The shadow side of high-achieving educational systems is its demoralizing and even debilitating levels of stress upon students. The Buddhist spiritual practice of creating beautiful works of art called mandalas and then destroying them when they are completed offers schools a counterintuitive metaphor for dealing with the stress-inducing competition evident in our educational systems. This mandala construction process of creating and then ultimately destroying a cherished piece of art models an insight schools need to help students become both productive and balanced.
“All great spirituality is about letting go. I say this as an absolute statement…Vigilant receptivity and nonclinging release are one and the same for this riverbed awareness as it constantly receives all coming from upstream while at the very same moment releasing all downstream.
-Richard Rohr, September 1st, 2016
“If psychological work helps us find ourselves, spiritual work takes a step further, helping us let go of ourselves.”
-John Welwood, Toward a Psychology of Awakening, p. 97.
In the last several years some of my World Religion students have taken on the making of a Buddhist mandala for their spiritual practices project. They work for a good number of hours over the course of a couple of weeks constructing beautiful mandalas, and then as the final act of their practice, burn or destroy their creations. One of my students, Sharon Kim*, described her experience in this way:
I have never emptied myself or let go of my achievements. I was always busy to do well on my tests, but I never looked back or took a moment to appreciate and enjoy the tests I did well on. I did not know how to take a rest; I just kept leaning forward to achieve more good grades. However, when my mandala started burning, I did not feel any regrets or sadness. I felt happy and empty. Destroying my achievement did not feel wrong. I did not regret spending so much time on it just to destroy it at the end. It rather felt right, just as if I was setting free a butterfly back to nature after catching it.
I have felt for some time that the spiritual practice of burning mandalas held some insight that my students and I needed to understand. At a high-performing school like HKIS, we only teach students to achieve and then store those achievements in the ever-increasing backpack of accolades that will merit them a high-ranking university placement. At the same time, we see that our students are stressed out to dangerous levels, overburdened with the relentless and escalating demand of trying to be “good enough,” which for many can only be met by an Ivy League acceptance in their senior year. Somehow burning the mandala was an antidote to the overbearing backpack of achievement.
The Empty Self and the Mantra of Achievement
It seems to be a human universal in modern society that we feel that we come into life empty and lacking significance – and that the goal of life is to create something ex nihilo, to “make something” of ourselves, as we say. And so we enter into the human race – perhaps an unintentional double meaning – competing with other empty human beings seeking to make something of ourselves. In order to feel good, we need to accumulate the trappings of success, which are usually money, possessions, and status, granting us a sense of self-respect. Even for those who are not so competitive, insecurity about one’s true identity is rife. We have some inkling about who we are and strive for confirmation in the external world. Even service activities can be tainted with this dis-ease: “making a difference” justifies our existence on the planet.
At HKIS where academic excellence is the pride of our institution, we teach kids day-in and day-out about the high value of achievement. The goal is to fill the backpack. Yet not far below the surface of every student is an underlying fear: some backpacks are much fuller than others! A Judgment Day based on our backpacks – in competition with a global pool of increasingly worthy applicants – looms on the horizon. The result of this culture of competition, which can be verified by talking to almost any student at our school, is that education runs far more on the energy of fear-induced stress than the joy of learning or the anticipation of self-discovery.
This dynamic is easily visible even after all the achievements are completed. At our annual graduation ceremony, seniors wear plain navy blue gowns as a symbol of class unity. Yet the National Honor Society members get an additional chord to wear as an indication of their superior attainment. Even to the last moment, “achieve, achieve, achieve” is the pulsating mantra of modern-day schooling.
The Wisdom of Surrender
This is not to deny that these skills and accomplishments are unimportant. Far from it. Our world does need highly competent people that can make significant change in a planet full of need. The problem, however, is that we only teach students at HKIS how to fill the backpack, and our constant checking of the backpack’s contents becomes a weighty impediment to treading lightly everyday. The wisdom traditions call this constant self-monitoring “identification,” which is clinging to achievements to claim our self-generated value. The solution, say these traditions, is to teach a yin-yang response: receiving and then relinquishing, grasping and then releasing. It should become as second nature as breathing – drawing in and letting go.
