I very much enjoyed reading this article on Tibetean Buddhist sand mandalas, exhibitions of which are now touring the U.S.
Until relatively recently, if you were not a monk in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the chances of seeing a sand mandala were slim. Today, however, opportunities abound. In July alone, monks from the Atlanta-based Mystical Arts of Tibet will create shimmering, colorful sand mandalas in New York, California, Pennsylvania and Virginia. As I discovered earlier this year at the Mattie Kelly Arts Center of Northwest Florida State College in Niceville, even more entrancing than the end result is the three-to-five-day process: A slow-paced feast of religious ritual, symbolism, performance and temporal art.
It begins with sound: Preternaturally low, vibrating notes energizing the air like the complex tones of a pipe organ. They emanate from nine Tibetan Buddhist monks dressed in dark red and golden saffron, eyes lowered. Punctuated by the wail of horns and the clash of cymbals, their rhythmic chanting dispels harmful spirits and invites the blessing of the Buddha—for it is here that they will build him a palace.
When the senior monk, or vajra master, steps forward, he visualizes the symbolic rendering of that divine abode. The chanting then drops away, the horns, cymbals and drums are stored, and the monks embark on a transfixing exercise in memory, precision and what Buddhists refer to as mindfulness, a state of being present in the moment.
Each manifestation of the Buddha has its own particular design, and they always begin by drawing the axes in the four cardinal directions using chalked string that has been blessed. With large wooden compasses, small metal calipers, and lots of rulers and pencils, they then create an explosion of radiating spokes, overlapping circles, concentric squares and parallel lines. Just when the confusion seems overwhelming, a monk wipes away the excess chalk guides, and an elegant blueprint of the mandala emerges.
Next come slender metal funnels and pots of finely ground marble sand. White, salmon red, blue and black, orange and yellow—symbolizing the elements of water, fire, air and earth, as well as the four directions. Along with pots of green, the colors also represent the five aspects of our lives, Vajra Master Chungstan Rinpoche explains. The aspects are form, sensation, perception, response and consciousness, and "when they are in balance," he adds, "we are healthy."
The best way to appreciate the mandala is to stop in every day and linger. At first you notice the basic technique. The monks scoop up sand with the broad end of a funnel that has a ridged strip running down its length. When they're ready to "paint," they rub the strip with a thin metal rod, producing vibrations that cause a trickle of sand. When four monks are working together, it's like listening to a chorus of crickets.
At the Mattie Kelly Arts Center, a clever curator set up a table in another room where visitors could practice. Brilliant. It makes you appreciate the skill involved—monks typically need five years to master the technique and memorize designs. And the repetitive task makes you realize that some meditation is no more esoteric than bypassing the voices in your head in pursuit of the task at hand.
As the work progresses, note the symbols the monks paint around the central Buddha figure, how the background colors form a harmonious balance and denote cardinal directions. When they draw the palace walls, try in your mind's eye to see the T-shaped outcroppings as tall gates—the mandala may appear flat, but it represents a tall, multistory structure. Watch, too, how the design grows increasingly complex, how different colors interact, and how the layering of sand gives the surface three-dimensionality, like decorative frosting on a cake. And watch the monks: There is much to be learned from their teamwork.
For centuries, only the initiated were allowed to see such mandalas, just as only those with the requisite preparation can receive communion in the Roman Catholic Church. But in 1988, almost three decades after Chinese troops marched into Tibet, the Dalai Lama broke with tradition. He sent four monks to make a sand mandala at the American Museum of Natural History in New York as part of an effort to raise awareness about the culture, religion and plight of Tibet.
The ritual monks perform today is removed though not unmoored from its religious meaning and context. At initiations, the opening ceremony alone can last up to three hours. Here the opening lasts 30 minutes, and instead of being out of sight, the monks work like artists in an open studio: people wander in and out, snapping photos and exchanging comments. "We talk about creating mandalas for different purposes," says Rinpoche who, like all teachers, is traditionally addressed by his honorific alone. "This one is for cultural sharing," he explains, likening it to retreats; some are in isolation and silent, others communal and less strict. Truncated or not, however, this remains a spiritually charged activity. Monks always "follow the steps in the proper way," Rinpoche adds. "We believe that by seeing the mandala people will receive its blessing."
Once completed, the monks chant to invite the Buddha to enter. This is when, Tibetan Buddhists believe, the mandala is most powerful and beneficial. But, says Geshe Yeshi of the Mystical Arts of Tibet, "we don't ask the deity to stay forever." At a monastery, monks meditate upon it for several days, using it to explore the teachings of the enlightened mind. Here, it rarely lives more than an hour. Amid more chants that deconsecrate the mandala, the vajra master scores it, then another monk sweeps the sand into a swirl reminiscent of a galaxy: the Tibetan symbol of primordial energy and unity.
Later, as the master pours what is now just a grayish mix of sand into a nearby river, the mandala ritual yields its final lesson: The perceiving of impermanence, the Buddha taught, "removes and abolishes all conceit of 'I am.'"
Carl Jung was a big fan of the mandala.