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Buddhist Paints Taj Mahal in Acrylics

This just in: My latest book, Another Fine Mess: Life on Tomorrow’s Moon, is featured in ezvid’s “Thoughtful Books Covering Important Social Issues.” I’m not sure how thoughtful it is. Still….

The Books

Now onto the post:

The other day I ran across one of my old reporter’s notebooks. In it I found raw notes on a subject I’d long forgotten: the time I met a Buddhist who was working for Donald Trump. This was way back around 1990 when he was bringing his magic touch to the Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City. I was in town on another story, wandered inside and discovered that in preparation for opening, the decoration of the “Seventeen Acres of Pure Pleasure” had fallen to Pema Wangyal, a painter of sacred Buddhist imagery. He came from Tibet.

“This is Brahma!” he cried, pointing at a floating emperor with four faces and four arms who was riding a flying goose in the Buffet Room. “A very magical Hindu god!”

Wangyal, I recall, had a thick ponytail and a super-mellow attitude. He was calm even when he was hollering, which he had to do a fair amount amid all the hammering and hubbub. Even though the room was a mess, his murals were almost finished. The artist pointed out panels of sloe-eyed kings, lovers, ministers, hawks, pelicans (“a symbol of fertility”) and more. They were replications, he explained, of 16th and 17th century designs of the Raiput, or southern Indian, style…

I asked if he was surprised to find himself working in a casino.

Having once meditated for five months on the interdependence of cause and effect, he said, very little surprised him. “Besides, I visualize everything as not strange. I visualize it as beautiful. Transform everything into heaven: that’s Buddhist teaching. If I say ugly, ugly, that’s going to bang in my mind. After two days, I’ll drop my brush and take off.”

A buzzsaw started up. Eeeennnnnhh. “You hear that?” he asked unnecessarily. “I visualize that as a beautiful instrument.”

Half a dozen painters were at work in the Buffet Room and elsewhere around the Taj, but Wangyal was boss, the only Eastern artist on the project. To solve a recent squabble — everybody wanted to paint figures, not backgrounds — he had taken a turn doing spiraling vines and clusters of flowers. “That’s ok,” he said. “I bring no ego to this.”

In my hopelessly Western way I was finding it hard to believe that nothing about this scene bugged him. What about the delusional color scheme? What about the strobing acrylics he had to use? “Casino logic,” he said, and shrugged.

Wangyal said he’d been reared a Buddhist in a tiny, ice-crusted village near the Nepalese border. He specialized in Tibetan t’hanka, or scroll, paintings (“portable, good for nomads”). T’hankas, he explained, often depict scenes from the life of Buddha, or mandalas; the colors (outside of casinos) are created from ground-up minerals, including lapis lazuli, malachite, rubies and gold.

He baffled his relatives by leaving town in his late teens. Why the wanderlust? “Karma,” he said. Soon he was painting murals in Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, at the monastery of the Swyambunath. Otherwise known as the Monkey Temple, it is famous for its hundreds of frisky baboons.

“The monkeys were my best friends,” he said. “There is a hole in the center of the temple, which sometimes would fill with rain. The monkeys would swim and splash. Leap from trees. It was so beautiful.”

Wangyal led the way out of the Buffet Room headed toward the elevator, chatting through a punishing fire alarm test — wheep wheep wheep — that had others standing with fists clamped to their ears. “Those monkeys would jump on people,” he said. “Especially Westerners.”

On the floor below was the coffee shop with more murals. There was a 17th century prostitute on horseback approaching a luminous palace and a prince in a gazebo being fanned by a slave. “He’s using a peacock feather,” said Wangyal. “Removes all negativity.”

I asked him what he’d do when this job ended. “Whatever God gives,” he said. Then for reasons I can’t remember he took me outside. Heading toward the exit, we passed the Oasis Pub, which he and other artists had also painted with traditional Indian filigree, this time in raspberry and blue to match the rug.

Standing with our backs to the ocean, we contemplated the Taj’s seventy domes and minarets (sixty-six more than its namesake). Wangyal pointed out the raucous candy striping on different domes, the expanses of pink.

“Tacky,” he said. “But kind of interesting.”

Song of the Day: Lightnin’ Hopkins, Gambler’s Blues