Sampa Lhundup carves new life

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(Photo: Matt Wittmeyer)

from Democrat and Chronicle (New York)
Jim Memmott 8:57 a.m. EDT June 8, 2014

Thousands of miles from his native Tibet, woodcarver Sampa Lhundup hunches over a table and practices his art, teasing symbols out of a piece of white cedar.

Slowly, surely, steadily, an astonishingly elaborate and intertwined piece of art will emerge. Art that has attracted followers like the Dalai Lama, after Lhundup fled his country for a life in exile in India. Art that is now gaining him a reputation in Rochester and far beyond.

Orders for his work come in from Boston, San Francisco and elsewhere, and a British woodcarving magazine recently featured his remarkable story.

Lhundup, 41, has been in Rochester since 2011, thanks to Rochester’s White Lotus Buddhist Center, a group that meets in, yes, a Baptist church. And while he has found a community here, his story is laced with sorrow.

Lhundup has been forced to live apart from his wife and two children, who remain in India. He has been caught in a legal limbo, his application for political asylum moving through the bureaucracy at an agonizing pace. He is a man displaced.

“I have no country,” Lhundup says in his rudimentary English. “It’s very difficult. Maybe soon there will be happiness come.”

Maybe. For now, he remains on an arduous and sometimes surreal journey. Meet him, though, and Lhundup — who bows with hands folded when greeting people — projects a sense of calm, grounded in his Buddhist religion.

“He has a very positive and grateful attitude, despite the trials he has gone through,” says Gretchen Howard of Brighton, a White Lotus Buddhist member whose family has played a key part in Lhundup’s story.

In 1997, having fled Tibet, Sampa Lhundup began a six-year apprenticeship in woodcarving.(Photo: Matt Wittmeyer)

In 1997, having fled Tibet, Sampa Lhundup began a six-year apprenticeship in woodcarving.(Photo: Matt Wittmeyer)

A nomad again

The perilous journey of Sampa Lhundup began in Tibet. Born there to a family of nomads, Lhundup was the son and grandson of woodcarvers. China had taken over the Tibetan region two decades before, and Lhundup became part of the movement for Tibetan freedom.

Because of this, he says he was imprisoned and tortured by the Chinese. In 1993, he decided to flee his homeland. He would have to cross the Himalayas into Nepal, through the cold and snow, all the while risking the danger of being seen.

“It was 28 days on foot at night,” Lhundup says. “They shoot you if they see you. A little girl was shot dead.”

Once out of Tibet, Lhundup passed through Nepal and continued to the area of Dharamsala, India, the home of the Tibetan government in exile, where the Dalai Lama has been living since 1959.

Lhundup had few possessions, but he had his carving skill and lineage. In 1997, he began a six-year apprenticeship in woodcarving. In that time, he created several works for monasteries, including a carving that measured 63 feet long.

Later he served as a master-in-residence at the Markham Tibetan Traditional Woodcarving Institute, teaching and carving for numerous recipients, including the Dalai Lama.

In India, Lhundup also married a fellow Tibetan, Nyima. His wife and their daughter and son, now teenagers, hope to come to the United States — and they’ve been hoping for years now.

Karmic connection to Rochester

Lhundup’s presence in Rochester is a tribute to luck, coincidence or — in Buddhist terms — the predestined force of karma.

The White Lotus Buddhist Center, which meets in a second-floor room in Immanuel Baptist Church on Park Avenue, was looking for a woodcarver. But not just any carver. They needed someone with the skills and knowledge to work with Buddhist symbols and ceremonies.

Meghan Howard, whose parents — Frank and Gretchen Howard — are core members of White Lotus, happened to be in Northern India translating a book from Tibetan into English. A graduate of Harvard in Sanskrit and Indian studies, Meghan Howard was staying in a monastery that housed two teaching thrones and a large altar that Lhundup had carved, and Howard got to know him.

Howard told Lhundup of the need for a woodcarver back in Rochester, and he agreed to come to Rochester on a three-month religious worker visa. He believed it would be a path to quick political asylum, and that his family would then be able to join him soon after. But it didn’t happen that way.

Gone missing

Lhundup was granted the religious worker visa because he had a skill that very few people in the United States have. Once here, he expected to gain asylum on the grounds that if he returned to India, where he was living in exile, he would be in danger of being sent back to Tibet, where he would face persecution.

