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India adds spiritual dimension to ‘Act East’ policy

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United Nations: Celebration of the Buddhist festival of Vesak in various Asian countries has given a spiritual dimension to India’s “Act East” policy. Both the festival and the Indian policy is based on a common heritage that spans Asia, linking nations as diverse as India and China.

India’s Permanent Representative Asoke Kumar Mukerji said at the International Day of Vesak celebration on Friday that India “sought to use the ancient links forged by our common Buddhist heritage between different countries in Asia as part of our foreign policy outreach, seeing the world as one family, or “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”.

The Indian mission made a slide presentation of the links forged by Buddhism featuring Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visits to the religion’s shrines in Sri Lanka, Japan, Mongolia and China and monuments in India and Kazakhstan on the Silk Road. Afterward, Mukerji said, “As you can see, we are indeed actively linked by our common Buddhist heritage.”

“The core of the teachings of Lord Buddha, especially ahimsa or non-violence, have become an integral part of India’s political philosophy,” Mukerji said.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s Vesak message also referred to the political relevance of Buddha’s message: “Buddha’s observation that all peoples are interconnected reminds us of the importance of uniting as one human family resolved to address our shared struggles based on common values.”

Vesak, which commemorates the birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha, is observed in some Asian countries on June 1, although in India it is celebrated as Buddha Purnima on May 4, an official holiday.

Adding to the ecumenical flavor of the celebration, Omani Ambassador Lyutha Al-Mughairy said Vesak “allows us to recall the importance of respect for religious and cultural diversity and the need for a peaceful and harmonious world.” She was speaking on behalf of General Assembly President Sam Kutesa,

The respect for religious diversity that she referred to was reflected in December’s General Assembly resolution to make Vesak feast a day when no official UN meetings will be held, a recognition short of a general holiday because the headquarters will stay open. This came about as a result of diplomatic efforts by India in conjunction with nations with major Buddhist populations.

The same resolution also gave Deepavali, Gurpurab and the Jewish sacred day, Yom Kippur, the status of days with no official meeting, starting next year, widening slightly the recognition of sacred days of non-Christian and non-Muslim religions. Only two religious days each of Christianity and Islam are official holidays.

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Buddhist Monk Losang Samten Uses Colors to Spread Message of Peace

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.

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Samten
Former Buddhist monk and Tibetan scholar Losang Samten uses colored sand to build mandalas, circular images filled with complex iconography, which have great meaning in Hinduism and Buddhism. VOA

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.

Now Samten travels around the world to find sand in various colors. He also dyes sand in watercolors.
Tibetan monks have created mandalas over the centuries from a variety of materials. Before sand, they used crushed colored stone. VOA

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.

Now Samten travels around the world to find sand in various colors. He also dyes sand in watercolors.
Samten, in his mid-60s, learned the craft at the feet of the Dalai Lama. VOA

“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.

Monk Samten
Samten was born in Tibet. When he was a young boy, his family escaped to Nepal fleeing Chinese Communist control of his homeland. VOA

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.”

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Or like sand, ever changing in the wind.

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)