Lobsangís Sand Mandala: Pictures of War and Peace
By Judith Pennington
Watching Lobsang Samten trickle grains of sand out of a silver funnel
into his beautiful mandala is a meditation in itself. He has used solid
paints to tint ordinary sand just the right color, and each rich hue sits
in little bowls clustered beside this ancient and magnificent Wheel of
Life. Dipping his silver instrument into a bowl of ochre sand, the Tibetan
monk deftly tilts the funnel toward the base of the circle and strokes a
second instrument across the first one to control the sandís rate of flow.
He outlines in ochre the jagged edge of a cliff above a river, one of 12
subdivided pictorials in the outermost ring of the mandala: It shows a
monkey grabbing for fruit, a symbol of grasping and the outcome of the
previous eight pictures in the circle. Here are the stages of manís
suffering, each one leading to the next: a blind person holds a cane to
symbolize ignorance; a man creates pottery to represent conceptual action;
a monkey grabs food to illustrate consciousness or mind, and so on, past
depictions of feeling, attachment and grasping to the eventual death and
endless rebirths that are circumvented, in Buddhist teachings, only by a
life of meditation and compassion.
Otherwise, we are at the mercy of the three negative qualities pictured
in the center circle of the mandala: the pig, representing ignorance or
fear; the rooster, greed or attachment; and the snake, the anger and
hatred that destroy our peace. At best, we can use meditation and the art
of compassion to evolve into enlightened gods or demi-gods. At worst, we
become "hell beings" tormented by life or "hungry ghosts" seeking ways to
satisfy our gnawing hungers.
Pigs and ghosts
I have driven here with a friend not only to see this mandala, but also
because my inner pig has turned me into a hungry ghost. I am upset about
the U.S. war on Iraq and need some answers. On one Sunday night each
month, a Buddhist friend picks up Lobsang in Philadelphia and brings him
back to my Unity church in Emmaus, where he leads meditations and teaches
loving kindness and compassion. He does the same with his Wheel of Life
sand mandalas, which won a $10,000 fellowship last year from the National
Endowment for the Arts.
I was present one evening when Lobsang taught a chief tenet of
Buddhism: to be aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life.
I felt his words: "I am not to kill or condone killing in my thinking, my
heart and my way of life. I will personally try to protect all that I can
so that I am not separated from kindness, love, compassion and God." I
believe this implicitly, yet it brought up some questions in my mind: how
will we, and to what extent, defend the people of Iraq? Should we use
violence to protect ourselves in life-threatening situations? is killing
ever justified, and if so, might the American president be absolved for
killing to protect whatever it is that he is defending?
I am really in Philadelphia to ask these questions and am pleased that
Lobsang is credentialed to answer them. He has been at the center of war
In 1959, at age six, he escaped the Chinese invasion of Tibet and grew
up near the exiled Dalai Lama in Dharmsala, India, where he studied at the
Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, became a Buddhist monk and served as
ritual dance master at the Dalai Lamaís personal monastery. He had the
honor and joy of being the Dalai Lamaís personal attendant and later on
played that role in the Disney film, "Kundun." He was also the movieís
master sand painter and religious advisor. Lobsang is a thoughtful and
sensitive person, as I discover over lunch in the clattering cafeteria of
the Community College of Philadelphia. He has won notoriety by being the
first Tibetan monk to paint a sand mandala in America, a story covered in
New York City by Time Magazine. The next year, in 1989, he painted another
mandala for the University of Pennsylvania Museum and was asked to return
to Philadelphia to establish a meditation center. He did so (see
tibetanbuddhist.org) and has since founded Buddhist meditation centers
in New York City, Reno, El Paso and Hartford, Conn.