Over and over again world religious traditions speak about the importance of developing this surrender reflex. In the Christian tradition, Jesus states, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” The apostle Paul writes, “I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). Islam, a religion whose name literally can be translated as “surrender,” proscribes that Muslims (or “those who submit”) prostrate themselves in prayer five times/day, a powerful surrender practice. In the Dhammapada, the Buddha advises, “[The wise person is] free from desire, free from possessions, free from attachment and appetite . . . becom[ing] themselves a light, pure, shining, free.”
Why surrender? Because the Larger Self gained through surrender is so much more brilliant than the ego-driven, insecure smaller self working so hard to “make something” of itself. This Larger Self establishes an identity not in distinction from others but as an expression of the Divine Presence in the world. Its sense of selfhood has no title, no grade, no personality type, no diploma, and no cord. My teacher Cynthia Bourgeault uses the metaphor of the moon to describe the relationship of the two selves. The crescent moon shouldn’t strive to become the full of the moon; it already is what it wants to become. It just cannot see its true nature.
How does one begin to put this insight into practice? I was recently asked to give the baccalaureate address for seniors and their families to begin graduation week. I worked quite hard preparing for what I hoped would be a meaningful speech. Predictably, I was reasonably stressed prepping in the weeks and days preceding the speech. Then with the speech written, I was anxious about the delivery, which I practiced throughout Sunday leading up to the early evening service. When the time came, I got up, delivered a 15-minute talk, and sat down. As I returned to my seat, I went into full-on “identification” mode. How did I do? Who was in the audience and would they be suitably impressed? Would anyone compliment me? But in contrast to some previous speeches, I was at least aware of the identification this time. The first step in changing such an ingrained habit is catching yourself in the act. Self-observation leads to slow change.
When my students find an unexpected sense of satisfaction in burning their mandalas, I believe they are experiencing a positive self-observation. They come to grasp, if even for only a moment, the relief of losing their small self and getting in touch with a Larger Self beyond their attainments. Our achievement culture never allows us to consider the possibility, as Sharon wrote in her essay, that one can be both “happy and empty.” She was putting into her own words what Gandhi explained in response to the challenge of summarizing the key to life in three words, “Renounce and enjoy.”
Modern education would do well to help students learn how to metaphorically burn their mandalas – their high grades, extracurricular achievements, status and popularity – and consider that the true self is far greater than these markers of success. As Sharon explained, this is the way to “set free the butterfly.” That Larger Self is more than just the crescent moon of achievement that waxes and wanes; rather, it’s the full moon – a light, pure, shining, and free.
Princess Ashi Kesang Choden Wangchuck (to the immediate right of the mandala) joined the Bhutanese monks at Hong Kong’s Asia Society in late April to create and consecrate a mandala – before destroying it. See this SCMP video on the construction and meaning of the mandala.
1. To read Sharon Kim’s reflection on this same theme as a senior three years after this first essay was written, hit here.
2. Senior Kirsten Luk shares in her final “Service, Society, and the Sacred” essay how burning her mandala played a paradigm-shifting role in her growth in this class. This is an excerpt from her final paper.
December 14, 2017
“Within a few months of senior year, I already felt the immense amount of stress fall on me. I became sleep deprived as I rushed homework, college applications, teacher recommendation forms, projects, and tests. I knew it was unhealthy for me, but the thought of failing scared me so much I forgot about my health. My friends became worried about me, every day at least one person would ask “Everything ok?” I would just smile, nod, and maybe exchange a few words if I wasn’t as tired on that particular day.
