Peace of art
Chico State offers a rare opportunity to witness the creation of a Tibetan mandala
Recently a gentle calm has been emanating though the morning flurry of Chico State’s Bell Memorial Union. Amid the wash of LCD screens and echoing chatter of scurrying students, the brittle chiseling of tin on tin cuts the atmosphere. It is a Tibetan chakpu at work, and the soft sound of a sand mandala being born.
To a side of the hall, near the entrance to the bookstore, a diverse cluster of students, faculty and community members gather around a colorful and ornate brocaded platform. On it Losang Samten sits cross-legged. Clad in brown robes, and with a white dust mask covering most his face, Samten is in the midst of creating an elaborate visual prayer known throughout Tibetan Buddhism as the Kalachakra Mandala.
Hunched over with the two long and narrow funnels of the chakpu in his hands, Samten rubs them together, sending a stream of colorful sand onto a geometric diagram before him.
Samten describes his intention: “The hope is to click minds around toward peace.” He trails off, repeating the word “peace” until his lips form a smile.
After studying for 17 years in a monastic college and serving for three years as the personal attendant to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the 54-year-old Samten left the monastery and entered lay life. With a blessing from His Holiness, Samten became the first Tibetan to create a mandala in the West when he made the Kalachakra Mandala at the Museum of Natural History in New York City.
Since that time, he has maintained a regular schedule of creating mandalas for museums and universities throughout the United States. Now, 13 years since he last constructed a Kalachakra, Samten has received special permission from the Dalai Lama to create the mandala in Chico.
Of the 100 people who presently know how to create such a painting, Samten is the first to do it alone. The act will take him the remainder of this month—he began working on it Jan. 28—and more than 210 hours to complete.
The word Kalachakra translates as “Wheel of Time.” When finished, the mandala’s details will contain a textured symbolism of teachings around the concepts of cycles, and time.
“We look at the news these days and hear so much about change,” Samten says. “I believe the change can be a better change. That there can be more peace, more understanding, more forgiveness.”
Tibetan Buddhists believe that when a person studies the mandala, a seed of peace is planted within his or her heart and mind that gives rise to deeper appreciation and compassion.
As Samten describes it, when someone observes him slowly applying single grains of sand to create the complex designs within the Kalachakra, “People stop and think, ‘This man has a lot of patience; maybe that’s important in my life.’ In that way they create peace. And for that day, that moment, they slow down their busy thoughts and the things that bother them so much in their minds or their emotions, and think: ‘Oh, I should let this anger go, for peace.’ “
With symbolic meaning in every detail, the Kalachakra is said to trace the progression toward the state of awakening and inner peace. In this way Samten believes it is an important contribution to the university setting.
“Students must know what they are going to provide in their lives, not just for themselves, but for society, like bringing peace and understanding.”
In an affirmation of the core Buddhist teaching that all things are impermanent, the mandala will be dismantled in a public ceremony on March 1. Participants will be invited to take a small amount of the sand, and the remainder will be dispersed into Big Chico Creek. Ecologically benign, the sand is said to extend blessings out into the biosphere.
As Samten stops to wipe clear his place on the platform with a sponge brush, he pauses to smile and answer a question.
“I have met so many students that understand about Tibet. Chinese students, too, and we have exchanged thoughts and ideas about what they have learned about Tibet while in China. It’s a wonderful opportunity for me to learn from the students and them to learn about the mandala.”