The LEGOs of Impermanence

Thousands of years before the advent of LEGO, Tibetan Buddhist monks were mastering the MOC (My Own Creation). LEGO enthusiasts recognize the MOC as a LEGO creation that they designed and built (as opposed to using the provided instructions). The monks, however, were doing it with mandalas.

Mandalas are an ancient, sacred form of Buddhist art. They are similar to LEGO in that both are colorful, imaginative displays of creativity. Where they differ is in how the multi-colored plastic pieces are replaced with multi-colored sand.

The mandala is meant to represent impermanence. If imagining the creation and destruction of the universe sounds overwhelming, these elaborate exhibitions of artistic talent bring the abstract idea of temporariness into a more tangible, bite-size depiction. They also offer ways to further enhance our LEGO building experience.

Per the ancient Buddhist traditions that are still practiced today, the monks begin a mandala by determining its intention. The theme, which can focus on such topics as compassion or wisdom, is aligned with particular deities and geometric patterns to infuse the unique spiritual and sacred qualities that each mandala possesses. Once a theme is decided, the monks consecrate the site through music, meditation, and mantra recitation.

With a mental blueprint of the mandala, the monks then begin to draw the lines for the design on a table, which will serve as the base for the mandala. They measure out the architectural lines using a straight- edged ruler, a compass and a white ink pen. Because every detail is deliberate from the design to the colors to the placement of symbols, this preparatory process can take days to complete.

Once the outline is complete, the team begins to gently place the sand granules along the drawing. Using small tubes, funnels, and scrapers, they create vibrations with the tools that cause the sand to slowly spill out, almost grain by grain, until the entire pattern is covered. Nothing holds the sand in place and there is no room for error; even a small sneeze would ruin it. The finished product is approximately the size of a queen-size bed, and will take days or weeks to complete based upon the precision of the work.

Unlike most art that is intended to last for the ages, after all the time and effort has been exerted to create the mandala, this stunning display of artistry is destroyed. In a Dissolution Ceremony the monks rit- ualistically dismantle the mandala, removing the colored sand. Some of the sand is distributed to the audience as a blessing for health and healing; what remains is collected and released back into nature.

How much of the mandala process sounds like your use of LEGO elements? Let’s break it down. Both begin with a mental picture of what you want to create. Your LEGO build’s theme may not be as altruistic as to embody world peace, but you don’t begin building without some intention of what you would like to create. Plus, who’s to say your LEGO Batman®’s Batboat Harbor Pursuit (set #76032) is not as impactful or as life altering as the mandala that the Dalai Lama commissioned depicting the paradise of Avalokitshevara, the Buddha of Compassion?

Once you have an idea of what you will be making, it is time to prepare. We do not need to draw the sophisticated diagrams that the monks require, but that does not mean the planning stage should be overlooked. How much space do you have to work? How much time can you dedicate to it? And the question I rarely ask but always regret not asking, do I have the LEGO pieces needed to fulfill my expectations? You cannot make a mandala without a few pounds of sand just as you cannot build a life-size Kermit the Frog without a generous supply of green LEGO bricks.

Now that you have your schematics and have taken inventory of the needed materials, construction begins. As the monks scrutinize every grain of sand, you vigilantly choose each LEGO piece. A round brick cannot replace a cone just as pre-2003 light grey plates are not synonymous with their more bluish post-2003 “light bley” brethren. Minor details? Maybe, but art is intentional and purposeful.

With meticulous craftsmanship, your structure is finally complete. This is the perfect time to bask in the glory of your fine work. Rope off a viewing area so others can stop by to check it out. Take stock of what you’ve accomplished. Then, once you’ve received your share of accolades, it is time for your LEGO creation to follow in the ways of the mandala and for its ceremonial demolition to begin.

We all follow a different method for disassembling LEGO. Some take a set apart piece by piece so as to sort each bit into its respective plastic bag, thereby preserving newness and keeping it systematically organized for next time. Others take a more Godzilla-like approach where the structure is punched, swatted, kicked, and beaten into dismantled mess. Either way, the creation is no more.

Like my childhood obsession with supergluing LEGO bricks, some have tried to fight the mandala’s temporariness. Back in 1992, Robert Jacobsen, the curator of Asian Art at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, led an experiment where adhesive sand could harden into a “permanent” mandala capable of being hung on a wall. While technically a success, Jacobsen seems to miss the point—destruction of a mandala, like dismantling LEGO creations, demonstrates that beauty is only meant for this world for a short time.

By wittingly putting effort into a temporary piece of art, we reveal the fleeting nature of all material life. This is the very core of impermanence. It is a reminder that existence has a beginning, middle, and end. Then, once we’ve accepted the unremitting cyclical changes, it frees us to return to a mindset of infinite possibility where we no longer search for finality but rest in unbound awareness.

The creation of art, transitory or otherwise, involves skill acquired through practice and effort. An eye for detail separates a casual pastime from the creation of your chef d’oeuvre. If the particulars can be overlooked, at what point does your LEGO project become a mishmash of rainbow warrior-like chaos where you no longer attempt to coordinate colors?

Once your efforts become infused with lackluster motivation, it is a slippery slope to an inner monologue of, “Why bother starting a LEGO project if it is just going to be taken apart anyway.” This nihilistic reaction toward impermanence not only runs counter to Buddhist philosophy, but can only lead to a dissatisfied life. After all, with all things being momentary, a “Why Should I Care?” attitude would expand beyond LEGO, a mandala, or any other form of art you use to express yourself. You’d be left in a state of never bothering to do anything because it will inevitably come to a close.

Impermanence is not an occasion for sorrow, but rather recognition for the unavoidable realization that reality is in a perpetual state of change. It is a time to acknowledge that all things will end, appreciate the time spent doing it, and celebrate how it has enriched our life. This frees us from trying to “superglue” our worldview through failed attempts to keep everything as is or becoming overly fixated on any one goal or object. We can then adopt a renewed vigilance to remain open to new experiences, for as every LEGO project ends, another is soon to follow.


1. John Cotter, Leading Change (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Review Press, 2012).

  • 2. Traci Mann, Secrets from the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Weight Loss, and Why You Should Never Diet Again (New York: Harper Wave, 2015). “Blame It on the Brain: The Latest Neuroscience Research Suggests Spreading Resolutions Out Over Time is the Best Approach,” The Wall Street Journal, December 26, 2009, available at 2322122442 (accessed March 6, 2017).
  • 3. Wijesekara, O.H. DeA, The Three Signata, Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta (Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka, 1981).
  • 4. William Glasser, Positive Addiction (New York: HarperCollins, 1976).
  • 5. Seung Sahn, Only Don’t Know: Selected Teaching Letters of Zen Master Seung Sahn (Shambhala Publications, Colorado, 2013).
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