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City Folk

The Conqueror

Buddhist monk blends art and meditation

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J.M. Giordano


In the art studio at the back of the temple, dressed in the traditional crimson and golden Buddhist robes, Kelsang Gyaltsen is frowning with concentration, his bright blue eyes sparkling behind a large pair of glasses. He is meticulously examining a statue of Bhaishajyaguru, the Medicine Buddha, sitting on a lotus seat.

Gyaltsen is a monk and the resident artist at the Kadampa Meditation Center, tucked away in an intricate set of rowhouses on North Charles Street.

Gyaltsen is part of the New Kadampa Tradition, an offshoot of a branch of Tibetan Buddhism in which art plays a central role. Every day, for several hours, Gyaltsen prepares statues of Buddha that have been sent to him from all over the world. The statues are believed to be manifestations of Buddhas, but “to go on a shrine, a statue should be filled with holy objects,” Gyaltsen says, and it must be sealed correctly so that the prayers for all the Buddhas enter the statues and bless the minds of those who see them.

Gyaltsen’s other main project is the creation of a new temple out of an old church on Northern Parkway. Although the renovation has not yet begun, Gyaltsen is excited by this new challenge. The temple will have golden windows and 10 vajras—ritual objects that symbolize the indestructibility of diamonds—on the roof. Each entrance will be flanked by the traditional set of deer sculptures, a male and a female, with the eight-spoked Dharma wheel between them. The eight auspicious symbols of Buddhism, big plaster blocks that will be painted and gilded by artists, including Gyaltsen, will surround the temple.

Originally from Texas, Gyaltsen, born Shelbey Louis, moved to Baltimore about 40 years ago for a job. Brought up as a Christian, he used to live what he calls an “ordinary life” and didn’t discover Buddhism until middle age. “I had the interest to learn more about how the mind functioned,” he says as he drives toward the site of the new temple. “I wanted to learn about meditation and I was taking a Tai Chi class, and the Tai Chi instructor sort of overheard us talking about it and said: ‘There is meditation class at the Friends Meeting House on Thursday evenings.’ This was 12 or 14 years ago. So we went over, for a class, and just kept going.”

The transition from his old life to his new life was very gradual; he began to change the way he spent his time. He started attending meditation classes on a regular basis, practicing in the morning and sometimes at night. “One of the most touching aspects of Buddhism is that it described life in the way that I had experienced it,” he says. “Life is filled with much suffering and there is no actual satisfaction or lasting happiness. It’s happening because your mind is impure.”

Instead of “vegging out” after he work, he began to study—not only philosophy and meditation, but also the preparation of Buddhist statues. “Before, I had only taken one oil-painting course at the Maryland Institute [College] of Art when I just moved to Baltimore,” he recalls. He spent several years studying the statues before he started doing any of the final painting or gilding.

Eventually, Buddhism entirely overtook his original Christian upbringing and he decided to change his life even more. He says one of the deciding factors was “knowing that Buddha has universal compassion, that he loves all living beings equally: It doesn’t make any difference whether they are Buddhists or non-Buddhists, whether they have helped him or not, whether they are virtuous or non-virtuous; he loves them and will do anything that he can to benefit them.”

Now, Gyaltsen’s shaved head and traditional robe testify to his commitment. “I became ordained about a year before retiring: It was part of the retirement plan in a certain sense,” he chuckles. His ordination included vows such as celibacy and the taking of a new name in an attempt to break away from his old life. “Our spiritual teachers, particularly our founder, should be like Buddha for us. He ordained me directly and chose my name; it means ‘Conqueror.’ It’s sort of like a thought of what he would like for me to accomplish,” Gyaltsen confides.

Gyaltsen hasn’t broken all ties to his former life, but his new identity can still be confusing. “My old friends and family sometimes use my old name. I just have to figure out who I am to them,” he says.

Now Gyaltsen lives with eight other people at the temple, where he is a teacher as well as an artist, but he confesses that, recently, he has been so busy with the artwork that he has had no time to devote to teaching.

Still, teaching plays an important part in his life because “Everyone has a Buddha nature and has the potential to be an enlightened being.” It only takes self-discipline and commitment. When asked if he is an enlightened being, he answers, “It is something that will never be spoken.”

To see a gallery of Gyalsten’s workshop, please visit citypaper.com/gyalsten

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