Sampa Lhundup – A Tibetan Carver in America

Monday 9 July 2018

Lotus, Endless Knot, Golden Fish, Victory Banner, Wheel of Dharma, Treasure Vase, Parasol and Conch Shell; you may not know these icons by name, but there's a good chance you will have seen most or all of them in some form. They are known as the Eight Auspicious Symbols, or Ashtamangala, and they often feature, either singularly or as part of the symbolic decoration, in the exquisite work of Sampa Lhundup, a traditionally trained, third-generation Tibetan woodcarver who currently lives in Rochester, New York.

Training in exile

Sampa was born in Rusar Nyima Township in Nagchu County, Tibet, in 1972 and sadly, like many others, into persecution and hardship along with his family under the Chinese occupation. As a young man he was imprisoned by the authorities and repeatedly interrogated and tortured. In 1993 he made a perilous escape over the Himalayas to India – where some 120,000 Tibetan refugees remain today – where he lived with no legal status and under constant threat of repatriation to Chinese-occupied Tibet.

In 1997, he began six years of formal training and apprenticeship through the Shachun Woodcraft Centre, affiliated with the Tibetan Government in Exile. During this time he built on the teachings of his father, who he cites as his greatest carving influence, to craft several traditional Buddhist carvings including six mandalas – a spiritual symbol representing the Universe – an 18ft stupa – a domed structure containing Buddhist relics used as a place of meditation – and two traditional wall shrines, both a staggering 63 x 7ft, for the Sherabling Monastery in India.

Sampa went on to spend two years working at the Drikung Kagyu Institute in northeast India at the foothills of the Himalayas, which separated him from his native country. Here he contributed two mandalas, two 8ft religious thrones and a 12 x 2ft wall shrine, and also carved a 22ft stupa for a nearby Tibetan settlement. He served as the master in residence at the Markham Tibetan Traditional Woodcarving Institute, applying his great talents and energies to building a successful woodcarving workshop and business, employing and tutoring 20 woodcarvers and students, through which he created work for His Holiness the Dalai Lama as well as other highly ranked Tibetan Lamas. But after eight years in India, an invitation arrived that could bring an end to the threat of repatriation for Sampa and the family he had started.

From India to Rochester

Sampa was invited by the White Lotus Buddhist Center in Rochester, New York, to join their community on a religious worker's visa. “He qualified for the visa because he possesses skills that cannot be found in the United States and that would further White Lotus' religious mission,” says White Lotus member Frank Howard. “His knowledge and experience of creating woodcarvings in the Drikung Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism are rare.”

In 2011, Sampa travelled to Rochester and has since applied for political asylum in the US, fearing he will face further persecution if he is returned to Tibet or India. Sampa is currently learning English and working hard to establish himself as an artist in the US so that he can stay in the country and his family can join him to finally live free from the terrifying prospect of repatriation. Having grown up as a nomad in Tibet, well outside of Western norms and culture, he has certainly made an impression on his new friends. “He's an extraordinarily buoyant person,” says Ken Joseph,”He is by no means insensitive to suffering – he dearly wants to be reunited with his family members in India and Tibet – but somehow able to maintain a humorous and kind-hearted outlook despite it all.”

Ken and his wife invited Sampa to live in their house in Rochester while they were away and, on returning, found his company so engaging they happily let him stay for many more months. Frank Howard adds, “The greatest benefit to the White Lotus community – and indeed Rochester – has been Sampa's genuine good heat”. Indeed, Sampa does not only carve for the Buddhist community; since arriving in the US, he has carved crosses and stars of David for his new Christian and Jewish friends, Native American-inspired work and some work that is simply decorative. What all of his carvings have in common is that they invariably employ symbolism of one kind or another.

His hosts can not stress enough to me the effect his presence has had on the White Lotus and wider community of Rochester, as well as what they have learned of their religion's spiritual home. “We have learned via first-hand account the story of modern Tibet – the great suffering of its people, which is officially ignored by the governments of this world. More importantly, people have been moved by Sampa's clear-headedness and generosity shown in the midst of painful separation from his family as an asylum seeker,” says Frank, who adds, cogently, “Our country would be improved had more people the moral courage of this man”.

Buddhist pieces

Sampa mostly carves in basswood (Tilia americana), Spanish cedar (Cedrela odorata), mahogany (Swietenia mahagoni) and black walnut (Juglans nigra), often mixing timbers for effect, although he also creates different shades in his compositions by using Danish oil in varying amounts on different sections. His inspiration, he says, comes unbidden from his mind, which is thoroughly trained in traditional motifs, and from the images and symbols he has discovered in his new environment.

In Rochester, he has produced a throne and nimbus 'halo' for the White Lotus Center's new Buddha statue, elaborately carved sacred text tables to be used during ritual and liturgy, prayer wheels and seed syllable carvings. One of Sampa's proudest pieces is the Chenrezig Mandala, carved in black walnut, Spanish cedar and mahogany. Chenrezig is an important deity in Tibetan Buddhism, believed to be reincarnated as His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The centre depicts a stupa growing from a lotus, which represents primordial purity, encircled by the Tibetan letters for the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum. The turtle figure represents the preciousness of human birth – a symbol that Sampa also uses in his piece 'Human Life'. In this piece, a yoke around the central turtle's neck illustrates the Buddhist parable that human births are as rare as a turtle swimming up from the bottom of the ocean and placing his head in a single ring floating on the water.

Sampa's 'Losar Box' celebrates the Tibetan New Year. During the celebration, a Lama will use the box for a religious ceremony in which offerings are made; the box is divided in the centre by a carved flaming jewel, with one side of the box to contain barley and the other, wheat. The box is carved in basswood, with golden fish – the Auspicious Symbol representing a state of fearlessness – creating the handles, and the inside is painted with gold leaf.

Sampa Lhundup's two years in the US have proved to be a positive revelation for both Sampa and his newfound friends. “He engages with people around him in a very caring way and has made many friends both in Rochester and, judging by his Facebook following, all round the world,” says Ken, with time to declare one more string to Sampa's bow: “He also makes incredibly delicious Tibetan dumplings!”