PhillyFolk Artists

Losang Samten

Tibetan Sand Mandala Artist

Losang Samten is a Tibetan sand mandala artist. As a teacher of meditation and as Spiritual Director of the Tibetan Buddhist Center of Philadelphia, he lives and practices his art as part of a community of Buddhists, both Tibetan and others. 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. A mandala is an intricate diagram of the universe or cosmos, in sacred terms. Buddhists and Hindus in South and Southeast Asia built temples as mandalas; Tibetan mandalas have been popular since around the 12th century, and the small-scale painted ones were especially loved for individual meditation. Some were painted on temple walls, while most were done on scrolls. 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 has created mandalas in galleries, museums, schools, or other settings. (In 1988 His Holiness the Dalai Lama selected Losang to create a mandala at the Museum of Natural History in New York.) 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.”

Whenever Losang dismantles a mandala, he asks some young people to help, as a way of physically and spiritually passing this tradition on. In 1995, Losang gave back his monastic vows and entered a lay practitioner’s life. His knowledge and skills contributed to the film Kundun, as he was employed as religious advisor, master sand painter, and actor. Dedicated to the dharma, he continues to travel extensively, sharing his vast knowledge of Buddhist philosophy and meditation, and his skill in the Tibetan ritual arts. Losang continues to teach and to practice mandala painting. He received an NEA Heritage Fellowship in 2002, and a Pew Fellowship in 2004. He was a PFP artist in residence in 2006-7.