Solutions to War
I am spilling over with questions, so I give voice to them: "What do
you think about the U.S. war on Iraq?" Lobsang, over soup and crackers,
answers from the heart. "People in the United States are like a role model
to me and to the world," he says. "It is important for us to make changes
in this country, rather than anywhere else. If the role model is shaky,
everything is shaky." Becoming a better "role model" means spending U.S.
dollars to remedy poverty and racism in America, rather than
reconstructing a war-torn Iraq, he explains. "We have to learn to live
together peacefully and respectfully, not looking at skin color. In the
same way, Tibet has to live peacefully with the Chinese, side by side,
even if Tibet becomes a free country in the future. So anger is no good at
Nor are fear and greed, respectively the pig and the rooster at the
center of Lobsangís spiritual truth. "I see these as the real terrorists,
the atomic bomb in our minds," he comments. "Peace comes only out of
dealing with our negative thoughts."
Patient negotiation is his solution to the Iraq crisis: "If our (U.S.)
government is sincere about peace," he says simply, "then discussion makes
sense. If there are economic reasons, then thatís terrible. If what we
really want is peace, then we must sit down and talk. "There is always a
peaceable solution," he adds. "From the Buddhist point of view, if
somebody is treating you very badly, you must be patient and sooner or
later, the person will treat you more nicely."
I agreed, but there are still harder questions. So I press on
relentlessly: What if your very life is threatened by a terrorist
gathering forces to bomb your country and kill your citizens? What about
"That was different," Lobsang replies. "My religion says no killing,
but that doesnít mean no one is angry. It just means that we donít pick up
a gun." He thinks about the question again, studies me for a long moment
and adds, "I donít know."
I was disappointed, as Iíd wanted some kind of clearcut principle, some
absolute answers to make me feel safe, to give me a semblance of control
over a conflict that could reel us all into catastrophe. But Lobsang bows
goodbye and walks back to his sand mandala, just as my friend Bette
explodes with sudden insights of her own. "Christ on the cross!" she
exclaims. "It would take that great of a spirit, manifesting right now, to
settle this situation. Where is that Christ power right now? "It has to
build within us to manifest," she muses, answering herself, "so maybe
thatís why this is happening, because this is where humankind is at this
point. So is this all a part of our education, a repetitive pattern
occurring because of our trying to settle things in a hurry?"
Itís an excellent transcendent view, but I am looking for a practical
solution. "Well, Jesus isnít here at the moment," I tell Bette, "but if we
could get the Pope and the Dalai Lama to go to Iraq, that would stop the
war! Pres. Bush wouldnít dare bomb them!"
The Only Answer
The idea is good comic relief, and I am feeling so desperate that I
actually entertain the thought of contacting the Pope and Dalai Lama as we
walk back to the tall, domed rotunda of the collegeís historic Mint
Building. Here, Lobsang is nearing the end of his two-week exhibition and
the next day will disperse the mandala to illustrate non-attachment and
the impermanence of life.
For the next three hours, Bette and I watch an extraordinary picture
spring to life. The peaceful sound of Tibetan singing bowls echoes around
the marble room as Lobsang drizzles his colored sands into the mandala. He
is like a prayer wheel himself, framed by a kiosk decorated with colorful
sacred hangings made by Tibetans keeping their culture alive.
were asked to conjure up a holy man, I couldnít come closer than Lobsang.
His shiny bald head turns slowly toward people inquiring about his
pictures and, if the group is especially intent, he turns around, opens
the belted gate separating his kiosk from the onlookers, bows and motions
for people to come closer to see the paintingís fine details. For
photographers, he walks over to a hooded lamp, flips a switch and smiles
gently at the "Ohhhh" rising from the crowd: The illumination reveals the
awesome three-dimensional aspect of his work.
Bette and I grow more peaceful in watching Lobsangís meditative
artistry and we derive lessons of our own: how there are really no
mistakes in the sands of creation, because if we make a mistake, we are
able to layer new sands upon it until we get exactly the picture that is
wanted and needed, as in life and in life after life.
"Itís like a map," Lobsang adds, hearing us. And so is everything in
this world a map of human consciousness demonstrating where weíve been and
where we need to go.
I realize gradually that Lobsang really does know the answer to my
question, which is right here in his mandala. In the spirit of peaceful
nonresistance and nonattachment, he had been gracious and wise enough to
allow me to discover the answer for myself.
This is the kindest way to teach, as I know from experience and the
words of Galileo Galilei hung above my desk: "We cannot teach people
anything. We can only help them discover it within themselves."
