April 28, 2016. MYANMAR:Buddhists monks along with several other protesters confronted the United States for using the term ‘Rohingya’ to refer a Bengali Muslims ethnic minority group. On Thursday, the protesters gathered outside the U.S. Embassy, Yangon, and carried slogan boards proclaiming “No more use of the term ‘Rohingya”, “U.S. Embassy get out if you say more,” and “We request the present authorities of the state to announce the truth that Rohingyas are not Myanmar citizens at all.” They marched from the Yongon University to U.S. Embassy confronting the statement issued on April 20.
The protestors -many were Monks- insisted that the ethnic minority of Muslims should rather be called ‘Bengalis’ and regarded as illegal migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh as there is no ethnicity of ‘Rohingya’ in their country. Despite many of the ancestors of the minority group have lived in Myanmar for generations, they are denied of basic rights and even citizenship as the country officially does not recognize Rohigya as an ethnic group.
The protest was ignited by the statement of U.S. Embassy referring minority group as Rohigya and expressing sympathies for the people, who drowned off the shore of Rakhine State on April 19.
Many of the people of the group are living in poor conditions in filthy displacement camps after being forced to flee their homes over the conflict erupted in the western state of Rakhine in 2012 which raised tensions between Buddhists of Rakhine and the Muslim group. They are restricted to travel freely in the country, to higher education and even to marry or have children without official permission.
Earlier this month, United Nations had given 100 days to Myanmar’s current civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) to improve living conditions for this minority group.
According to one estimate, there are a 5 quintillion, 5 hundred quadrillion grains of sand on earth, a number so large it must be approaching infinity. This makes sand an appropriate medium for the construction of spiritual images of the universe.
Former Buddhist monk and Tibetan scholar Losang Samten does just that, using colored sand to build mandalas, circular images filled with complex iconography, which have great meaning in Hinduism and Buddhism.
Tibetan monks have created mandalas over the centuries from a variety of materials. Before sand, they used crushed colored stone. Now Samten travels around the world to find sand in various colors. He also dyes sand in watercolors.
Decades of mandalas
Samten, in his mid-60s, learned the craft at the feet of the Dalai Lama.
“When I was a teenager, age of 17,” he told VOA, “I had a privilege to enter His Holiness Dalai Lama’s monastery … in India. I have been studying sand mandalas ever since then. So it’s a long time.”
VOA found Samten painstakingly layering grains of colored sand at the gallery of the Philadelphia Folklore Project. The particular mandala he was working on was the mandala of compassion, or unconditional love.
Far from random designs, mandalas have been perfected over centuries.
“These are uniquely designed many, many, many, many, many years passing to an artist to another artist to another artist to another artist,” Samten said. “The color has a meaning, the shape has different meanings. Not my design; it didn’t come out of my own idea.”
When Samten created a sand mandala at the American Museum of History in New York in 1988 at the request of the Dalai Lama, it was the first time the 2,600-years-old ancient ritual art was seen outside of monasteries. Since then, Samten has made sand mandalas in museums, galleries and universities across the U.S. and many parts of the world.
“They are used to enhance the spiritual practice through image and meditation, to overcome suffering. Mandalas represent enlightened qualities and methods which explain this path, making them very important for the spiritual journey,” Samten wrote on his web site.
Nothing is permanent
Samten was born in Tibet. When he was a young boy, his family escaped to Nepal fleeing Chinese Communist control of his homeland. They lived in a refugee camp for years.
“In the winter of 1959, [we] crossed Mount Everest, it took us two months to cross,” he told VOA. “You cannot travel during the day and so scared and not enough food not enough clothes. I was age of 5. I saw, I mean unbelievable dead bodies, people dying without food. I became a monk at age 11 when I was in school, refugee school.”
Samten left monastic life in 1995 and became the spiritual director at the Tibetan Buddhist Center of Philadelphia. He says the patience of the creative process, can lead observers to find calm determination within themselves.
“When I am doing this mandala at universities and schools, many kids came to me, (saying) ‘when I saw you doing the sand mandala, that help me so much to finish my education, patience …’ I have a lot of stories,” he said.
Beauty comes and goes
After a sand mandala is completed, it is dismantled ceremoniously.
“Dismantle has many different reasons,” Samten said. “… One thing is, dismantle is a beauty, whatever we see as a beauty on the earth, never be everlasting as a beauty and impermanent, impermanent, comes and goes. It’s like a season.”
Samten often invites children to participate in the ceremony.
To gallery visitor Traci Chiodress that was part of the charm of the event.
“I think it’s powerful to see something so beautiful created, and then taken apart, and to be done in a community with a group of people of different ages,” she said. “I just think it’s an important type of practice.” (VOA)