Artist to create, destroy sacred mandala

By COLIN HICKEY, Central Maine Morning Sentinel, Oct 12, 2005

WATERVILLE, ME (USA) -- Take colored grains of sand, an ancient philosophy and a gifted artist and you get the sand mandala that Tibetan Losang Samten began to create at the Colby College Art Museum on Tuesday.

Samten, a former personal assistant to the Dali Lama, is world renowned for his sand mandala painting, a form of art that goes back more than two millenniums and one, by some accounts, that is limited to 30 artists around the globe.

As is his practice, Samten is expected to shape his mandala throughout the week only to dismantle the work and deposit the grains into the college's Johnson Pond in a ceremony Saturday afternoon.

The mandala is both an artwork and a symbol of Tibetan Buddhism, with the colors and the images signifying principles and concepts at the core of this philosophy or vision of life.

Colby English professor Peter Harris is the person who arranged for Samten's appearance at Colby, which also will include a lecture by Samten at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Paul J. Schupf Wing of the Colby Museum of Art.

Harris said the magnitude of the event is difficult to overstate.

"It really is an incredible event," he said. "I mean this is something you see at the Philadelphia Museum of Art."

Harris, a Buddhist himself, said the mandala will form slowly and probably have no discernible pattern or focal point the first day.

At the end, however, the mandala will be a work of great beauty based on Samten's previous creations.

For many, if not most, people in this country, the dismantling of that beauty is the most difficult aspect of the art form to understand, Harris said. But the dismantling, he said, is at the heart of the Buddhist philosophy.

"One of the reasons it is dismantled is that nothing is permanent in Buddhism," he said. "The idea is that all things are transitory and that the suffering in the world is a result of hanging onto things."

In this instance, then, the act of taking apart is an act of freedom, of embracing the philosophy of letting go.

Samten, who arrived late to Colby on Tuesday because of car trouble, addressed the dismantling question in an interview posted on the National Endowment for the Arts Web site.

He made clear that the final act of his sand painting is the transformation, not the destruction, of his mandala.

"Everywhere I do the mandala the first question is, 'Why not keep it? Why dismantle it?' If the mandala is small or if I'm in the middle of the design, it's easier for them to accept this. But later on, when I've finished the whole design and the piece is six, seven feet, when we are about to dismantle it, everybody's shaking their heads.

"But when we explain why it's being dismantled and about the tradition and meaning behind doing that, there's a better understanding. A lot of ancient civilizations, a lot of traditions have the idea of creating something from nature for healing or meditation or some kind of call and then that energy is returned back to the earth, back to nature."