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  • For a Better Journey: Losang Samten’s Mandala of Medicine for a Healing World

    A man in a brown shirt stands before a circular mandala on a table, with his head bowed and hands together.

    Venerable Lama Losang Samten says a prayer over his completed sand mandala on the last day of the Folklife Festival.

    Photo by Josh Weilepp, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    On the final day of the 2023 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Venerable Lama Losang Samten faced the U.S. Capitol Building and tossed sand into the air in blessing. Participants returned home with baggies of sand clasped in their hands. To complete the ritual, remaining granules were returned to water.

    This sand was the medium through which Losang had painted a Tibetan Buddhist mandala over the course of the ten-day event. For visitors, a journey through the Mandala tent revealed Losang and his apprentice, Soo Kyong Kim, crafting the details of the mandala with a grace that revealed decades of study and centuries of history.

    Originating from Sanskrit, mandala means “circle.” In Losang’s native Tibetan, the mandala is called kyil-khor, meaning not only “circle” but “essence.”

    “On one hand, the mandala is just a piece of art,” Losang explained. “But another way to look at it is the whole teaching of the Buddha dharma.”

    Camera: Ali Ali, Nadya Ellerhorst, Eve Moore, Yijo Shen, Colin Stucki, Albert Tong, Charlie Weber, Jacob Weber, Angel Westbrook
    Editing: Nadya Ellerhorst

    From above, a colorful, circular sand mandala in bright red, yellow, green, shades of blue, pink, yellow, and borders in black, on a blue background. At the center is a blue figure on a dais, framed by concentric circles containing floral and cloudlike patterns.
    The completed Mandala of Medicine at the 2023 Smithsonian Folklife Festival
    Photo by Josh Weilepp, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    In Buddhism, the mandala is a spiritual image that draws meaning from the elements, senses, and mind, as well as from the teachings of the Buddha, including the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, kindness, and compassion. It guides toward enlightenment and promotes healing, benefiting all those who see it as well as the environment.

    Losang learned the art of mandalas in Namgyal Monastery, the monastery of the Dalai Lama, in Dharamshala, India. There he earned a master’s degree in Buddhist philosophy, sutra, and tantra and became a master of ritual dance and of sand mandalas. When an American interested in ancient Tibetan art requested in 1988 that a sand mandala be shown in the United States, the Dalai Lama and Namgyal Monastery sent Losang to New York to create it.

    Traditionally, monks created mandalas for Buddhist ceremonies rather than public events in museums and schools, but that year Losang painted a sand mandala at the American Museum of Natural History in New York—the first time a Tibetan sand mandala was shared in the West.

    The new audience was fascinated. More than 50,000 people attended the event, which was covered by major media outlets including the New York Times and Time magazine.

    “Back then, I couldn’t speak English well enough to explain the sand mandala,” Losang said. Nonetheless, just as the audience was captivated as they watched the process, he too was fascinated by the experience of creating the mandala in the general public for the first time.

    By 2002, he was well known for the practice in his new home, and the National Endowment for the Arts named him a National Heritage Fellow, the nation’s highest honor in folk and traditional arts. He now creates sand mandalas in schools and museums across the United States and in South America and Canada.

    A man smiles peacefully, sitting in front of a colorful sand mandala.
    Photo by Julie Byrne, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    “It brings a tremendous mental calmness,” Losang described, for both the creator and those experiencing the creation. Even young children experience a calming wonderment when they enter a space where a mandala is created. “We will not say too much ‘be quiet,’ but they are coming in very quiet.”

    Mandala designs differ in the selection of colors and symbols and the meanings they invoke. For the Folklife Festival, Losang chose to create the Mandala of Medicine.

    Losang creates mandalas with fine, powdery sand collected from places including Arizona and New Mexico. In his “sand factory,” he dyes the sand with watercolor—the Mandala of Medicine requires more than twenty colors. This colored sand is then placed in a chakpu, a grooved metal rod that, when rubbed against another, sifts the sand in fine streams onto the mandala.

    “It’s really beautiful, really, just looking at the design, and, of course, this isn’t credit to me at all,” Losang said.

    According to tradition, the Mandala of Medicine dates back as far as 2,700 years ago when the historical Buddha himself is believed to have taught its creation. Losang likened the design to “Grandma’s recipe”—passed down, recreated, and preserved generation after generation.

    Like a recipe, creating the mandala begins with measurement. Monks spend the first couple hours drawing out the lines that will guide the sand’s placement—like a blueprint guides an architect, Losang explained.

    The painting of the Mandala of Medicine begins with a representation of the blue Medicine Buddha at its center. “This mandala has a lot of blue color. Blue is the symbol of healing,” Losang said, adding that colors do more than symbolize. “Sometimes, without any language, something gives us a sort of feeling or thoughts.” Colors are one of these things. Losang explained, if you are stressed, Buddhist doctors and therapists “will recommend imagining or thinking about the color blue.” As visitors stepped into the shade of the Mandala tent during the festival, they could feel their stress dissolve as the blue sand poured out of the chakpu, humming softly as they were rubbed together.

