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 sand’s 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 man’s 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. This struck a resounding chord in me: "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 and peace.

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 Lama’s personal monastery. He had the honor and joy of being the Dalai Lama’s personal attendant and later on played that role in the Disney film, "Kundun." He was also the movie’s 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 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 all."

Nor are fear and greed, respectively the pig and the rooster at the center of Lobsang’s 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 that’s 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 Hitler?

"That was different," Lobsang replies. "My religion says no killing, but that doesn’t mean no one is angry. It just means that we don’t pick up a gun."

He thinks about the question again, studies me for a long moment and adds, "I don’t know."

I was disappointed, as I’d 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 that’s 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?"

It’s an excellent transcendent view, but I am looking for a practical solution. "Well, Jesus isn’t 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! Bush wouldn’t 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 college’s 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.

If I were asked to conjure up a holy man, I couldn’t 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 painting’s 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 Lobsang’s 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.

"It’s like a map," Lobsang adds, hearing us. And so is everything in this world a map of human consciousness demonstrating where we’ve 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."

I’d known the answer all along, as it’s the very answer that I spend my life teaching, but in my anguish over the coming deaths of people and culture, I’d lost sight of the big picture.

The truth is, the only thing we can do, at this point, to stop the war on Iraq 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 the consciousness of war to the consciousness of peace.

The I of the Storm

I didn’t 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 mandala’s 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 mandala.

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 ("spiritualizes," as Edgar Cayce calls it) 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 were supposed to do something else to help stave off this war with Iraq, my Higher Self 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 I’d begun to listen again, my intuition urged me to read a book I’d felt compelled to buy, "The I of the Storm" by Gary Simmons, and in it I saw why I’d come so undone: besides being so intensely empathetic as to feel the world’s 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, here’s 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 moment. 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 potentiality–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 be authentic and live in the light of their peace-filled convictions.

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.

Singing harmony

These are the answers that I needed, and I hope they help you, too. It takes enormous willpower to turn one’s 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 way, 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 Lobsang’s 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 Lobsang’s 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.

Photographs of Lobsang and his sand mandala are on the Newsletter page of

There are many ways to help save Tibet, from donations to sponsoring a Buddhist monk for a year at a time. Go to to contribute to the Dalai Lama's efforts to preserve Tibetan culture and the sacred knowledge in its music, art and dance.

Author's Bio: 

Judith Pennington is a writer, spiritual teacher and author of "The Voice of the Soul: A Journey into Wisdom and the Physics of God." She gives talks, presents workshops and publishes books, CDs and a monthly newsletter through her company, Eagle Life Communications, an educational outreach for personal and planetary evolution.