Buddhist mandala returning to college

by Colin Hickey, Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel, February 3, 2007

WATERVILLE, Maine (USA) -- The sand man is coming back to Colby College. Artist Losang Samten created a sand mandala -- an elaborate circular design formed with painted sand -- in the fall of 2005 at Colby that delighted close to 2,000 people.

The mandala, an ancient art form, will be larger and more detailed this time.

The former Buddhist monk, who for a time was a personal assistant to the Dalai Lama, is scheduled to start his latest project Monday, the first of 10 days -- he'll rest during the weekend -- he will use to complete the art work before dismantling the mandala Feb. 16.

The entire process is open and free to the public -- he'll be at work from 10 to 4:30 p.m.

Colby Museum of Art Director Sharon L. Corwin has fond memories of Samten's previous visit.

"It broke attendance records at the museum," Corwin said of the event, "and so many people were touched by it. That is the one thing I couldn't get over. So many people were moved by the art."

They also were moved by the artist, Corwin said.

Through his five-day stay in 2005, Samten often interacted with spectators, always in a pleasant, engaging manner that encouraged others to draw closer and ask questions of their own.

"His energy is incredible," Corwin said, "and that was something we wanted to experience again. It pervades the whole museum; it pervades the whole community."

Colby English professor Peter Harris, who arranged Samten's previous appearance at Colby, is eager to renew his relationship with the artist.

Harris, like Corwin, found Samten to be remarkable, both as an artist and a person, especially in regard to his power of concentration.

"When he is pouring sand (to create his mandala) there is nothing else in the world but that sand," Harris said, "but when he turns around to respond to a child asking a question, there is nothing else in the world but that child asking the question."

Samten is world renowned for his mandalas, an art form -- dating back 2,600 years -- rich in color and filled with symbols that represent principles and concepts fundamental to Buddhist philosophy.

Yet unlike the art tradition in the Western world, the mandala is a temporary creation. Samten used sponge-like brushes purchased at the local Home Depot to sweep the painted sand into a glass vase at the dismantling in 2005.

Samten turned the dismantling into a public participation event, handing out brushes to anyone who wished to take home a pile of grains from the mandala.

In addition to the dismantling ceremony, Samten will participate in an artist's talk and panel discussion at 1 p.m. Feb. 10 and lead a meditation at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 13.

Colby professors Sarah Haynes of the Religious Studies department and William Edelglass of the philosophy department will join Samten and Trian Nguyen, a Bates College professor of art and visual culture, in the panel discussion. That event will take place in Given Auditorium of the Bixler Art and Music Building.