Tibetan Buddhist Mandala In Process At Cathedral

By Melinda Steffy, The Bulletin, Jan 29, 2008

Philadelphia, Penn. (USA) -- It's not a typical artwork. It doesn't fit into contemporary models of abstraction, representation or self-expression, drawing instead on 2,500-year-old traditions and symbolism. It contains no paint, no paper, no clay, just careful layers of brightly colored sand. The highly trained artist did not attend a top-tier art school, but studied at a monastery in India. And no conservationist will ever worry about the artwork's longevity; in another week it won't exist.

The "Wheel of Life" Tibetan Buddhist mandala in process and on display at the Philadelphia Cathedral defies most modern Western notions of art-making, particularly ideas of permanence and personal attachment to one's creation.

For two weeks, Losang Samten, a Tibetan Buddhist monk, has been rasping fine lines of sand out of a metal tube to create careful images that portray the frailty of the human condition and the consequences of giving in to the "poisons" of ignorance, greed and anger. Every image carries symbolism, from the trio of animals at the center (pig, pigeon and snake, corresponding to the three poisons) to the six surrounding landscapes to the evolving love story around the perimeter. The images cycle from infancy through death, tying together pain and joy, yin and yang, and showing the consequences of giving in to the three poisons. According to Buddhist beliefs, in order to cure suffering, one must train the mind to notice and eliminate the poisons, and so the "Wheel of Life" provides a tool for meditation and contemplation on this life-long journey.

The detailed workmanship is astounding. Using varying finenesses of sand, Mr. Samten outlines bricks, miniscule arrows and the decorative trim of a woman's dress and sculpts buildings, mountains and rivers. He blends colors, so a band of yellow fades to green to meet the dominant blue of the largest circle. Although the overall effect is two-dimensional, Mr. Samten periodically turns off the overhead lights and uses a side-light to highlight the sand's relief, and suddenly ocean waves and fruit trees come to life with depth and shadows.

The overall concept and symbolism of the "Wheel of Life" remain the same each time it is created, but individual artists add their own variations and interpretations. In this case, Mr. Samten whimsically includes a tiny dog that runs from scene to scene, appearing in the midst of a tale of human relationships. In other panels, Jesus and Buddha appear next to each other, a nod to the ecumenical relationship that brought this Buddhist mandala to an Episcopal cathedral, and a church building takes its place alongside a pagoda as diverse cultures intersect in Mr. Samten's vision.

The profound awareness that an untimely gust of wind or a careless visitor could damage the mandala heightens its meaning and sense of value. The mandala embodies the very frailty it portrays, and so the active processes of creation and destruction become, in some ways, more important than the ancient symbols themselves. Since this particular mandala will soon be gone and no future incarnation will be exactly the same, viewing takes on a sense of pricelessness. After just two weeks of creation and one week on display, another monk will arrive to ritually sweep away the mandala, obscuring the image and returning the sand to the cosmos (via the Schuylkill River) in recognition of ultimate impermanence and natural cycles.

One visitor, clearly moved by the transient construction, asked, "Don't you worry about it?" Mr. Samten paused for several seconds, observing his delicate creation, and smilingly shrugged his shoulders, "Not really."

The "Wheel of Life" Tibetan Buddhist mandala is on view from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Philadelphia Cathedral until Feb. 3, when there will be a removal ceremony at 12 p.m.