Wheel of Life: Former monk illustrates spirituality,
impermanence with sand mandala
by Richard Halstead, Marin Independent Journal
|PATIENCE: Former Tibetan
monk Losang Samten creates a sand mandala
in the Manzanita Room of the Marin Center
in San Rafael. Jane Bay of San Anselmo arranged
for the visit to help educate the public about
Tibetan Buddhism and the plight of the Tibetan
people under Chinese rule. (IJ photo/Alan
Former Tibetan monk Losang Samten bent over
a circular table at the Marin Center in San Rafael
on Wednesday and with one hand wielded his chakpur,
a long-nosed metal funnel containing brightly
colored sand, with the dexterity of a surgeon.
Samten, attired in a dark gray monk's robe, used
his other hand to run a metal rod on the serrated
surface of the chakpur, causing vibrations that
sent the sand flowing slowly down like liquid
onto his sketched mandala.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years before
the first Burning Man art festival, Tibetan Buddhists
were creating intricate paintings made of sand
to illustrate mankind's spiritual dilemma, and
then dismantling them to demonstrate life's impermanence.
Samten drew a steady stream of spectators Wednesday
as he began the creation of a traditional "Wheel
of Life" sand mandala in the Manzanita Room
at the Marin Center in San Rafael. Samten will
continue working on the mandala through Saturday,
when it will be ceremoniously swept away.
"There is a beauty, but beauty never lasts
as beauty all the time," Samten said. "Life
Jane Bay of San Anselmo, the woman responsible
for bringing Samten to Marin, knows all too well
the ramifications of life's impermanence. Bay's
Tibetan foster daughter, Namgyal Youdon, died
at 22 in 2003 of a brain aneurysm just as she
was preparing for a trip to the United States
to visit Bay. Bay has written a memoir about her
loss of Namgyal, just published by Clear Light
Bay said she arranged for Samten to visit Marin
as part of a multimedia blitz to educate the public
about Tibetan Buddhism and the plight of the Tibetan
people, who remain under the political domination
of the People's Republic of China.
Photos of Bay's many trips to India, Nepal and
Tibet are on display in the Manzanita Room. At
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Chaksampa, a Tibetan folk
music and dance company, will perform at the Marin
Center's Showcase Theatre.
Samten, formerly a monk at the Dalai Lama's monastery
in India, said the "Wheel of Life" mandala
uses symbolic and cosmological imagery to exhibit
the psychic struggle within human consciousness.
Three animals - a pig, a rooster and a snake -
will be at the center of the wheel, Samten said.
The pig represents ignorance, the rooster represents
greed or attachment, and the snake represents
"These three in the mind are the cause of
suffering," Samten said. "If we want
individual peace and global peace, we need to
deal with these three emotions."
The outer ring of the wheel is divided into six
quadrants or realms: heaven, demigods, human,
animal, hungry ghost and hell. But rather than
think of these realms as metaphysical locations
or even stages of karmic development, Samten said
he regards them as temporary states of mind.
"I look at it like one individual life,"
Samten said. "Sometimes we're so happy that
we're in heaven, and then an hour later we're
not doing well. We're so disappointed it's like
Bay was in heaven when she met Namgyal in 1994
during a trip to Dharamsala, India with Samten.
Bay became fascinated by Tibetan Buddhism after
hearing the Dalai Lama speak at the San Francisco
Theological Seminary in San Anselmo in 1978. She
met Samten, who served as director Martin Scorsese's
religious technical advisor on the film "Kundun,"
when he visited George Lucas's Skywalker Ranch.
Bay has spent the last 29 years working as Lucas'
Namgyal, 13 when Bay met her, was at the Tibetan
Children's Village in Dharamsala, an orphanage
established by the Dalai Lama. Namgyal's mother
died when she was an infant. Her father, a doctor
of Tibetan medicine, sent her to India so she
could receive a Tibetan education, which was impossible
under the Chinese regime.
"She was the girl of my dreams," said
Bay, who was unable to have a child during two
marriages. "She was a motherless child and
I was a childless mother. We had this instant
Namgyal's sudden death nine years later brought
her full circle.
"I was angry. I felt cheated. I felt like
this was some kind of karmic trick. I didn't deserve
this. She didn't deserve this," Bay said.
Bay said it was ultimately the central tenets
of Buddhism that allowed her to live with her
"I took it out of myself and opened my heart
to the suffering of others. I'm not the only person
who has lost a daughter," Bay said. "Death
is an inevitable consequence of life. We are all
going to lose people that we love - not to mention
our own ultimate death."
Samten said that even though Tibet continues
to exist under Chinese rule, the Tibet that was
his home has ceased to exist. He lives and teaches
now in Philadelphia.
Alan Dep, Marin Independent Journal
The Tibetan artform of sandpainting is an ancient
and sacred practice intended to uplift and benefit
everyone who sees it and the environment. It is
called mandala of colored powders. The Tibetan
name is kyil-khor, or "essence of the circle."
It is intended to help people realize their true
This Wheel of Life is 2,500 years old and was
a gift from Buddha. When Losang Samten brought
this gift to the United States, he was the first
to create this mandala in the sand. No two mandalas
are the same, but they are the same in concept.
Audio slideshow with additional images available