    In colored sand, a blue figure at the center of a circular design on a blue table.
    Photo by Stanley Turk, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    Losang continued explaining their design: “And then, inside the design, the first circle, second circle, third circle divides into many categories.” He and Kim painted images of medicinal herbs inside these rings.

    “Each mandala represents something which we are dealing with in everyday life,” he continued. Each symbol matters, each color, and which mandala he chooses to make for each location. “We, humanity, have gone through a lot due to the COVID. We have a concern about so much going on in the world today, but still we are not completely overcome.”

    While the mandala emerges from Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, the healing power it offers carries no limits based on religion or culture. The mandala has become a key medium for sharing Tibetan Buddhist ideas and culture with audiences outside Tibet, and Losang is at the forefront of this dissemination.

    When China dissolved the Tibetan government in 1959, the Dalai Lama as well as 100,000 other refugees were forced to flee their homeland. Six-year-old Losang was among those who escaped. Six decades later, Losang still cannot return to his home country. In a Chinese-occupied Tibet, expressions of Tibetan language, culture, and religion—including mandalas—are heavily restricted.

    “A number of teachers who then taught me the mandalas and their generation who teach us is no longer alive, and not only dead… but the tragedy of what happened in 1959 in Tibet from China and preserving this is difficult,” Losang said. “So, there are not many really qualified sand artists today.”

    A woman works with two thin metal tools over a colorful sand mandala. Behind her, a portrait of the Dalai Lama.
    Apprentice Soo Kyong Kim also worked on the mandala throughout the Festival’s ten days.
    Photo by Grace Bowie, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    At the Festival, Losang highlighted the importance working with a woman apprentice. To Losang, Soo Kyong Kim’s education represents not only a continuation but an evolution of the tradition. While the art form is often associated with monks, Losang insists, “Anybody can do the mandala as long as you know how to do it.”

    “Which is the hard part,” Kim added with a laugh.

    On the final day of the Festival, with the help of staff, volunteers, and fellow participants, Losang and Kim completed the mandala with a process that very often shocks audiences: the dismantling ceremony.

    Each symbol, color, and carefully placed granule is swept away.

    “I’ve been doing this so many years, and it didn’t occur to me that it’s not easy to dismantle at all,” Losang said. Since coming to the United States, he has come to understand people’s desire to preserve a completed artwork, but, in the case of the mandala, he emphasizes that dismantling is “part of the creation.”

    In one way, dismantling emphasizes the mandala’s historical role as a private religious image not necessarily meant to be shared with the public. The ease with which the sand is swiped away is a reminder that “nothing lasts forever,” said Losang, a reminder “of impermanence.” Then again, sand from the dismantled mandala also contributes to new lives, as some of the sand is returned to water. “Putting back to the water is very, very beneficial for the marine life,” Losang said.

    This sand, before it became part of the mandala, was blessed. Losang explained how he and Kim “say a lot of prayers in their heads” as they create mandalas.

    Tibetans would often take a little of this sand to bless their home before keeping it on the altar. “Family members who are passing through, they are putting a little sand on the top of their head for a better rebirth, better journey,” he said.

    Several people, standing around the circular mandala on a table under a tent, reach their hands toward the center of the mandala.
    Photo by Josh Weilepp, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
    Around the mandala, a woman leans in, smiling, holding a metal tool over the center of the design.
    Photo by Josh Weilepp, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
    In a circle, several hands use foam brushes to brush the sand of the mandala, now blurred around the edges, toward its center.
    Photo by Josh Weilepp, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
    Close-up of the remnants of the mandala, as people continue brushing the sand into a pile. Instead of distinct colors, it is now greenish gray.
    Photo by Josh Weilepp, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
    Close-up of bits of the greenish gray sand in Ziploc bags, next to foam brushes on a table.
    Photo by Josh Weilepp, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    As no one meaning can sufficiently describe a mandala and its many symbols, there is no one reason why the mandala is dismantled. But as Losang explained, “It’s like when we’re cutting the birthday cake,” he said. If creating the mandala is like using Grandma’s recipe, perhaps her beloved birthday cake, then dismantling it is like savoring the results.

    Visitors to the Folklife Festival were allowed to try the art of sand painting on the edge of the mandala table, rubbing the chakpu together into their soothing hum. They were also allowed to take some of the sand to bless their own homes.

    Such actions in Losang’s home country are near impossible. As long as the mandala is restricted in Tibet, each piece of sand creating mandalas around the rest of the world represents the perseverance of Tibetan culture.

    “This is about Tibet and Tibetan culture today,” Losang concluded.

    Delaney Marrs is a writing intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a student at Kenyon College, where she is studying art history and English.

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