Friday, March 14, 2008

Blasting Sand Sculptures

Last night I watched an apparently silly show that proved to be very thought-stimulating. The show was called Sand Blasters, the 3rd edition of a beach competition where eight teams of 2 artists create magnificent sand sculptures over 2 days. Castles, of course, up to every sort of three-dimensional subject, ranging from the cute (children sleeping with teddy bear), to the surreal (a man holding a frame with a picture of himself holding the frame, on and on), to the powerfully symbolic (planet earth). The works were of the highest quality: cast in bronze some of them could have been museum material. It would seem such a waste to build them in sand, on the beach, where tides and vandals would quickly destroy every trace of their existence. But wait, it's actually even worse! From the piling-up stage, each sculpture is rigged with explosive: five sculptures are randomly selected to be blown up, at different stages, the last one only 2 hours before the judges' visit. You can watch a brief video of the competition here

What a wonderful metaphor of life, and what a tool to teach detachment. Buddhist monks, are known to make beautiful sand paintings that, once finished, they proceed to destroy with the sweep of an arm. The competition goes one step further, in that it is inherently unfair: some sculptures are not destroyed, and some artists have more time than others to make a comeback. And you have to start over after watching this creation of yours being blown to smithereens. The ultimate frustration; even more so as there is substantial prize money involved, too. What could be worse than having your sculpture destroyed last, only 2 hours before the judges' visit? Yet, most contestants were laughing at the very moment of the blast.

For those of us who are not artists, the closest comparison to this frustration is a computer failure, the hard disk that crashes right before your deadline, and you don't have a back up. I'm not sure I know anyone who would be laughing at the occurrence, and I have been known to curse in 3 languages when that happened to me. So, what's the secret behind the smiling faces and hard laughing of the contestants, two of which actually hoped to have their work blown up? I don't know for sure, except perhaps the simple fact that they were competing in this game; in fact, first-timers were rather heart broken, to be honest. Aristotle, for all his many faults, may have gotten this right: we acquire qualities of body and mind by doing things that require them, "Similarly, it is by doing just acts that we become just, by doing temperate acts that we become temperate, and by doing corageous acts that we become corageous" (Nicomachean Ethics, II, 1). So, we learn to become detached by blasting sand castles, for example.

Detachment is a strange quality, though, about which I still harbor mixed feelings. Does detachment mean we shouldn't love anything? That doesn't sound appealing at all. There's a scene in the movie ,"The first knight" where King Arthur says:

Just a thought...
A man who fears nothing is a man who loves nothing.
And if you love nothing, what joy is there in your life?
I may be wrong.

These words seem the perfect reply to the zen ethics of the samurais, and much Buddhist philosophy in general. Yet, the final "I may be wrong" is haunting. Some words of Joseph Campbell's about life come to mind: "It's a wonderful, wonderful opera, except that it hurts" (The Power of Myth), followed by an Irish saying: "Is this a private fight, or may anybody join?". Although I see hints in these words, I have not, over the past years, been able to perfectly reconcile the path of Detachment from Life and the path of Joyous Acceptance, so to speak, though the wisdom and appeal of both are hard to deny. Perhaps there is an answer in a rigged sand sculpture competition.