Buddhist Monk Speaks on Ideology In His Art

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Samten at the lecture. Photo by Jiuxing June Xie.

Tibetan Buddhist monk Losang Samten has spent the past week in McCabe creating a mandala: a traditional Tibetan art form intended to uplift and benefit not only the viewers but also the environment. (The Gazette also has a video of the process.) This week, visitors to McCabe were invited to watch him create the mandala; visitors are also welcome to the ceremonial destruction of the mandala this Saturday. His lecture on Thursday, “Tibetan Buddhism and the Art of Sand Mandalas,” emphasized the Buddhist ideologies interwoven in his mandala.

Losang Samten, born in central Tibet, fled with his family to Nepal in 1959 and later moved to Dharamsala India. Before moving to his current residence in Philadelphia, Samten studied at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts and received a Master’s in Buddhist Philosophy. In 1988, Samten was instructed by the 14th Dalai Lama to come to the U.S. to demonstrate the meditative art of sand painting. This was the first time a Tibetan mandala was showcased in the U.S. Since then, he has created sand mandalas at various places, including the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. Currently Samten is a spiritual leader of the Tibetan Buddhist Center of Philadelphia.

In his lecture, Samten stressed appreciation for things already had, saying that this is something he has found lacking from the general lifestyle of the American people. Samten contrasted this perspective from his own experience when he was a student in Tibet. For lunch, they were only given a piece of bread and tea with powdered milk. He said that he and his friends would rotate days in which one friend would eat each person’s share of bread, so that at least someone could have a day relieved from chronic hunger. In America there is a plethora of food and choices, and yet there is also is a tendency to want more. Samten discussed how these two types of lifestyles, although extremely different, are interdependently connected.

The partially completed mandala in McCabe. Photo by Ellen Sanchez.

Samten gave another example illustrating the idea of interdependence, a central Buddhist ideology. “Yoga comes from Yogi,” he said. “Yogi in India means meditation. It was not very popular. However, here in America, people do Yoga as exercise. And now everywhere in Delhi people are doing yoga in the parks.” He explains that the everyday actions here in America affect everyone else in the world. “Because of that,” Samten said, “kindness and compassion is so important.”

After the lecture, when asked what inspires him to create this form of art, Samten replied, “Personally, during the creation of the mandala it brings joy. It also brings a sense of peace to oneself and I try to teach peace to others through my own art as they see me go through the process of this creation.”

On Saturday at 11:40 am, following the completion of the mandala and a special procession, it will be ritually destroyed, and the pieces dispersed in the Crum creek. The impermanence of the mandala is an integral part of the teaching it symbolizes.

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