Building and breaking the mini-cosmos
"My nickname is Mandala Man," the Venerable Losang Samten said at a Wednesday lecture in Given Auditorium. A renowned Tibetan scholar and a former Buddhist monk, Samten labored above a bright blue pedestal in the College Art Museum to craft the intricate designs of the Kalachakra sand mandala, the wheel of time. Surrounded by groups of people coming and going, Samten appeared to be at peace amongst the stir of excitement--in his world of sand, Samten labored with channeled precision as he cultivated an imaginative image from the various dishes of colored sand at his side.
The art of sand painting has existed since the time of the Buddha, originating thousands of years ago in India. As a religious art form, mandala-making is visually complex and requires years of extensive training. It involves several monks working together to create a unique circular image using metal funnel-like tools called cornets that dispense a thin stream of colored sand.
Scraping their instruments together in a mechanical hum, the monks take a blank, flat surface and transform it into a colorful circle containing a mini cosmos of palaces and towers, bustling with gods and animals, which hide in between niches and vibrant colors. Each figure in the mandala possesses its own specific meaning; connections to the five classical elements as well as to various states of the human consciousness help to create an artwork that is deeply encoded with symbolism and vibrancy.
In 1959, Samten fled Chinese-occupied Tibet and found refuge with thousands of other Tibetan exiles in Dharamsala, India. There, Samten studied Buddhist philosophy and the craft of sand painting at the Dalai Lama's Namgyal Monestary. In 1988, His Holiness sent Samten to the United States to demonstrate the importance and beauty of Tibetan sand mandalas to the Western world for the first time. Having studied "the mandala way of life" for over 40 years, Samten has traveled extensively, sharing his understanding of Buddhist philosophy and meditation, as well as his expertise in Tibetan art, with the world.
During his stay at the College, onlookers saw a basic blueprint in the College Art Museum turn into a visually-striking work of art that acted as a divine mansion for the various figures in its realm. The Kalachakra mandala of time is one of the most complicated mandalas, and Samten created a version at Colby by himself. There were five central "buildings" within the world of the mandala, each surrounded by walls, gates and towers, and the whole mandala was encircled by a ring symbolizing the elements that make up the universe. At the very center, there were tiny mounds of sand that represented the union of male and female, which respectively symbolize wisdom and compassion in Buddhist thought.
This renowned Tibetan monk and artist worked since April 4 to craft the sacred Kalachakra Mandala, and, on Saturday, April 10, the public was invited to participate in the spiritual exercise of meditation under Samten's guidance, which gave them the opportunity to experience some of the religious rituals that traditionally accompany the construction of a mandala.
Yet intertwined with the rituals and the creation of the mandala is its undoing. A dismantling ceremony was held on April 13, in which a large crowd of onlookers listened to Samten recite a closing prayer and heard Buddhist chants that brought the creative process to an end. The sand was moved within the mandala in a ritualisitic fashion, until the colors of the mandala blended together in a melange of sand. The crowd was then allowed to take pinches of sand, believing that doing so brings good luck. The ritual destruction after the mandala's completion highlights the Buddhist belief in impermanence.
This was the Samten's third visit to the College and he looks forward to the publication of his forthcoming book, Ancient Teachings in Modern Times: Buddhism in the 21st Century.