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After wandering 27 years, Tibetan Buddhists find N. Philly home

Tenzin Dhakar, 9, holds a container of rice and barley flour as part of Sunday's dedication ceremony at the Tibetan Buddhist Center of Philadelphia.
Tenzin Dhakar, 9, holds a container of rice and barley flour as part of Sunday's dedication ceremony at the Tibetan Buddhist Center of Philadelphia.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

Ending 27 years of wandering in the desert of urban rental spaces, former monk Losang Samten tossed a handful of rice into the cold breeze blowing down Marshall Street just south of Girard. He gave the ring-finger-to-thumb sign of compassion, and welcomed his diverse Tibetan Buddhist Center of Philadelphia worshipers to the first home they've ever owned, a lovingly renovated former market.

Samten led a Sunday service of prayers, chants, silent meditations and his faith's all-inclusive, all-embracing, bedrock messages of loving compassion for everyone. "No one is asked what his background is, what his belief is, whether you are Buddhist or non-Buddhist," Samten said.

He told a favorite story about meeting for decades above an old firehouse in Powelton Village, in artists' lofts at Ninth and Spring Garden until a fire caused the building to be condemned and, when all else failed, in each other's homes.

"During a visit to Philadelphia in 2008, the Dalai Lama looked at his watch and said, 'Oh, we have a little time. I'd like to visit your center.'

"I said, 'Your Holiness, we don't have a physical center.' He said, 'Oh! This is very good!' He meant, 'Why build structures? We are building inside. Be kind to each other and we can meditate anywhere.' That's why I love this man. I love the Dalai Lama."

Tibet-born Samten, 65, fled the 1950's Chinese Communist takeover with his family when he was five. He settled in India, where he studied at the exiled Dalai Lama's Namgyal Monastery and became a Buddhist monk.

He was sent to the United States by the Dalai Lama in 1988 to demonstrate the Tibetan Buddhist art of sand mandala painting and, after creating a mandala at the University of Pennsylvania, he so captivated a group of Philadelphians with his spiritual compassion that they wrote to the Dalai Lama asking that Samten be allowed to stay.

"They brought 88 letters to the Dalai Lama in Los Angeles," Samten said. "His Holiness said, 'Was this Losang's idea or your idea?' They said, 'Losang doesn't know we're carrying these letters to you.' His Holiness said, 'If this is your idea, fine.'"

Bill Stauffer from Narberth remembered an early morning 22 years ago when he heard Samten - by then, a former monk but still a spiritual teacher - doing a radio interview about loving kindness being the focus of Tibetan Buddhism. Stauffer phoned and shyly asked, "Can somebody meditate with you if they want to?" Samten replied, "Oh, sure!"

"So I went to my first meditation," Stauffer said, "and there were two people there - me and Losan." Stauffer and his 60 listeners laughed. "It's been a wonderful 22 years," Stauffer said.

Floyd Platton, of Queen Village, said the congregation's new home used to be "a dank, dirty, smelly place" before it was gutted and transformed into a spiritual oasis with a new wood floors, carpets, and cream-colored walls hung with paintings of several Buddhas - all bathed in sunlight streaming from a big skylight in the exposed beam ceiling. "We should all be transformed the way this building was transformed," Platton said.

Ken Klein, who has studied with Samten for more than  20 years, said, "As we were working on the building, one guy stuck his head in and said, 'My name's Speedy. I was the lookout. This was a numbers joint and my job was to make sure the police weren't coming.'"

Mac Robb from Fairmount, who spent countless hours painting the new center, said, "Every color that's in this place is on my pants."

Laughing with Robb, Bill "Woody" Woods from Merion Station, who will turn 80 on Wednesday, noted his own immaculate dress pants and said self-mockingly, "I'm the artist. My hands are soft."

The congregation gave Woods a big hand Sunday for creating the huge poster of the golden Buddha that hung on the wall behind Samten as he led the prayers. "This is our doctrine," Samten said, indicating the words beneath the Buddha: "You are the master of yourself. What other master could there be? Through calming yourself alone, you find a master hard to find."

Woods said he takes those words to heart. He joined the Tibetan Buddhist Center four years ago, after his wife died suddenly from a hemorrhagic stroke. He said he was grieving, depressed, when a friend called and told him about Samten.

"I miss my wife every day," Woods said. "But as we learn in Buddhism, nothing is permanent. I've been learning how to cope."