PFP welcomes Losang Samten - and you - back for his fourth annual visit, one of our Folk Arts and Social Change Residencies exploring the relationships between local folk arts practices and social justice struggles. This years visit launches a year-long collaboration with the Tibetan Association of Philadelphia to document how the group uses Tibetan arts and culture in their protest against Chinese occupation of Tibet.
About the artist: 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. Born in 1953 in Chungpa, near Lhasa, in Central Tibet, Losang 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 ongoing struggle and the learnings and practices that share peace, loving kindness and joy. (He has done this creatively in many contexts, including in the movie Kundun!) For his work, Losang has received many honors, including the nation's highest award in the folk and traditional arts (the Heritage Award of the National Endowment for the Arts) and a Pew Fellowship in the Arts. His lovely book, Ancient Teachings in Modern Times: Buddhism in the 21st Century (2011) will be available at PFP during his visit.
Sand mandalas: 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, such as 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.
Losang explains that "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. They also see how each tiny piece matters in the interconnectedness of life. These are important lessons for the next generation, whether Tibetan or not."
About this year's mandala: The Kalachakra Mandala is sometimes referred to as "The Wheel of Time" and known as one of Tibetan Buddhism's most complex works of sacred art. This virtual floor plan for a multi-leveled palace houses five separate yet interrelated mandalas. Each has its own purpose: purifying body, speech, mind, and then consciousness, and culminating in the ultimate tier of Great Bliss. Within the center of this palace resides the deity Kalachakra and his consort, Vishvamata. This sacred union and its representations are seen everywhere throughout this particular mandala as repeated affirmations of wholeness and completion. Sun and moon, feminine and masculine, as well as pristine awareness with transcendental knowledge, all have fully merged. Also residing in this palace are 722 manifestations of the Kalachakra deity. These serve to bless the 722 chakras and channels of the initiate and viewer. The journey of the practitioner through this visual scripture is said to trace the progression toward the state of Awakening and Inner Peace. Surrounding the palace and its grounds are the protective forces of the five Elements: Earth, Water, Fire, Wind and Space. The outermost circle of the mandala represents the holding environment for all that takes place within its embrace. Compassion and Wisdom have united and loving-kindness prevails in this cosmic setting. (Excerpted, with permission, from www.losangsamten.com. Visit this website for more information.)
About the week: PFP is open for five days (March 18 - 22) from 1 PM - 7 PM. You can witness Losang Samten at work, or try your hand at making the mandala, using the chakpo through which the sand flows. Losang also shares Tibetan traditions, including stories and songs, that relate to the mandala.
Special events are also scheduled:
March 20, 6 PM - 7 PM: The Lhakar Project: Tibetans throughout the diaspora use folklore to protest China's occupation of Tibet: on Wednesdays, they wear regional clothes, eat Tibetan foods, tell local stories, and speak Tibetan. Learn about use of folk arts for social change at a community presentation about Lhakar practice in Philadelphia.
March 22: 6 PM. Dismantling Ceremony. In keeping with Buddhist understanding of the impermanence of all things, after the mandala is completed, it is ritually dismantled. Losang leads this ceremony, beginning at PFP, where attendees help brush the sand into the center of the mandala. Then, we carpool to the Schuylkill Banks (parking at Chestnut Street) where we return the sand to the river. All are welcome to attend.
About the Philadelphia Folklore Project: Established in 1987, PFP aims to sustain vital and diverse living cultural heritage in communities in our region, build critical folk cultural knowledge, and create equitable processes and practices for nurturing local grassroots arts and humanities.
Philadelphia Folklore Project - 735 S. 50th Street - Philadelphia, PA 19143 - 215.726.1106