Press Release: Losang Samten Artist Residency (November 18 - 22, 2013)

Tibetan artist and meditation teacher Losang Samten returns to the Philadelphia Folklore Project for his annual residency November 18 - through 22, 2013. Working from 1 PM to 7 PM daily, he will create "The Wheel of Life" mandala in colored sand. All are welcome to stop by to observe the sand mandala take shape. The program is free.

Losang Samten's intricate sand paintings carry many kinds of meanings. Mandalas represent aspects of the universe. Samten says, "First and foremost these mandalas are a form of communication through art. They tell stories that have meaning for Tibetans and other Buddhists, and for humanity in general. The witnessing of patience in the creative process helps observers find patience and perseverance within themselves." "The Wheel of Life" mandala is shaped around a base of images representing acknowledgement and rejection of anger, greed and ignorance - three poisons in human existence.

Dr. Toni Shapiro-Phim, Folklore Project Director of Programs, explains that "Helping observers focus on ways to avoid these poisons, the 'painting' of 'The Wheel of Life' reinforces Buddhist notions of impermanence and rebirth, and the potential within each person for compassion and joy. If we distance ourselves from anger, greed, and ignorance, this design show us, in this life and in future existences we'll have opportunities to learn how to improve ourselves as well as to help others enhance the quality of their lives."

During the residency, daily visitors will have a chance to try their hand at making the mandala by using the metal chakpo through which the sand flows. As well, Losang engages with those attending sharing stories of the mandala and its meanings, reflecting on Tibetan history and culture, and talking about his life.

At the final dismantling ceremony, participants are invited to help brush the sand into the center of the mandala, affirming the impermanence of all things. Each person may then take a small amount of the sand, while the remainder is ritually poured into a nearby body of water as a blessing. The dismantling ceremony will take place on Friday, November 22nd. Beginning at the Philadelphia Folklore Project at 6 PM, the rite will end in a carpool to the Schuylkill Banks at Chestnut Street (on-street parking) to pour the sand into the river. All are welcome to attend.

As a teacher of meditation and as Spiritual Director of the Tibetan Buddhist Center of Philadelphia, Losang Samten practices his art as part of a community of Buddhists, both Tibetan and others. Born in 1953, in Chungpa, near Lhasa, in Central Tibet, he escaped in 1959 to Nepal, along with his father, mother, and sister. He later settled in Dharamsala, India, where he studied at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, and, later, at Namgyal Monastery. At the monastery, he earned a Master's Degree in Philosophy and Debate and became a scholar of Sutra and Tantra. He first studied sand mandala making while a monk at the Monastery in 1975. At the Dalai Lama's request, he began to create mandalas in public settings, aiming to share Tibetan Buddhist practice more widely as a way of communicating the experience of Tibetans - both their historical situation and their ongoing struggle. His mandala making enacts learnings and practices: modeling and honoring peace, lovingkindness and joy. For his work, Samten has received many honors, including the nation's highest award in the folk and traditional arts, a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Award, and a Pew Fellowship in the Arts. He acted in (and was spiritual director for) the Martin Scorcese film, Kundun, which depicts the early life of the Dalai Lama, and the context in which many Tibetans (including Samten and his family) were forced into exile.

A mandala is an intricate diagram of the universe or cosmos, in sacred terms. Tibetan mandalas have been popular since around the 12th century, and the small-scale painted ones were especially loved for individual meditation. Over the centuries, Tibetan monks created different mandalas with complex iconography, each with a different purpose, for healing, or to emphasize compassion, and so on. Sand mandalas, which cannot be moved, create a temporary sacred space. They give artists the chance to make their understanding of the cosmos visible to others for a specific purpose before they are dismantled in keeping with the Buddhist principle of impermanence. Even though these mandalas create sacred space, and even though they are often done by a small group of monks as part of a religious ceremony, they can be created outside of a temple setting. Since the act of creating it makes that place sacred, anywhere the artist has been invited or feels comfortable to make one is the proper place. Samten has created mandalas in galleries, museums, schools, and other settings.

Samten's residency is part of the Philadelphia Folklore Project's Folk Arts and Social Change residency initiative, exploring the relationships between local folk arts practices and social justice ideas and actions.

The Philadelphia Folklore Project is a 26-year-old independent public folklife agency that works to sustain vital and diverse living cultural heritage in communities in our region. PFP documents, supports, and presents Philadelphia-area folk arts and culture - including the arts of people who have been here generations and those who have just arrived. For more information, call 215.726.1106 or visit www.folkloreproject.org

Photo caption: Losang Samten working on a mandala at PFP. Photos by PFP Staff.

High resolution photo available here.