Setting alight a replica of London in 1666 to commemorate the Great Fire of London was a stirring evocation of impermanence
I wish I’d been at the Tate Modern on Sunday night when a 120 metre long wooden reconstruction of London in 1666 was set alight to mark the 350th anniversary of The Great Fire of London. The footage alone is eery and stirring, evoking the Fire’s destructive power and its devastating effect on the city.
Seeing the painstakingly created model, complete with spires, towers and houses, surrendered to the flames, reminded me of Tibetan sand mandalas. A mandala is a symbolic representation of the universe, and Buddhist monks use coloured sand to create an incredibly detailed depiction of Buddhist deities and symbols in an elaborate ritual lasting a week. When it’s finished, a monk sweeps away the intricate patterns leaving just a heap of sand.
Behind this is the Buddhist teaching that everything we experience is subject to change. In Japanese culture, this inspired the tradition of wabi sabi, which means finding beauty in that which is imperfect, transient and incomplete. That’s an alternative to the Greek ideal of beauty as a reflection of eternal forms, and you see it in Japanese art forms such as pottery and gardening. The roughness is as important as the finish.
Wabi sabi builds an understanding of change into the minutiae of daily life. It’s a gentle approach, but we can often seem to have an inbuilt resistance to confronting and accepting impermanence, especially when it comes to our own bodies. So Buddhists find ways to consciously direct their attention towards impermanence and mortality. The Buddha encouraged his more seasoned followers to sit in cremation grounds and watch the corpses decay, reflecting that their own bodies are no different. He also suggested that everyone should reflect each day: ‘I am subject to ageing, to illness and to death. I will be separated from all that is dear to me; and I am the heir to the consequences of my actions.’
Creating and then destroying an artwork like the reconstruction of Seventeenth Century London naturally prompts a sense that the city, which seems so solid, is transient. The Buddhist reflections likewise shift my focus from the daily concerns that can fill my thoughts. They encourage me to reflect that, if my time is short, it matters how I use it.
They say that on their deathbeds no one wishes they’d spent more time in the office. Perhaps it depends on the office. But, for me, contemplating impermanence encourages us to ask what we can do with our time that is genuinely meaningful.