But soon after arriving here in 2011, Lhundup took a bus to Washington to see the Dalai Lama, who was there speaking on world peace. On the way back, in Erie, Pa., immigration officers arrested him. They somehow got the idea that Lhundup was an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. Lhundup spoke little English, the officers did not speak Tibetan and he could not plead his own case. Meghan Howard, who was on the trip, tried to intervene, but to no avail. Lhundup was taken away.

“They drove off, and he never came back,” she says.

For several days, none of Lhundup’s friends knew where he was. They contacted the office of U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, which helped locate Lhundup and gain his release.

“For us, obviously, it was heartbreaking,” says Fred Kentner, a member of Immanuel Baptist who had befriended Lhundup. “You’re imprisoned in China, and you come to the U.S. and you’re imprisoned here, too.”

It had been a mistake, but it led to more problems. Following the incident, Lhundup’s request for political asylum was put on hold, and he found himself fighting removal from the U.S.

As the months stretched into years, Lhundup moved about the Rochester area, housesitting at times, living with White Lotus members and other Rochesterians at other times.

For Lhundup, it was back to a familiar way of life. “He’s a nomad,” says Frank Howard. “That’s how he was raised.”

Finally, last October, an asylum hearing in New York City was scheduled. He traveled there with Kentner and his wife, JoEllen (also a member of White Lotus), Gretchen and Frank Howard (who is an attorney) and Dick Myers (pastor emeritus of Immanuel Baptist Church) and his wife, Beth, also an Immanuel member. Between them all, they would be able to make a persuasive case.

They never had the chance.

“We got to the 14th floor of the Jacob Javits Center and it was empty,” Fred Kentner recalls.

Lhundup’s hearing had become a victim of the federal budget dispute that had just led to a government shutdown.

The hearing was eventually resheduled for a full two years later: October 2015. According to Frank Howard, Lundhup’s attorney has filed a motion with the Immigration Court requesting Sampa’s asylum/removal hearing be rescheduled as soon as possible for humanitarian reasons (the family separation) and because the government caused the cancellation of the original date.

Sampa Lhundup has created several works for monasteries, including a carving measuring 63 feet long.(Photo: Matt Wittmeyer)

Sampa Lhundup has created several works for monasteries, including a carving measuring 63 feet long.(Photo: Matt Wittmeyer)

Pushing through disappointment

Through it all, Lundhup has continued to carve. Living here has influenced him; he has incorporated new designs and symbols into some of his work, fashioning Buddhist art, art with symbols from other religions, plus non-religious works. His woodcarving tools travel with him, including more than 20 chisels as well as mallets, oil and other essentials.

In his head, he carries knowledge of Buddhism’s Eight Auspicious Symbols — the lotus, representing purity and enlightenment; the endless knot, representing harmony; and others. Lundhup includes these symbols in his Tibetan carvings, interweaving them like the notes of a musical scale that work together to form a symphony.

There’s a deliberate but inspired creativity about his method. He traces patterns on the wood, then takes a chisel in his right hand. Pushing it with the thumb of his left, he cuts into the wood, the heartbeat-steady scrape of the knife occasionally interrupted by the thunk of a mallet as he drives the blade home.

He has carved several objects for the White Lotus Center, some small and some large, but all intricate.

“Sampa has been a great addition to our Buddhist community,” Gretchen Howard says. “In addition to the carving he has done for us, he comes every Sunday and supports the various activities in which we engage.”

Staying connected

Though his methods are centuries old, Lhundup is up to date with technology, showcasing his art on his website, tibetanwoodcarver.com and on YouTube. Similarly, he connects with his family in India via Facebook and Skype.

Late last December, Lhundup posted a video on his daughter’s Facebook page. On it, he sings a New Year’s greeting. She responded, “Oh Happy New Year to you, too Daddy,” using the English she has studied while in exile in India.

A happy new year would, of course, include a reunion in Rochester. Lhundup’s application for asylum remains in limbo.

“My heart breaks for this family,” Gretchen Howard says, “separated simply by a desire for freedom and a chance to improve their life situation.”

Memmott is a retired editor and current columnist for the Democrat and Chronicle.

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