I didn’t know how to cope with this problem until I was introduced to the Spiritual Practice Project. I perceived this as an opportunity for me to relieve stress, so naturally, I chose drawing mandalas again, since art is one of my favorite subjects and I have had the blissful experience doing it during World Religions. Even though I felt less stressful when I was drawing the mandalas, the stress would return when I finished my piece. I couldn’t elevate my experience, and I didn’t feel that I was achieving my aim, which was to be able to release materialistic things. Mr. Schmidt suggested me to destroy my mandalas, I dropped my jaw at those words, I couldn’t believe my ears. Art has always been precious to me, and I was taught to treasure my creations. In fact, I keep all my mandala drawings in a clear folder. As I stared at him, something told me he was right. So I returned home and burned one of my drawings. At the beginning I was reluctant of doing so, I felt very much attached to the drawing, as though it was part of me. But as I held a lighter in one hand and my drawing in the other I realized I needed to do it sooner or later. So I set it on fire and watched it burned. As it burned, the heavyweight that accumulated on my shoulders suddenly dissipated. I wasn’t sad or regretful, in contrast, I felt free and open. I realized the strength of attachment of an object is the strength you give it, and once you overcome that resistance, then you’ll be able to let go. It was indeed a ‘moment in the special world.’ With all the practices we have done this semester, none had amounted to this sensation.
Having gained this insight, I believe I will be able to utilize this new mindset in cleaning up my room since most of the clutter isn’t thrown away due to its sentimental value. I also believe I can apply this to the stress I have accumulated in the last few months of high school. By convincing myself no matter how well or bad I do on a test that it doesn’t define me, and the way that I respond to it is entirely under my control. And that health is still the most important thing since our physical well being will affect our mental well being as well.
I’m so happy that I can complete my spiritual journey in being able to let go of materialistic things. I feel that I was only able to complete half of it in World Religions, and that was recognizing the spiritual dimension and my inability to let go of things. I continued my journey in SSS where I was able to explore my body through the intelligence of the body, mind, and heart, and ultimately being able to utilize my understanding of these concepts to facilitate my attainment of my wisdom in letting go.”
Adrienne Luk’s mandalas (above and below) that she did as her spiritual practices project. Adrienne destroyed her journals as well as some of the mandalas at the end of the process. Here are selected reflections from her project:
- Day 2: Today I tried not meditating first and just go straight into drawing my mandalas and I got bored really quickly so I think I might try meditating again next time and see if there’s a difference.
- Day 6: I meditated for 10 minutes this time because it worked for me very well last time when I meditated for 10 minutes only. I’m finding it to help me concentrate much better on my mandalas and I don’t get bored as easily while doing my mandalas over a longer time period. Today I continued with my mandala carving and I’m really happy with the end result.
- Day 8: I’m starting to enjoy spending more effort and time on this much more than when I just started. Since I’m working with oil paint, the whole process is taking much more effort and work to finish but I’m enjoying it.
- Day 9: I didn’t get bored of doing it at all, in fact I found it to have put me in a better mood and calmed me down a lot more than before since I was stressed out today.
- Day 10: After meditating, I finished off some details of my mandala and I’m extremely happy with the results. I feel really comforted and in a great mood because I finished something well and I focused and put a lot of effort on it.
- Day 11: Today is the final day and it’s also the day that I have to destruct what I have made since it’s an important part of the process. Although I couldn’t get the strength to burn my last mandala, I did burn my first two pieces and also my journal which I keep and write in almost everyday. I think that at first it hurt to burn my journal since it kept so many of my memories and emotions but it also weirdly felt good to burn it because there were bad memories in there too and now that I’ve burned it it’s like nothing ever happened and now I can make new memories and make better memories too.
* Sharon Kim’s insightful essay is included in full below:
World Religions Final Exam Paper
The Importance of Letting Go
I finally felt empty when I saw the fire starting from the corner of my mandala. I watched it as the paper shrunk in the fire, turning into ashes. My ten hours of work was gone within five minutes. It felt good, not only because I was done with my religion project but also because it was my first time to let go of something I have worked on for so long. It was my first time feeling this way, and it was then when I finally understood the importance of letting go.
