Sun shines on prayers at City Hall

mandala 01 lowBaltimore Sun reporter Nichole Fuller recently turned in an interesting story that, the more I think about it, raises some interesting questions about the separation of Buddhism and state. Here's the hook: It seems that someone in the office of Mayor Martin O'Malley invited Thupten Tsondu Tashi, a monk from Mongolia who is currently on a U.S. fundraising tour, to drop by City Hall to spread some peace and compassion by creating a work of sacred art. Here's a brief description of the process (the art with this post is not from the Baltimore event):

On a plywood board atop the building's immaculate marble floor, Tashi, dressed in his traditional red and yellow garb, created an intricate, flower-like pattern with fine Indian sands from his chakbu, an iron funnel. His creation -- called a mandala -- is an ancient Tibetan Buddhist artwork that serves as a sacred home for a particular meditational deity and is usually reserved for the birthday celebration of a Buddha, Tashi said.

The mandala embodies qualities such as purity and harmony, which sometimes prove elusive in a place like City Hall.

This turned into your basic civic event, with the monk receiving a certificate making him an honorary citizen of Baltimore, an American flag and some regional collectables. The display was a hit with visitors and with staff members seeking a chance to relax and, well, exercise their rights of religious expression in a government facility. As Frank Perrelli, the mayor's webmaster and art director, put it:

"I'm having a really busy day, but this is nice and relaxing," Perrelli said. "I had no idea it was so intricate. It's great. It's really exquisite." City Hall is a perfect place for such a display, he said. "City Hall is a rather somber place due to its municipal nature, so this is a welcome presence," he said. "I wish it were more permanent. It's a nice chance for people to sort of meditate."

Note the use of the word "meditate," as opposed to the dangerous word "pray." Sure enough, one visitor connected the dots and even added a slight political overtone or two.

A longtime meditator, Beth Hare, 56, of Lauraville sat transfixed. ... "There are societies in which spiritual practices and government are not separate," Hare said. "I think separation of church and the government is really important, but I think having a government that has awareness of spiritual life is essential."

Asked whether she thought the mandala would give O'Malley any luck in his quest to become governor, she replied, "I don't think it gets that specific." But she added, "It depends if the mayor is in harmony with the energy of the universe."

There are more details in the story. However, I do hope that the greater Baltimore area includes a few mischievous artists in other religious traditions, eager to bring their own versions of purity and harmony to this newly established safe zone for prayer and religious expression. Can the Orthodox write icons here, with all the prayers that accompany this process? How about video monitors that offer Christmas videos by megachurch rock bands? Is this a nice place for Catholic liturgical dancers? Wiccan liturgical dancers? A fundamentalist artist or two, carving the 10 Commandments in various forms of stone (but not the floor itself)? Schoolchildren doing sacred art on tiles in honor of those killed by terrorists? I could go on and on.

Is religious expression in this government space only acceptable if it, quote, brings purity and harmony? Which office in City Hall is in charge of passing judgment on this tricky church-state issue? Purity and harmony for what groups?

I am sure that future prayer and religious fundraising events at City Hall will receive glowing coverage in the Sun. At least, I hope so, just for the sake of consistency.

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