Beautiful destruction

By COLIN HICKEY, Kennebec Journal, Oct 16, 2005

WATERVILLE, Maine (USA) -- Ancient art merged with modern Big Box store Saturday afternoon as Tibetan artist Losang Samten used paint brushes purchased from Home Depot to dismantle his intricate sand painting.

The "dismantling" of the painting, called a sand mandala, culminated a remarkable five-day process in which Samten, an artist of world renown, created his multi-colored circle a pinch of sand at a time at the Colby College Art Museum.

About 200 people attended the dismantling, surrounding the square table that Samten used to form his painting, and filling the staircase and second-floor viewing area.

Later when Samten collected the remaining grains of sand in a glass vase, about 40 of the spectators, most with umbrellas in hand, followed Samten in a driving rain to watch the former personal assistant to the Dali Lama pour the remains of his painting into Colby's Johnson Pond, an action in keeping with the Buddhist principle of impermanence.

Samten learned the art of the mandala, an art form that goes back 2,600 years, during his training to be a Buddhist monk, a direction he subsequently decided not to take.

The mandala, an elaborate design based on ancient text, consists of colored sand shaped to create a painting filled with symbols that represent principles and concepts fundamental to the Buddhist philosophy.

Samten incorporated a series of concentric circles in his design with separate circles within each of the two inner circles.

At the center Samten painted a flower that represented compassion, the theme of the mandala.

But the work was rich with other meaning as well. Samten, in the eight circles within his larger, second outermost circle, formed symbols that represented harmony, knowledge, wisdom, long life, protection and activity.

He had no shortage of colors either, making use of red, orange, yellow, blue, green, pink and white.

The circle is all inclusive, Samten explained in informal discussions with about two dozen entranced viewers a few hours before the dismantling.

He said the circle shows that the compassion of the mandala is not for one nation but for everybody, for the universe.

Samten said people sometimes are surprised the mandala is not preserved. But that, too, he said, is part of its message.

"We need to understand that what we have doesn't matter," he said in talking about material objects. "We are all looking for the truth. What matters is the oneness."

Bonnie Bishop of Cornville was one of the spectators on Saturday.

Bishop, one of the founders of the Creative Arts Initiative in Waterville, said Samten's mandala shows the ability of art to communicate powerful messages.

She held hope that people can learn from Samten's art and help deliver its messages to others and thereby shape a better world. "It has to come back to the individual," she said. "The individual has to know what it is."

Samten exuded a warmth and humor that quickly endeared the crowd to him.

He told stories in his soft, melodious voice that drew laughter but also provided lessons on the worth of all things great and small.

He led chants and prayers that seemed to draw everybody closer together, creating the oneness he talked of.

And when the time to dismantle his mandala came, Samten made the process a group activity, handing out his paint brushes to everybody within reach, and allowing anybody to take a pinch of sand home, a bit of spiritual and artistic energy distributed to the masses.

Some faces seemed troubled when Samten began the process of dismantling his mandala, but for Samten, the culmination of this ancient ritual, was a time to rejoice, a time of sharing and giving back.

"This is a wonderful cake," he said of his mandala. "This is a cake for Mother Earth."