What is a Sand Mandala?
Sand mandalas are an ancient, sacred form of Tibetan Buddhist art. The word mandala itself is a Sanskrit word meaning “circle” and at its deeper levels a mandala represents the wholeness and harmony at the heart of the Tibetan Buddhist universe.
Scholars of Namgyal Monastery describe a mandala as “a perfectly harmonious world with resident enlightened beings.” *
A Two Dimensional Blueprint of a World in Balance
It is not clear when you first see a sand mandala that the geometric patterns and colors are in one sense a blueprint for an existing spiritual structure.
One way of thinking of the sand mandala pictured above is as a two-dimensional representation of a sacred three-dimensional structure, a Buddha’s celestial palace, populated with enlightened beings. You can imagine that when you are looking down at a sand mandala, you are getting a bird’s eye view of multi-level palace being viewed from directly overhead.
The three-dimensional Kalachakra mandala housed in the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, here, can help you “see” the celestial home of the Buddhas represented in a Kalachakra sand mandala.
On a more abstract and perhaps deeper level, “every aspect of the mandala — its colors, architectural pattern, deities, and so forth — represents various qualities of the exalted body, speech and mind of a fully enlightened being, a buddha.”*
Tibetan Buddhists use mandalas as a meditation aid:
Mandalas are an intrinsic and universal feature of Tantric deity meditation practices (known as sadhanas). Such meditations are considered extraordinarily powerful methods of overcoming our ‘ordinary’ mistaken perception and distorted world view — the source of our misunderstanding and suffering. By meditating upon oneself as the deities of the mandala, reflecting deeply upon its rich symbolism and engaging in particular internal practices, we can transform our daily perception, lodged in its chaotic, egocentric world-environment, into exalted wisdom and the perfected world of enlightened beings — that is, the blissful world of buddhas. (From Kalachakra for World Peace*)
There are five types of mandala
- painted (such as you would find on some thangka paintings)
- three-dimensional (such as the Kalachakra mandala from the Potala Palace pictured above)
In this post we are focusing only on sand mandalas, and one sand mandala in particular that we’d like to use as an example.
The Drepung Loseling Monks and the Chenrezig Sand Mandala
In August this year, the monks of Drepung Loseling Phukhang Khamtsen created a sand mandala at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum. Over the course of four days, they consecrated the space, painstakingly constructed the mandala, and then swept it up and dispersed much of the sand to people in attendance at a closing blessing ceremony.
We visited the sand mandala creation site on the second and fourth day, and the monks and the Asian Art Museum kindly allowed us to video tape the proceedings for you:
The particular type of sand mandala created here by the monks is devoted to Chenrezig, the Tibetan name for Avalokitesvara, the Buddha of Compassion. Chenrezig is represented at the center of the mandala by a lotus flower.
The Drepung Loseling monks made available a valuable information sheet at the Asian Art Museum event, which we are passing on, almost in its entirety, below, as well as a labeled image of the Chenrezig sand mandala, explaining the various elements. Below, you can also find two different printable sand mandala coloring pages that you can fill in yourself.
An Explanation of the Sand Mandala
Sand painting is one of the oldest artistic traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. [In Tibetan, sand mandala is called] Kultson Kyilkhor, which means “mandala of colored sand powder.” Mandala is a Sanskrit word meaning “cosmogram, ” or “world in harmony.” In Vajrayana Tibetan Buddhism, it is said that wherever a Sand Mandala is created, all sentient beings and the surrounding environment are blessed. … It is said that for children in particular, upon seeing the Sand Mandala, one is left with very positive imprints which will germinate as sprouts of peace as they grow older.
The Purpose of a Sand Mandala
Sand-painted Mandalas are used as tools for consecrating the earth and its inhabitants. According to Tibetan Buddhist belief, in general all Mandalas have outer, inner and secret meanings. On the outer level they represent the world in it s divine form; on the inner level they represent a map by which the ordinary human mind is transformed into an enlightened mind; and on the secret level they depict the primordially perfect balance of the subtle energies of the body and the clear light dimension of the mind. The creation of a sand painting is said to effect purification and healing on all three levels.
The Mandala Construction Process
The monks begin with an Opening Ceremony by consecrating the site of the mandala and sand painting with approximately 30 minutes of chanting, music and mantra recitation. Immediately following, the monks begin to draw the lines for the design of the mandala on a base or table. The artists measure out and draw the architectural lines using a straight-edged ruler, a compass and a white ink pen. This is very exactly work that takes about three hours to complete.
Throughout it’s creation, the monks pour millions of grains of sand from a funnel-shaped metal tool known as the chakpur. This funnel is filled with colored sand and is then rasped in order to release a fine stream of sand. In ancient times, powdered precious and semi-precious gems were used instead of sand. Thus, lapis lazuli would be used for the blue color, and rubies for the red color, and so forth. The artists begin at the center of the mandala and work outward. The finished mandala is approximately four feet in diameter, and usually requires a week or so to complete.
The Mandala Deconstruction Process
During the closing ceremony, the monks dismantle the Mandala, sweeping up the colored sand to symbolize the impermanence of all phenomena. It is meant to be a teaching to show that everything that exists has a beginning, a middle and an end. At this time, when requested, half of the sand is distributed to the audience as a blessing for their personal health and healing. The sand can either be kept in one’s home on the altar, or be dispersed around your yard as a protection for your home and family. The whole region, and in fact the whole earth, is said to be blessed by this process.
- A printable sand mandala for you to color in yourself.
- A second printable mandala coloring page that you can fill in yourself.
For a different view of the monks’ efforts, see the timelapse video from the Asian Art Museum’s YouTube Channel:
*From p. 96 of an article titled “The Kalachakra Mandala” in the Kalachakra for World Peace book handed out at the 2011 Kalachakra for World Peace offered by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Washington DC in July 2011. The book, published in 2011, was created by the Capital Area Tibetan Association and edited by Robert Thurman. The article is listed as written by “Namgyal Monastery” and edited by Laura Harrington.
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By Lobsang Wangdu