate days at Princeton 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—in mastering content that will ultimately be forgotten?

Here, again, the image of the mandala is helpful, for 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—along with teaching skills and content—to help each student find a place within the school community where he or she, for want of a better word, can shine.

Much of the tangible work done at school, like the sands of the mandala, will be swept away at the end of the year.

This process of finding the right relationship of the part to the whole is one that a child (indeed, anyone, child or adult) must accomplish at several different levels: the psychological, as the child struggles to integrate the various elements of the personality into a coherent whole; the social, which entails finding a harmonious relationship to others; and the spiritual, wherein the individual strives to find the meaning of his life in relationship to reality as a whole, however this is conceived.

While this process is easy for a few children, it is difficult for many. It is also particularly painful for the adults—teachers and parents—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, when children whose egos are not yet strong enough to differentiate from their parents on their own, seem almost programmed by nature to band together in groups.

Sometimes the relationships between and among these groups can be amicable, but often a group seems to take pleasure in rejecting those who would join its ranks. As a middle school principal, I learned long ago that the nature of these groups plays a very significant role in determining the kind of experience that many students—and the school as a whole—have that year.

The saving grace for many children during these years is discovering a gift or talent, a passion they can develop which can win for them recognition from the group and a sense of identity for themselves. The development of such a talent and the confidence it gives a child is far more valuable than hearing incessant mantras of “you’re terrific” from parents or teachers, hollow words whose emptiness kids easily detect.

While part of the task of schools must be to ensure that all students have certain common skills and a fund of common knowledge, 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. Dr. Mel Levine, in his book A Mind at a Time, suggests that a goal of each school should be to help all its students become experts in something, the person within the school community who knows more about pachyderms or monarch butterflies than anyone else and who will be called in as a consultant when knowledge is needed in that area. The certainty that one has something crucial to contribute is the basis of genuine self-esteem, for it is based on the foundation of knowing that you matter.

A major goal of any school must be to help each student find a place within the school community where he or she, for want of a better word, can shine.

Such a vision of school is completely compatible with rigorous expectations and accountability and does not diminish the importance of excellence and achievement. But it does mean expanding the circle of skills and knowledge, the excellences we assess in schools, along the lines suggested by authors such as Mel Levine and Howard Gardner. It also means paying critical attention to the place of the arts in a school and even to the extracurricular activities a school offers, making sure that there is a rich array of activities that offer students multiple arenas for discovery and genuine 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. It will mean that 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 succeed in helping each student find his or her place in that mandala we call school.

Tom Bonnell is the associate head and middle school director of the Dalton School in New York City.

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A version of this article appeared in the August 07, 2002 edition of Education Week as A Monk, a Mandala, And the Meaning of School

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