Four Years at the Mount
Breaking the Cycle
(April, 2011) This semester is my last one as an undergraduate at the Mount. The reality of leaving has not totally washed over me because I have been largely consumed with completing a capstone project for one of my majors, Fine Arts.
Many majors at the Mount require students to complete a large final project as part of the degree requirements. This could be a portfolio, a paper, a presentation, or other project. The idea behind these projects is that students will choose a topic of particular interest to them, use skills they have developed over their years at the Mount,
and reflect on what they have learned in the major. Often, the students give a presentation of their project to faculty, friends, and even family.
For my fine arts major I chose to do my project on Buddhism. I became interested in the religion after I took a course on world religions this summer. The course focused on the world’s five largest religions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. My original plan was to do five separate paintings, each one depicting a religion
on separate 20 by 26 inch canvases. After I started the project I realized just how ambitious this plan was.
Since I had already started the Buddhism painting and had the clearest idea of my design for that religion, I decided to focus solely on Buddhism. This religion was among the most intriguing that I studied because of the sharp contrast between Buddhist beliefs and the American way of life.
Buddhism teaches that all of life is suffering and the only way to eliminate suffering is to detach oneself from worldly things. This includes detachment from possessions, like clothing, electronics, and one’s home. But it also includes detachment from one’s family and even one’s life. Another important teaching of Buddhism is that nothing is
permanent. This goes along with the detachment; if nothing will last, why should we base our happiness on its existence?
These Buddhist teachings strike me as entirely opposite of our American way of life. As Americans we tend to be optimistic, believing in the American dream of hard work and success. Generally, we are also materialistic and determine a person’s worth from their possessions or wealth.
For my art project I have done five paintings—four small ones and a large one. The four small ones show the "four passing sights" of Siddhartha. Siddhartha was a prince who was sheltered by his father because of a prophecy made about him when he was a baby. The prophecy was that he would either become a great military leader or a great
religious leader. The father, wishing for military successes, prevented Siddhartha from leaving the palace.
Siddhartha was finally allowed to enter the city when he was twenty-nine years old. At this time he saw the "four passing sights." First he saw a dead man, then a sick man, and then an old man. These sights convinced him of the principle that all life is suffering. The fourth sight he saw was an ascetic. Ascetics are people who renounce the
world, eating little if anything, and meditating. Siddhartha regained hope at this fourth sight and knew that this was the path he must take.
He left his palace home, leaving behind his wife and newborn son. Siddhartha wandered in the wilderness and meditated. He sat for forty days under a bodhi tree and through these meditations, achieved enlightenment. Enlightenment is described as an awakening or a realization of truth. It is a release from the cycle of suffering known as samsara.
To achieve enlightenment is to be given the choice to escape the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. The concept of reincarnation is essential to Buddhism; the cycle of life is that we are born into this world of suffering repeatedly. To achieve enlightenment is to break the cycle of suffering.
When Siddhartha became enlightened, he was given a choice. He could either escape from earth and enjoy his enlightened state, or teach other people and lead them on a path of enlightenment. He chose the latter option, and in teaching, became known to his followers as Buddha.
My fifth painting is large (twenty by twenty-six inches) and features the enlightened Siddhartha, or Buddha. Behind his head is a mandala. Mandalas are part of Vajrayana Buddhism. They are "sand paintings" done over a period of six days by just a few monks. The monks create an incredibly detailed geometric image using different colors of sand.
The process is used as a means of contemplation but Buddhists also believe that just seeing a mandala plants the seed of enlightenment. Additionally, Buddhists believe that the gods and goddesses are actually present in the mandala; they come reside in the artwork during its creation. Mandalas also illustrate the view that "nothing in life is permanent." After the mandala is
created, it is subsequently destroyed. The sand is swept inward and then poured into a river so that its graces can be carried around the world.
My project will be displayed on April 28th in the Williams Gallery in the Delaplaine Fine Arts center at 6:30 PM. I will also be showing my work with three of my classmates, whose work varies from installation pieces to charcoal drawings to a storybook. A second show held on May 5th at the same time and location and will have the artwork of my
other four classmates. These final shows are very important, not only because they will show our senior artwork which we have spent several hours on, but because this is our last event as Fine Arts majors. These shows are, of course, free and open to the Emmitsburg community, and I can promise if you come, you won’t be disappointed!
Read other articles by Katelyn Phelan