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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Fleeting images in sand

January 22, 2008

By David O'Reilly
Philadelphia Inquirer
January 20, 2008

In the Buddhist realm of nonbeing, form and color have no names.

But here on the earthly plane at 38th and Chestnut Streets, the
particles flowing from Losang Samten's "pen" are forming luminous fields
of cobalt, rose, celadon and more, where elephants, skeletons, demons
and foolish humans play.

It's all an illusion, of course.

It's the Wheel of Life.

And you are its subject.

Samten, a Tibetan-born monk, glanced up Thursday afternoon from the
mandala of colored sand he is creating in the sanctuary of the
Philadelphia Cathedral, seat of the Episcopal Diocese.

A candle flickered beside him.

"The blue represents the pureness - the compassion and kindness - within
every living being," he explained to three visitors.

"But the message of the Wheel of Life" - one of the names for this
four-foot circle of symbolic images and saturated hues - "is here," he
said, pointing to its inmost circle.

"The pig symbolizes ignorance," he said. "The snake is anger. The pigeon
is greed, or desire."

Considered one of the world's masters of Buddhist "particle art," or
sand painting, Samten began his mandala - Sanskrit for circle or
completion - last Sunday at the invitation of the cathedral's dean, the
Rev. Richard Giles.

He expects to finish Friday or Saturday, in time for a 1 p.m. dedication
next Sunday. In the meantime, visitors may watch - but not touch -
weekdays between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. During the noonday Eucharist service
(to which all are welcome), Samten takes a one-hour lunch break.

Tradition has it the Buddha designed the Wheel of Life, a kind of visual
sermon also known as the Wheel of Deception.

"There are some varieties in shapes and color and size," Samten said,
"but the message is always the same."

Its moral: Wise people seek enlightenment, which reveals the ultimate
reality beyond the senses. Those who succumb to earthly appetites will
be reborn to this life again and again.

And, like all Buddhist sand mandalas, this fragile, ephemeral image will
suffer a purposeful extinction.

After the circle's week on display, another monk will step into the
cathedral sanctuary Feb. 3. With a few quick strokes of a broom, he will
sweep the image into an incoherent blur "as a reminder," Samten
explained, "of our impermanence."

Samten, 54, knows something of the fleeting nature of human existence.
In 1959, at age 5, he fled Tibet with his parents and sisters shortly
after an uprising resulted in the Chinese Communists torching ancient
monasteries and libraries.

Following in the footsteps of the Dalai Lama, who had fled just months
before, they made their way across windswept glaciers "where I saw dead
bodies" of other refugees, into the mountains of Nepal, Samten said.

In 1964, the family moved to northern India to be with the Dalai Lama
and served for many years as his aides. There, the young Samten studied
Buddhist philosophy, dance, chant and sand painting, memorizing hundreds
of traditional mandalas, before the Dalai Lama encouraged him to
introduce the art form to the United States in 1988.

Since 1989, he has lived in Philadelphia, where he heads the Tibetan
Buddhist Center. It will move next month from Upper Darby to a room in
the cathedral complex.

After the visiting women thanked him and departed, Samten picked up two
narrow cones of serrated steel and bent again over his still-forming

The cone, or chakpo, in his left hand contained a few teaspoons of
yellow sand, which he released by rasping the other chakpo back and
forth across its top. (Much of the sand is tinted with watercolors,
although he collects naturally colored sand as well.)

Rasping steadily, he shook loose a narrow stream of yellow, then
brick-colored, sand. In minutes there appeared a monastery roof.

It was just one detail in the wheel's third and largest circle, which
will contain six large panels depicting a Tibetan village, a herd of
deer, two realms of jealous demigods, a scene of human drunkenness and
lust, and, at the bottom of it all, hell.

Around this will run a narrow band of 12 smaller, similarly themed
images. And gripping it all in his gnarly claws and fierce teeth will be
the image of Mara: the red Lord of Death, who serves to remind us that
we all must die.

After the mandala is "disaggregated," the sand will be ceremoniously
dumped into the Schuylkill "as a gift," he said, "to Mother Earth."

Does it upset him to see his labors destroyed?

"No, no, no," he said with a laugh. "It is meant to be, like cutting a
birthday cake. Its energy will bless the whole universe."
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