Tibetan Artist Creates 'Wheel of Life'

Mandala 2005 - News
Losang Samten creates the Wheel of Life. Photo: Kris Snibbe/Harvard News Office

The Venerable Losang Samten’s hands had to be steady as a surgeon’s as he engaged in the painstaking process of creating a “Wheel of Life” sand mandala during a week-long residency recently at the Center for the Study of World Religions (CSWR) at Harvard Divinity School. The mandala was created in celebration of the center’s 45th anniversary and to inaugurate its programming theme for the year: “Religion, Place, and the Environment.”

Drawing from some 20 cups of brightly colored sand and sifting the sand through a special tool into precise images, the former Tibetan monk worked full time over four days, October 24–28, to create a brilliant circular work of art that, he explained, uses symbolic, cosmological imagery to exhibit “the nature of the mind” and samsara, the endless cycle of birth and rebirth replete with human suffering.

The picture also reveals the importance of karma, which he stressed is not “something already fixed in the past,” but means that “everything can be changed by your actions.” Attempting to sum up the mandala to the audience on the final day, Samten said, “Inside this circle: samsara. Outside this circle: nirvana.” In keeping with the mandala tradition, the sand painting was dismantled in a communal ceremony.

“What better way to celebrate the 45th anniversary of the opening of this building, which was built with the aim of training teachers in the field of world religions and stimulating student interest in the religions of the world as living traditions,” said Donald Swearer, director of the Center for the Study of World Religions.

The center has “housed more than 600 students and teachers over the years from all over the world and has engaged not only scholars, but policymakers and religious leaders,” he added. “So part of what the construction of the mandala is meant to symbolize is the global significance of the center, the place and role of religion in an increasingly globalized world, and the interconnectedness of life the world over.”

In an introductory talk to the week’s activities, Janet Gyatso, HDS’s Hershey Professor of Buddhist Studies, who specializes in Tibetan Buddhism, said that Samten has indicated the Wheel of Life is one of his favorite mandalas to construct because he considers it “efficacious for world peace.” This is especially interesting, Gyatso noted, because the picture contained within the border of the mandala “is not of peace but, in a certain sense, of war.”

At the very center of the painting are three animals representing our most pernicious passions: a pig represents ignorance, a rooster represents attachment or greed, and a snake or serpent represents anger and hatred.

“It is a picture of being stuck in sorrow and the whole thing is grasped by the Lord of Death,” Gyatso said. “Looking at a mandala is like looking in the mirror,” the idea being “to recognize yourself as you really are.” At the same time, Gyatso said, it is meant to be “an ideal map of the world” and “the whole world is one’s mandala, showing a way to interact and to understand experience.”

As such, the mandala is a flexible teaching tool, and in Buddhist contexts, it functions to sanctify a place, and to initiate students into specific practices. For instance, there is a practice in which students will throw a flower into the mandala, and wherever it lands shows a student “your place within it, and acts as a key to your own psychology and practice, and which deities to focus on,” Gyatso explained.

Actual Buddhist mandalas are far more detailed, take even longer to construct and dismantle, and are only allowed to be seen by practitioners and their students. Samten has adapted mandalas to a general audience because he has hope in their power to have a positive effect on viewers.

Since he started sharing the meditative art of mandala painting with United States audiences in 1988, Samten’s friends have playfully dubbed him “Mandala Man.” He has constructed mandalas for the Museum of Natural History in New York City and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, among other places.

Samten escaped Tibet with his family in 1959 to Dharamsala, India, seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile and residence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He attended the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts before entering Namgyal Monastery, where he received a Master of Buddhist Sutra and Tantra degree. He became the monastery’s ritual dance master, and also had the honor of serving as the personal attendant to the Dalai Lama.

Since coming to the United States, Samten has established four Tibetan Buddhist centers, the first in Philadelphia in 1989 and subsequent centers in Hartford, El Paso, and Reno. Because of his vast knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism and his artistic talents, Samten was a religious adviser, master sand painter, and actor in Martin Scorsese’s film Kundun. In 1995, Samten gave back his monastic vows and entered a lay practitioner’s life, which he has dedicated to dharma. He travels extensively to share his expertise in Buddhist philosophy and meditation and Tibetan ritual arts.

One of the most impressive things about Samten is his ability to execute an artistic form that requires great concentration while simultaneously remaining accessible as a teacher. Throughout his week at Harvard, an ever-increasing audience was enraptured by his skill, knowledge, and stories. On Thursday afternoon, when the painting was almost complete, several children were present and they tentatively started asking Samten questions.

One asked him about the image of the monkey in one part of the painting, and he asked her to close her eyes. After a few moments of silence, he said, “See? Monkey mind! You have to calm the monkey mind.”

On the final day, Samten encouraged everyone to take a tool and help dismantle his beautiful, precise painting into a heap of sand. When he showed the tools, he joked, “These are very ancient tools . . .you can get them at Home Depot!”

Exhibiting no sadness whatsoever about the destruction of his work of art, Samten chanted during the dismantling, helped distribute the sand into baggies, and then dumped the remaining particles into the fountain in the courtyard of the center. The practice of dismantling mandalas is “a beautiful symbol of the Buddhist principle of impermanence and change,” Gyatso said. “It is a very cathartic event.”