Photograph © Getty/Alvis Upitis

Perhaps you will go to the beach sometime this summer and have a chance to watch children at play in the sand. How engrossed they can get in their projects! When building a sand castle, nothing in the world seems more important than shaping it, embellishing it, and protecting it from the encroaching sea or from other children who might threaten it. This must be a timeless pursuit, for the Buddha offers the following image in a discussion with an elder monk named Radha in the Samyutta Nikaya:

Suppose, Radha, some little boys or girls are playing with sand castles. So long as they are not devoid of lust, desire, affection, thirst, passion, and craving for those sand castles, they cherish them, play with them, treasure them, and treat them possessively.

But sand castles, then as now, are a symbol of impermanence, and will eventually slip into the sea. Equally impermanent are the affections of young children, and even before the tide comes in you may witness the gleeful demolition of what only moments earlier had been so deeply revered. Once the tide of their own attachment has turned, children can destroy with joyful abandon what they have so carefully created. This is something noticed by the Buddha as well:

But when those little boys or girls lose their lust, desire, affection, thirst, passion, and craving for those sand castles, then they scatter them with their hands and feet, demolish them, shatter them, and put them out of play. [SN 23.2]

This is an important observation about human behavior, which can, of course, be applied to a much wider field of understanding. It points to the remarkable insight that meaning is not something existing inherently in things, but is something projected onto things by the application of human awareness. We make things important by investing them with importance, by placing our attention on them, and by treating them as valuable. Sand castles are not universally important or unimportant. When a person considers them meaningful and pays careful attention to them, they become important. When that meaningcreating enterprise is withdrawn and turned upon a different object, the sand castle becomes instantly insignificant. I have always liked the way Zhuangzi (Chuang-tzu) put it, “What makes things so? Making them so makes them so.”

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