It’s not every day that you meet an exiled craftsman making a modest living in Rochester.
Born to a Tibetan nomad family in 1972, Sampa Lhundup is a third-generation wood- carver who came to Rochester in 2011 on a temporary visa and at the invitation of the White Lotus Society (a Buddhist community). He currently lives and works at the home of Francois Raoult of Open Sky Yoga, but it was a long, hard road to arrive at this point.
Lhundup escaped Tibet in 1993, fleeing the Chinese army on foot with a small group of other Tibetans through the Himalayas, to Nepal, and eventually to India. He spent time in exile in Dharamsala, India, where the Dalai Lama’s government-in-exile has been based since 1959, and where Lhundup’s wife and two children still live. The children were born in India and therefore are citizens of India, but Sampa and his wife are not citizens of any internationally recognized nation. Though Lhundup has found safety and a home for the time being in Rochester, he is still petitioning for more permanent asylum in America.
While in India, Lhundup completed six years of training to become a master woodcarver through the Shachun Woodcraft Center, which is affiliated with the Tibetan Government in Exile, from 1997 to 2003. His work has been recognized by the Dalai Lama and other highly ranked Tibetan lamas, and Lhundup has created many intricately detailed thrones, altars, shrines, and mandalas for these dignitaries.
Although much of his work involves symbolism that alludes to Buddhist practice, Lhundup can make anything requested of him, and has taken on many secular commis- sions, creating ornate wall sculptures detailed with animals, flowers, or faces. The dimen- sionality and minutiae he extracts from every square inch of wood is mesmerizing. Depend- ing on the scale and level of detail involved in a commission, as well as his current workload, it can take anywhere from a few weeks to years for Lhundup to complete a project.
Many who speak of Lhundup marvel over the positive impact that connecting with him has had on their lives.
“I have been teaching Sampa English, but I continue to learn at least as much from him—about Buddhism, about being a good person, about his amazing life as a nomad yak herder,” says Beth Myers, of the White Lotus Society.
In conversation with the artist, the weight of his losses in life are evident, but he has the sort of soul who will not accept your sympathy, comforting you with a shrug and a smile. “This is samsara,” he says. (In Buddhism, samsara refers to the process of one rebirth after another, often through a state of suffering.)
Lhundup hopes to stay in America, and would one day like to found a school here and teach woodcarving to others. He dreams of opening a studio-workshop and creating jobs for other exiles like himself.