Iíd known the answer all along, as itís the very answer that I spend my
life teaching, but in my anguish over the deaths of people and culture,
Iíd lost sight of the big picture. The truth is, the only thing we can do,
at this point, is to stay as calm as possible, steep our minds in love,
prayer and meditation, and envision the peace that exists on our planet.
We must look through the eyes of transcendence to see beyond the veil
of appearances to the peace that is the real truth. Because this is bigger
than Baghdad and Iraq and the Middle East and even this planet. This is
about who we want to be as a civilization and a universe. Now is our
opportunity to cultivate peace in ourselves, project it outward to
resonate with all thoughts of peace and shift our consciousness of war to
a new consciousness of peace.
The I of the Storm
I didnít yet believe all of this on that cold, snowy day in
Philadelphia. I just saw it in the mandala and remembered the truth of it.
In the mandalaís second circle, just beyond the three animal poisons
residing within us, are only two choices, each composing half the ring. We
can meditate and purge the poisons within, a choice flowing into calm,
loving pictures of peace and compassion in the third circle; or we can
choose not to meditate and be driven by the enemies within, which lead to
chaos and the path of suffering depicted in the outermost circle of the
Back at home, I returned to daily meditation and its outcomes of inner
peace, mental clarity and higher perspectives. This was an enormous
relief, and sure enough, entering the silence dissolved the fear, anger
and attachment which had made me a sad, hungry ghost for two lonely weeks.
Max Lafser, a Unity minister visiting our church, reminded me that if I
needed to do anything more to contribute to peace in Iraq or anywhere
else, my soul would let me know.
That was the missing peace.
Now I could consign my inner pig, snake and rooster to the Cosmic
Corral, where the whole barnyard is getting along quite well, thank you.
Since Iíd begun to listen again, my intuition urged me to read a book Iíd
felt compelled to buy, "The I of the Storm" by Gary Simmons, and in it I
saw why Iíd come so undone: besides being so intensely empathetic as to
feel the worldís feelings, I was conditioned by my childhood to need to
feel safe and to avoid conflict. The result was a fight-or-flight response
in me that had shattered my peace, separated me from soul and put me into
a conflicted state of resistance to the very peace I seek personally and
want for the world.
If your intense empathy and/or sympathy is destabilizing your attempts
to be peaceful, hereís a conflict-resolver offered by Simmons, going
beyond the calm "I" of the meditative Self found at the center of the
storm. It is to "embrace tiger/return to mountain," a Chinese teaching
that calls us to face our fears and thus come back into the present
In embracing the tiger, we are emboldened by the knowledge that
conflict, the tiger, the abyss are really gifts calling us to release our
fears and awaken to our own potentialityĖ just as the world is doing right
now. "Resist not," Jesus urged, so that the currents of divine energy can
flow powerfully and without obstruction through All That Is. Just as I let
go of my fear, anger and separation and I surrender to peacefulness, my
hopes and dreams of peace are fulfilled by the millions of people standing
up all over the world to live in the light of their peace-filled
Ironically, it is global conflict which opens our potential for peace.
The magnitude of this is enormous: Whether we become a peaceful planet now
or later, we are planting peace for all time.
These are the answers that I needed, and I hope they help you, too. It
takes enormous willpower to turn oneís back on the screams of the world
and go calmly into the silence of meditation to be guided by soul,
perceive the Divine Order in all things and build peace in self, others
and the world. Maybe you're already there, or maybe this is not your way
right now, but mine is to breathe deeply and contribute to these new
manifestations of peace in the world.
In this, I keep the critters in the Cosmic Corral and become a demi-god
in Lobsangís mandala. For I am nurturing that Christ Spirit in myself and
in others and enabling it to manifest in us, as the real Second Coming.
This healing peace rolls across our planet in the beauty of Lobsangís
mandala, and you can hear it in the rippling sound of a Tibetan singing
bowl: how the steady, gentle movement of the wood mallet around the rim of
the silver vessel entices waves of sound singing itself into the world
like some magical birth. This mystical song, like prayer, flows out to
call any discord into harmony and peace.