All religions seek for the ultimate reality. They all believe in greater reality than the world we are living in right now. This world is on the horizontal dimension, and the greater something lies beyond this horizontal dimension: the vertical dimension. Each religion guides and provides the way out of this horizontal dimension and leads the people to the greater reality. What I have noticed throughout this semester course of World Religions is that all the religions we have studied emphasize the significance of letting go in one way or another.
In Hinduism, the ultimate reality is Brahman. We are atman, and atman is Brahman. We all are “formless non-dual consciousness”, but we can only escape this horizontal dimension and reach Brahman when we try to seek for the ultimate reality and finally realize that we are ultimate reality ourselves. This process is called moksha, meaning liberation from this ordinary and limited realm of existence. In this process, we must let go of the world we are living in right now since it is only illusion that we created. In order to connect our souls with the Brahman, we must detach ourselves from this world and become one with the greater universe.
Buddhism is all about emptying oneself. Buddha reached enlightenment through meditating and realizing that the only way to end suffering in this world is by discovering the truth of the nature of this world: everything is illusion. The reality of this life on the horizontal dimension is that nothing is stable or permanent. In contrast, the vertical dimension is permanent. The vertical dimension is full of emptiness. Emptiness is whole and permanent, and we should realize this truth and let go of our desires and try to empty ourselves as we try to get closer to enlightenment.
Islam means surrender or submission. Muslim means “one who submits”. Islam highlights the significance of monotheism. Heaven and God are the only ultimate reality, and one must follow the Quran to reach the greater reality after death. Muslims pray five times a day, and every time they pray, they lower themselves and bow down towards Mecca. Bowing down and touching the floor represents the submission to God, and it teaches us to let go of the self-ego.
Christianity’s key idea is the sacrifice and love. Philippians 2 tells us about the humility of Christ. Jesus Christ did not use his advantage to show off to people, but he rather humbled himself and died on the cross. Even though he was the Son of God, he let go of his status and lived with the ordinary humans. Stories like these emphasize that sacrifice and love come from letting go of one’s need and honor.
Realizing the significance of letting go brought huge difference to my life. As an agnostic person, I was able to see all the importance from each religion equally, and I tried to learn from all the teachings of the religions. When I started to burn my mandala, I felt the “emptiness” for the first time in my life. In today’s world, we care too much and concentrate on too many things, that we barely have time to think about the things we do in our lives. We have to hold on to so many things at the same time, and have no time to pull ourselves together once we fall apart. It is a tough world where it feels like there is no time for you to breathe or think about life. It is impossible to feel “empty” in any ways, because we are always so filled up with all the different events and things that are around us. We never let go of the things that we have achieved even at the moment of death. This world only teaches us how to achieve and grow more, not how to let go. Living in this horizontal dimension, I have never emptied myself or let go of my achievements. I was always busy to do well on my tests, but I never looked back or took a moment to appreciate and enjoy the tests I did well on. I did not know how to take a rest; I just kept leaning forward to achieve more good grades. However, when my mandala started burning, I did not feel any regrets or sadness. I felt happy and empty. Destroying my achievement did not feel wrong. I did not regret spending so much time on it just to destroy it at the end. It rather felt right, just as if I was setting free a butterfly back to the nature after catching it.
When I let things go, I was able to focus on my life better. I was happy, energetic and calm. I appreciated the very and every moment, and I was finally truly “living in the moment”. Life was good and wonderful when I cared less. Living in the present moment with less attachment and pressure of the things that had happened in the past or the things that might happen in the future allowed me to feel free and safe. It was not, and I do not think it will ever be possible to let go of everything and just fly to Norway and live with the lambs, but it was definitely possible in my everyday school life to worry less about my grades and enjoy the classes and assignments instead. I put in the same amount of time and effort to complete the tasks, but I had a better mindset than before. Grades and scores meant less to me, and I was truly learning rather than just competing with others. I let go of the mistakes I have made and applied the knowledge I have learned from my mistake to do better in the present moment. I did not blame myself for being not-too-great, I tried to understand myself just the way I am. “Letting-go attitude welcomes the sensation of the moment, and then lets go of our false-self desires to make it other than it is” (Cynthia Bourgeault). As said, I think it is very important for all of us to really realize that letting go is the way to happiness and to the better place or ultimate reality at the end.
