(photo by Gillian Marshall)

The Sacred Art of Sand Mandalas

The Tibetan Monks of Drepung Gomang Monastery

The Mandala, Tibetan sand painting, is an ancient art form of Tibetan Buddhism. The mandala is a Sanskrit word meaning cosmogram or “world in harmony.” Mandalas are drawings in three-dimensional forms of sand.  In Tibetan, this art is called dul-tson-kyil-khor which means “mandala of colored powders.”

Sand painting is an ancient Tibetan art form. The sand mandala is carefully constructed from dyed sand particles to represent the particular esoteric, textual traditions of Buddhism. It is a transient art form, thought to have originated in India and been transferred in the middle ages to Tibet. The sand mandala is constructed as vehicle to generate compassion, realize the impermanence of reality, and a social/cosmic healing of the environment.

In Tibetan Buddhism, a mandala is an imaginary palace that is contemplated during meditation. Each object in the palace has significance, representing some aspect of wisdom or reminding the meditator of some guiding principle. Various scriptural texts dictate the shapes, forms, and colors of the mandala. There are many different mandalas, each with different lessons to teach and blessings to confer. Most mandalas contain a host of deities, symbolic archetypes of the landscape of the mind.

Among the Tibetan arts, painting with colored sand ranks as one of the most unique and exquisite. Millions of grains of colored sand are painstakingly laid into place on a flat platform over a period of several days, forming an intricate diagram of the enlightened mind and the ideal world. The most common substance used in the creation of dul-tson-kyil-khor is colored sand which is ground from stone.  Other popular substances are powdered flowers, herbs or grains.  In ancient times, powdered precious and semi-precious gems were also used.  Thus, lapis lazuli would be used for the blues, rubies for the reds, and so forth.  When finished, to symbolize the impermanence of all that exists, the colored sands are swept up and poured into a nearby river or stream where the waters carry the healing energies throughout the world.

In general, all mandalas have outer, inner, and secret meaning.  On the outer level they represent the world in its divine form; on the inner level, they represent a map by which the ordinary human mind is transformed into the enlightened mind; and on the secret level, they predict 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 affect purification and healing on these three levels.

Every tantric system has its own mandala, and thus each one symbolizes an existential and spiritual approach.  For example, that of Lord Avalokiteshvara symbolizes compassion as a central focus of the spiritual experience; that of Lord Manjushri takes wisdom as the central focus; and that of Vajrapani emphasizes the need for courage and strength in the quest for sacred knowledge.  Medicine Buddha mandalas are created to generate powers of healing.

The creation of a sand mandala begins with an opening ceremony.  Monks consecrate the site and call forth the forces of goodness through chanting mantras accompanied by flutes, drums and cymbals. The construction of the mandala begins with the drawing of the design on the base, or tek-pu. The artists measure out and draw the architectural lines using a straight-edged ruler, compass and ink pen. The mandala is a formal geometric pattern showing the floor plan of a sacred mansion. Once the diagram is drawn, in the following days you see millions of grains of colored sand painstakingly laid into place. The sand, colored with vegetable dyes or opaque tempera, is poured onto the mandala platform with a narrow metal funnel called a "chakpur" which is scraped by another metal rod to cause sufficient vibration for the grains of sand to trickle out of its end.  The two "chakpurs" are said to symbolize the union of wisdom and compassion.  The mandalas are created whenever a need for healing of the environment and living beings is felt.  The monks consider our present age to be one of great need in this respect, and therefore are creating these mandalas where requested throughout their world tours. When finished, to symbolize the impermanence of all that exists, the colored sands are swept up and poured into a nearby river or stream where the waters carry healing energies throughout the world.

For information about and links for prints of the Medicine Buddha (healing) mandala, click here.
For information about and links for prints of the Chenrezig (compassion) mandala, click here.
For information about and links for prints  about the Amitayus (long life) mandala, click here.

Mandala Construction Process

1. Opening Ceremony

The monks begin by consecrating the site of the mandala Sand painting with approximately 30 minutes of chants, music and mantra recitation. This event is visually and acoustically striking, and the media should be invited to attend.

(photo by Gillian Marshall)

Items needed for the Opening Ceremony:
· Mandala Base
· 5’x5’ plywood, no less than 1” thick and painted dark blue (this must be constructed)
· One table for Altar , Standard height, minimum length of 3ft
· 2 bouquets of flowers
· pitcher with water
· 7 pieces of fruit: apples and/or oranges
· 1 lb. of uncooked rice
· 9 pillows and 1 comfortable chair
2. Drawing of the Lines

After the Opening Ceremony the monks start drawing the line design for the mandala. This is very exacting work that takes about three hours to complete.  It would be nice if refreshments such as soft drinks, hot milk tea, or juice was available for the monks throughout the mandala construction.

3. Mandala Construction

The monks will pour millions of grains of sand over a period of 4 to 5 days, using traditional metal funnels, called chak-pur. The finished Mandala is approximately 5 feet in diameter

(photo by Gillian Marshall)

4. Mandala Completion

The monks conclude their creation of the mandala with its consecration.  In some cities, several thousand guests have attended the closing ceremony.  It is very colorful and should be considered a media event.

5. Dismantling the Mandala

During the Closing Ceremony, the monks dismantle the mandala, sweeping up the colored sands to symbolize the impermanence of all that exists.  Half of the sand may be distributed to the audience in small bags as blessings for personal health and healing.

(photo by Gillian Marshall)

Items needed for the Closing Ceremony:
· bowl(s) and spoon(s) to distribute the sand
· small zip lock bags or small envelopes for sand distribution
· 2 bouquets of flowers
· 7 pieces of fruit: apples and/or oranges
6. Dispersal of the sand

(photo by Gillian Marshall)

The monks, along with spectators, travel to a body of water.  The sand is then ceremonially poured into the water in order to spread the healing energies of the mandala throughout the world.

(photo by Gillian Marshall)