About the Ven. Losang Samten

Losang Samten was born in Ribuce, Tibet in 1953 and escaped to India in 1959. He was ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist monk at Namgyal Tantric University in Dharamsala, India in 1967. Losang served as the Personal Attendant to His Holiness the Dalai Lama from 1985-1988. He entered lay life in 1995 and has since traveled the world, especially the U.S. and Canada, teaching and lecturing at schools, universities and museums on Tibetan culture and the art of the Tibetan sand mandala.

 

It was during the summer of 1989 at Skywalker Ranch, where I’ve worked for many years, that I first met Losang Samten. The monks from Namgyal Monastery, the personal monastery of the Dalai Lama, were on tour in the U.S. to introduce their sacred arts and ancient dances to the Western public, to share the unique splendor of Tibetan culture, and to bless the entire planet. While the monks were in the Bay area, I went to a performance of their “Ritual Dances from the Diamond Realm.” They danced in magnificent brocade costumes with elaborate masks to the haunting sound of drums, trumpets and horns, bells and cymbals and conch shells. These compositions, many over 1600 years old, are part of ancient healing ceremonies that attempt, through music, ritual and symbols, to open up one’s consciousness to our inherent “Buddha Nature” of peace and compassionate wisdom.

The Namgyal Monastery monks returned again to San Francisco in 1991 to construct a sand mandala at the Asian Art Museum in connection with the Wisdom and Compassion Exhibit, the largest collection of Tibetan artifacts ever assembled at that time. While in San Francisco, Losang became my spiritual friend and teacher, and introduced me to the practice of Tibetan Buddhism.

In 1994, I traveled with a group of fellow students and Losang to India on a pilgrimage to the ancient Buddhist sites from Delhi, to Bodhgaya, Varanasi, Sarnath, and on to Dharamsala in the foothills of the Himayalas where the Namgyal Monastary monks were constructing a sand mandala on a platform in the center of a spacious, high-ceilinged temple. They begin the sand mandala by drawing an outline following an ancient text. Starting at the center, they apply the sand through an elongated funnel (chakpu) by rasping it with a second funnel. The rasping creates a vibration in the funnel that causes the sand to flow from the small end. The sand is made from crushed sandstone, dyed fourteen colors with natural pigments. I was mesmerized by the sound created by the chakpu that echoed throughout the building.

It was fascinating to watch the monks paint this masterpiece of Tibetan sacred art, measuring seven feet in diameter, entirely out of colored grains of sand. I’d always thought of art in terms of oil on canvas, watercolor or gouache on paper, something that would last forever, or at least hundreds of years. But that is not the case with sandpaintings, which are by their very nature meant to be impermanent.

The Venerable Losang Samten, a renowned Tibetan scholar and a former monk, was instructed by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama to be the first to share the ancient sacred art of Tibetan Sand Mandala with the West. Losang was born in the small town of Ribuce in central Tibet in 1953, but escaped to India in 1959 when Tibet was occupied by the Chinese Communists. He was ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist monk at Namgyal Tantric University in Dharamsala, India in 1967, and served as Personal Attendant to the Dalai Lama from 1985-1988. Losang received the Geshe (doctoral) degree in Buddhist Sutra and Tantra Studies from Namgyal University, and since moving to the U.S., has been awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Divinity from Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut, and an Honorary Doctorate of Art from Maine College of Art in Portland, Maine. He entered lay life in 1995, and has since traveled the world, especially the United States and Canada, teaching and lecturing at schools, universities and museums on Tibetan culture and the art of the sand mandala.

Losang will be constructing the Wheel of Life Sand Mandala, one of the most important mandalas in Buddhism, at the Marin Civic Center, Manzanita Room, on September 6-9, 2006. The Wheel of Life is a presentation of the Buddhist teachings on the suffering and impermanence of cyclic existence.

It is used as a teaching device to illustrate some important ideas in Buddhism, particularly having to do with death and rebirth. It is a valuable tool for psychological introspection as well. No one know for sure when it was first devised, but some believe it goes back to the time of the Buddha himself (2500 years ago). The Lord of Death, Yama, holds the wheel between his teeth, hands and feet. At the center of the wheel, a ring is formed by three animals: a pig representing greed; a snake representing hatred; and a rooster representing delusion. These three natures (poisons) are what drive sentient beings to remain in the realms of desire, and undergo the endless cycle of life and death.

A sand painting is performed for the benefit of all. The focus and discipline of the painter is an offering of peace and hope for all members of the community. At the end of the construction, the artist’s creation is destroyed to demonstrate the Tibetan philosophy of the impermanence of life. The sand will be ceremonially carried to the Lagoon at the Marin Civic Center to bless all the wildlife in the water and all sentient beings in the area.

 
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