- A class activity on making mandalas.
- “Why We Humblebrag about being Busy,” by Greg McKeown, Harvard Business Review, June 6, 2014.
Contemplation as Letting Go by Richard Rohr (Friday, September 2, 2016)
It’s really hard to “sell” contemplation because it’s precisely like selling nothing. For Americans, contemplative prayer is counter-intuitive. Even worse, it is, at least for me, a daily practice of assured failure! If you are into success, you will give up quite early on. Contemplation is largely teaching you how to let go—how to let go of your attachment to your self-image, your expectations, your very ideas. Every such “set up” is a resentment waiting to happen. So maybe we are just redefining success as foundational happiness and contentment.
As you gradually learn to let go, you learn how to rest in what some call “the eternal now,” a kind of present satisfaction with the present as it is. You don’t need to manipulate or change the moment in order to be happy. What is starts being enough to make you happy, although to get there, you must be tested many times by your anger and fear about what is not. I must be honest with you here. Contemplation trains you how to let go of what you think is success, so you can find the ultimate success of simple happiness.
I’m going to say something that maybe will sound like heresy, but I’m offering you a “pearl of great price.” De facto “salvation” has little to do with belief systems, belonging to the right group, or correct ritual practice. It has everything to do with living right here, right now, and knowing a beautiful and fully accepting God is this very moment giving to you. All you can do is sit down at the banquet and eat. If you can enjoy heaven now, you are totally prepared and ready for heaven later.
Perhaps another metaphor will make this clearer. In A Sunlit Absence, Martin Laird, OSA—a brilliant teacher of contemplation at Villanova University—illustrates contemplation as an act of letting go and allowing ourselves to be sculpted into a masterpiece:
According to ancient theory of art, the practice of sculpting has less to do with fashioning a figure of one’s choosing than with being able to see in the stone the figure waiting to be liberated. The sculptor imposes nothing but only frees what is held captive in stone. The practice of contemplation is something like this. It does not work by means of addition or acquisition, but by release, chiseling away thought-shackled illusions of separation from God. . . . Contemplative practice proceeds by way of the engaged receptivity of release, of prying loose, of letting go of the need to have our life circumstances be a certain way in order for us to live or pray or be deeply happy. . . . With enough of this stone removed, the chiseling becomes a quiet excavation of the present moment. What emerges from the chiseled and richly veined poverty of the present moment? The emerging figure is our life as Christ (Phil. 1:21; Col. 3:3-4). 
More Reflections by Richard Rohr on letting go:
Meister Eckhart said, “God is not found in the soul by adding anything, but by a process of subtraction.”  In our consumer culture, religion and spirituality have very often become a matter of addition: earning points with God, attaining enlightenment, producing moral behavior. Yet authentic spirituality is not about getting, attaining, achieving, performing, or succeeding—all of which tend to pander to the ego. It is much more about letting go—letting go of what we don’t need anyway, although we don’t know that ahead of time. On the mental level, it is more “the shedding of thoughts,” as the Desert Fathers called it, than piling on more thoughts (August 28, 2016 in his “Spirituality of Letting Go”).
Meaty spirituality must first of all teach us freedom from the self, from my own self as a reference point for everything or anything. This is the necessary Copernican Revolution wherein we change reference points. Copernicus discovered that Earth is not the center of the universe. Now we have to discover that we are not the center of any universe either. We are not finally a meaningful reference point. Although we do have to start with self at the center to build a necessary “ego structure,” we then must move beyond it. The big and full world does not circle around me or you. Yet so many refuse to undergo this foundational enlightenment (Mature Spirituality, Monday, August 29, 2016).
