Perhaps no place exemplifies samsara in the American imagination more than Las Vegas, the intoxicating gambling den marked by greed and desire. But the artist and Las Vegas native James Stanford sees something different in Sin City: Zen. He creates dazzling modern mandalas by digitally manipulating photographs of the Mojave Desert and vintage neon signs. “We think the dharma is outside of us,” Stanford told Tricycle. “I asked myself, why look far away for the answers when they are right here in my own backyard? Las Vegas exemplifies the nonduality of nirvana and samsara.”

A one-time experience with psychedelics in Stanford’s teen years ignited a deep interest in interdependence and led him to become a visual artist. He earned a BFA from the University of Nevada Las Vegas and an MFA in painting from the University of Washington. Along the way, he was introduced to Seon Buddhism (Korean Zen) and began a meditation practice.

“Lucky Lady” by James Stanford. (Click to enlarge.)

The writings of environmentalist Joanna Macy and the late writer and translator Francis Dojun Cook introduced him to the Buddhist idea of Indra’s net, a huge net with jewels set at the meeting of the threads, each jewel reflecting every other jewel in the universe. The image is a central metaphor in Stanford’s work and the inspiration for his series Indra’s Jewels. “The idea of co-origination of this universe,” Stanford said, “means that we bring as much to the universe as the universe brings to us.” The portfolio on the following pages is drawn from Stanford’s monograph Shimmering Zen (Ianthe Press, 2017), which showcases 150 pieces from the Indra’s Jewels series created over the last 15 years.

Stanford hopes the images will help viewers realize that “Zen doesn’t exist in the East or the West, the North or the South. Zen exists inside of all of us.”

—Eliza Rockefeller, Editorial Assistant

“City Center”

How To View A Mandala

Apprehend the mandala lightly, like you are holding a butterfly.
Attitude is everything when viewing a ‘jewel of Indra.’
If you are grasping or impatient, you are killing the experience.
Breathe in and out. Attend to your breath.
We enter the realm of mandala with our eyes floating on the wind of our breath.  
Pure awareness—that is what our consciousness is.
‘Don’t know’ is the only mindset. See where wonderment takes you.
We are the universe’s way of knowing itself.

“Aladdin Dingly Dan – V2”

Before and After

“Skrolls – V1” and the original photo
“Binions – V1” and the original photo
“AWAZ” and the original photo

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