Transcript of interview with Losang Samten

Here is a transcript of the interview the [Chico, California] Enterprise-Record did with Losang Samten, a Tibetan Buddhist monk, on Feb. 15.

E-R: How old are you?

S: 57.

E-R: What is a mandala?

S: It is a representation. It is the architecture of a palace which represents many things. A divine palace. From the Buddhist point of view (it shows) the different stages to the path of enlightenment. It is the universe, humanity, all of one individual’s positive qualities and all the things we need to purify from ourselves. There are so many thusands of mandala with different themes.

E-R: How long have you been making mandalas.

S: Over 30 years.

(The reporter conducting the interview and Samten are sitting at a small round table. At this point, a photographer taking pictures of Samten grabs the two back legs of the reporter’s chair and pulls them quickly to the right, moving him so that he has a better view for his camera. Samten laughs heartily and says, “That is a mandala.” He explains that a mandala (perhaps a certain kind of mandala) means that “anything can be OK.”

E-R: How do you say “mandala”? Is the accent on the first “a” or on the second?

S: It doesn’t matter how you say it.

E-R: How did you learn to make sand mandalas?

S: I went to a monastery. Before 1959, in Tibet, there were so many monasteries and nunneries. I had to leave in 1959, the year the Chinese took…

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over the country. We went to India and there I went to a monastery and studied the mandala.

E-R: Does the mandala you’re making now have a name and a its own meaning?
S: It’s the mandala of compassion. It means be kind and compassionate. The message is so simple, so profound.
E-R: What do you mean by compassion?
S: Compassion means be nice to yourself, be nice to others. We all are searching, wishing to be happy. We shouldn’t be focused on ourselves. We should try to share with others.
E-R: What will happen to the sand mandala when it’s finished?
S: There will be a dispersal ceremony on March 5, with a prayer and making wishes. Then we’ll go to the creek and give it back to the water. (He says the sand will have come full circle — it came out of water and will return to the water). It will be blessing the earth, the environment.
E-R: Why did the Chinese invade Tibet?
S: Greed. They wanted the natural resources. Today there are 6 million Tibetans and 10 or 15 million Chinese in Tibet. (He says the Chinese government is trying to move more Chinese into Tibet, giving them money to go). Tibetan culture and language, they tried to eliminate it. There are more than 130,000 Tibetan refugees all over the world. Most are in India.
E-R: Is Tibet a large country?
S: Tibet is huge. It’s five or six times the size of France.
E-R: The Tibetans seem to have strongly embraced Buddhism. Why do you think this is the case?
S: Buddhism came to Tibet in the 7th century. And with it came Buddhist monasticism and the population was greatly reduced. (The reporter asks Samten why the population grew smaller. Samten laughed and laughed and explained, “because there were lots of monks and nuns.”
Then he goes on to say that the Chinese have made it the law that couples can have only one child, but they could reduce their population without force if they would promote Buddhism and monasticism.)
Tibet was a very wild country before Buddhism. Killing was nothing unusual. It was a powerful nation (with a strong military that invaded China). Buddhism came to Tibet, and Buddhist teachings of non-violence, compassion and kindness changed the whole society.
I was born in 1953. When the Chinese first came, the Tibetans welcomed them. (They had problems with the altitude and lacked proper clothing). Chairman Mao said (to the Chinese immigrants), “Welcome to the motherland. This is no longer Tibet.
(Samten says when he comes to universities and meets Chinese students, he likes to tell them that Tibet used to be an independent country. Many are surprised to hear that, he says.)
E-R: Can you say something about your center in Philadelphia?
S: The center was founded in 1989, for welcoming Buddhists and non-Buddhists. We have Sunday morning gatherings for meditation and discussion. Many people come. It’s called the Tibetan Buddhist Center of Philadelphia.
E-R: Do you live at the center in Philadelphia? Do you have a house there?
S: I have a small studio apartment.
E-R: You say non-Buddhists as well as Buddhists come to the center. Why do the non-Buddhists come?
S: We all are searching for happiness. Christian brothers and sisters come to help to grow their own faith. To the Christians, there is much they can learn from the Buddhists, and we, too, can learn a great deal from other religions. To me, Jesus, Mother Mary, and the Buddha are all the same thing. They teach the same thing. Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism all coincide. We should read many different authors on the spiritual journey.
E-R: Do you practice meditation where you pay attention to your breath and watch your thoughts arise, then return your attention to your breath?
S: That’s one type of meditation. Meditation means two things. The positive qualities we all have we try to cultivate. Things we have that have a negative side we try to reduce. That’s the point of meditation. We can meditate everywhere, in every place. When we’re cooking, eating, walking.
E-R: How can you meditate when you are cooking?
S: When you cook, just cook, instead of thinking about what movie you’re going to watch that evening. And add good positive thoughts, like I’m cooking this for my family so everybody has happiness. Avoid getting off the track. When you’re cooking, and you pay attention to the cooking, you cook better and you act better. You don’t burn the food.
E-R: How much do you meditate?
S: (He says when he’s making a mandala as he’s doing now in Chico, he doesn’t have much time for meditation but that when he is at home, he meditates for about two hours a day.)
My own schedule at home (involves) just sitting, watching my thoughts, watching my monkey mind. We all have a monkey mind, jumping here and there, unexpectedly. So many thoughts! The mind is the most fascinating thing in the universe. It is so powerful. It creates tremendous negative results and positive results.
Meditation means dealing with the mind — shaping this wild monkey mind, shaping it into a positive (thing). It’s very achievable. Some people think it’s human nature (to be negative). In our belief, it is achievable. Anything can be achievable. We all have choices. If I’m off the track (I remind myself). It’s achievable, but it can take a long time.
E-R: I’ve read that Buddhism aims to end suffering. What causes this suffering and how can it be ended?
S: There are three causes: greed, anger and ignorance. Meditation practice will eliminate these. In a way, these three are so strong in us, but gradually we can change, through the practice, through carrying the good cheer in your mind, the good goal.
E-R: What do you mean by “ignorance”?
S: Ignorance is not knowing the truth, adding our own assumptions. But reality is (something different). Through the meditation, you discover it. Investigate it yourself. The more we investigate it, the more we know the true nature of reality. Today there is lots of fear in the world and unhappiness. A lot of it is because of ignorance.
E-R: What is the meaning of the Mandala of Compassion that you are making?
S: Overall, we all are beauty. This one (the sand mandala he is making) is a representation. The real mandala — we all have a mandala within ourselves. We all have kindness and compassion in our hearts. The image of Jesus in the church is beautiful. It reminds me God is within me. Jesus is within me. The image on the altar is a reminder. The mandala is a reminder of the compassion we all have.
E-R: What impact do you hope your visit to Chico will have?
S: I hope and pray each one understands the mandala of compassion is within them. That’s my hope for this mandala.
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