Tips on Making a Mandala from Richard Rohr
Practice: Making a Mandala
Mandala, the Sanskrit word for circle, is a Hindu and Buddhist symbol for the universe. It represents the Whole of which we are a part. In Carl Jung’s words, a mandala is “a safe refuge of inner reconciliation and wholeness.” 
We might think of Christ as a mandala—a symbol of matter and spirit cohering in and beyond time. Christ is God manifest, both visible and invisible, darkness and light, bringing all things to greater life and love throughout eternity. Christ’s love is the very shape of the universe. Each of us are part of this pattern. Through our conscious participation, we can grow into the fullness of love.
I invite you to create your own mandala as a contemplative practice. Begin by gathering all the materials you’ll need (a large sheet of blank paper, extra paper, scissors, pencil, compass, coloring pencils, markers, paints, etc.). Find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed for an hour or so.
Bring to heart and mind four areas in your life or the world for which you desire healing and wholing. Record them on a spare piece of paper using words, symbols, or colors.
Cut the large piece of paper into a square. Mark the center of the page with a small dot and use a compass to draw a circle a couple inches from the edge of the paper (if you don’t have a compass, trace a small plate or bowl). Within the circle, draw a square and divide it into four quadrants. In each section, draw an image or design that represents each of your desires.
Beginning at the corners of the square and, moving outward, create concentric circles with shapes or curving lines. Add color if you wish, slowly filling in the design.
When you have finished creating your mandala, consecrate the time, energy, and focus you’ve given to the healing and wholing of self and world. Spend some time simply gazing with non-judgmental eyes at the mandala and surrendering your desires and expectations.
Tibetan and Navajo rituals involve ceremonially destroying their intricate sand mandalas after completion. You might choose to intentionally burn, bury, or somehow let go of your mandala (Sunday, October 23-Friday, October 28, 2016).
Mature Spirituality (Monday, November 28, 2016)
Ken Wilber sees religion as having two primary functions. The first is to create “meaning for the separate self.” The second and mature function of religion is to help individuals transcend that very self.  Great religion seeks full awareness and expanded consciousness (often called “holiness”) so that we can, in fact, both give and receive in equal measure. For me, this is the simplest sign of emotional and spiritual health.
Although the majority of religions and individuals remain at the first stage of creating meaning for the separate self, I continue to find people inside every religion and profession who are on the true further journey. These are the ones who have “died before they die,” who have let great love, suffering, or prayer lead them beyond their small self into the Big Self. They have let go of who they thought they were, or needed to be, to discover who they always were in God.
The second function and goal of religion, Wilber says, “does not fortify the separate self, but utterly shatters it.” Mature spirituality offers “not consolation but devastation, not entrenchment but emptiness, not complacency but explosion, not comfort but revolution.”  Rather than bolster our habitual patterns of thinking, it radically transforms our consciousness and gives us what Paul calls “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16).
The mind of Christ is not binary, either/or thinking. The mind of Christ can live with paradox, uncertainty, and mystery. This way of not knowing, and not even needing to know, is precisely what we mean by Biblical faith. In the first half of our lives (not strictly chronological!), we are largely not ready to understand what faith is, because we still cling to naïve beliefs and false certainties. We need them to get us started! In the first half of life we are still afraid of darkness and “the cross.”
In time, through trials, suffering, and prayer, we will allow ourselves to be broken open to the Larger Knowing that can hold everything in love, grace, and freedom. Only at that point do we move from mere religion to the beginnings of a spiritual journey that will help us and the world.
“Letting go is not an attitude, but a gesture.”
-Cynthia Bourgeault, New Zealand Wisdom School, February 2016, talk 10, 5:00.