At a time when rancorous battles over the Supreme Court, midterm elections, and kneeling athletes are dividing friends and families, Losang Samten is releasing healing energy into an angry world, if only for a moment.
A former Tibetan Buddhist monk, Samten is a master of the mandala, a spiritual sand painting whose creation is part meditation, part art. Since Sunday, he and apprentice Soo Kyong Kim have spent five hours each day sprinkling grains of sand in 30 colors onto a 5-foot-by-5-inch glass table at the Chenrezig Tibetan Buddhist Center in Northern Liberties. Ever so slowly this week, an image has been emerging of the Green Tara, a beloved Buddhist deity, the mother-savior-protectress, who represents wisdom and compassion.
"There is a lot of fear, concern, anger, and hatred," Samten, 66, said during an interview at the center's new headquarters on Marshall Street, where he is spiritual director. "We want to make peace."
By Sunday, when the piece is finished, he and Kim, a 53-year-old musician, will have surrounded the Green Tara with 21 other goddesses.
Then, Samten said, they will "dismantle" it.
The mandala (Sanskrit for circle) is a spiritual symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism that represents the universe. It is a collection of geometric shapes that emanate from the center of a circle, and typically contain depictions of religious iconography, including deities and temples. Creating one is a meditative practice.
They are using two metal cone-like instruments called chak-pur to pour the sand onto a grid drawn by Samten. One cone, filled with the sand, distributes it onto the table through a tiny hole, while the other cone, which is empty, is used to tap on the sand-filled one, an action that regulates the amount and speed at which the grains are dispensed.
Samten and Kim are working on the mandala from 1 to 6 p.m. daily through Saturday, and the public is invited to watch. On Sunday at about noon, those gathered at the center will scoop up the delicately placed grains in a ritual that signifies life's impermanence. They may take home envelopes of sand as a blessing, while leftover grains that once depicted a goddess will be dumped in a body of water to bless the environment.
A large picture of the Green Tara hangs on the wall of the center, a rendering that Samten has had since shortly after moving to America in 1988.
Born in Tibet, Samten fled China at 5 with his family in 1959 during the Communist takeover. The family settled in India, where Samten entered the exiled Dalai Lama's Namgyal Monastery. He served as an assistant to the Dalai Lama and began learning the sacred art of the mandala as a teenager.
He was sent to the U.S. to spread the gospel of the mandala in 1988 when New York writer/artist and Buddhist practitioner Barry Bryant asked the Dalai Lama to send someone skilled in the practice. Samten settled in Philadelphia after he created a mandala at the Penn Museum and a group of professors pleaded with the Dalai Lama to allow him to stay.
Since then, Samten has completed hundreds of mandalas around the world, at universities, museums, schools, and prisons, with the longest taking five weeks. Coming up are mandalas in California, New Jersey, Brazil, and in Philadelphia at the Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter, where Samten is a teacher in residence. He gave up being a monk 20 years ago because he was "more comfortable" as a lay teacher in his adopted home.
For the last decade, Samten has done virtually no mandalas at his own center because its 80 members have been nomads for the last 27 years, renting spaces in museums, churches, and schools.
In 2010, the community purchased its present building, on a then-decrepit block of Marshall Street, and transformed it into a quiet sanctuary for meditation. The Green Tara is the second mandala Samten has done since moving into the new headquarters, on a now-gentrified block in transition.
When he's creating, Samten says, his mind is empty. There is only a mental quietness. It is a skill that Kim hasn't yet mastered. When she's creating a mandala, her mind is racing. "I'm thinking about all sorts of things, like if the line of sand" she's sprinkling on the mandala is a straight one, Kim said.
Samten has slowed his mandala creation, in part, because of age — his eyes, he said, aren't want they used to be — but also because he is busy with other projects. He leads retreats and workshops and runs the center, which is frequented by people of all faith traditions.
He worries about the future of sand painting that right now flourishes only in India. Kim gives him hope. A violist, music teacher, and graduate of Juilliard, she has been a member of the center for 20 years and studied with the mandala master throughout. Her apprenticeship became official last year as part of a program with the Philadelphia Folklore Project.
"It's art. It's beautiful," Kim said, "and I want to keep up a tradition that is fading."