The Building of a Sand Mandala

September 12, 2008 by  
Filed under Religious Mandalas

In 2004, 2005 and 2007 I was able to witness and photograph the building of three different sand mandalas in the sanctuary of my home church by Tibetan Buddhist lamas (monks).  In this article I compile photos and observations made during those three different events.  The three constructed were “Buddha Akshobhya”or the Global Peace Mandala,  the “Avalokiteshvara” or Buddha of Compassion Mandala, and “Manjushri”, the Spiritual Wisdom Mandala.  For extensive views of photography (by myself and others) from these events, go to these galleries on my SmugMug site:  Spiritual Wisdom and UNA Archives.

Opening Ceremony

The first event in the building of a sand mandala always involves consecration  and purification of the space where the mandala will be built.  There is ritual chanting and music, and then upon a large square table the design is carefully drawn from memory.

Though it is a two dimensional design, a sand mandala is actually the representation of a three-dimensional palace that is the home of the deities that will be visually represented.  The deities to be illustrated in the mandala embody the philosophical views of the particular mandala being constructed, and serve as role models for those constructing and viewing the mandala.

Construction

After the design is laid out, the monks begin to lay down what will eventually be millions of grains of brightly colored sand into the pattern.  To carefully distribute the sand across the design, they begin from the center working out. They use a traditional instrument called a chakpur, which they vibrate by rubbing a rod across a bumpy ridge on the top of a long narrow metal funnel.

In ancient Tibet, sand ground from brightly colored stone was often used for making the Mandalas. Today, white stones are ground and dyed with opaque watercolors to produce the bright tones found in the sand paintings.

The finished mandalas were around 5 feet in diameter, and took 2 weeks for 4-5 monks to complete, working 7-8 hours per day.

Learning with Ritual, Music and Dance

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An important part of these experiences was not just witnessing the construction of the mandalas, but interacting with the monks, seeing their colorful dance rituals, and feeling the deep unique resonance of their chanting.  Music, colorful costumes and lively traditional debates were an important way of understanding the life and times of Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

The Mystical Arts of Tibet tours the monks throughout the world to share their sacred spiritual traditions in the hopes of building world peace through communication and understanding.  Tibetan Buddhists believe that in each person’s mind there is a seed of enlightenment that can be discovered by contemplating a mandala. Tibetans believe that even viewing a mandala, with its visual representation of an inner, perfected vision of reality, has profound influences on those who are fortunate enough to view it. Seldom, they rightly reason, do we see such spiritual energy in a fixed and human form.

Dismantling the Mandala

Buddhist philosophy states that everything in the universe is in a constant state of flux – that all things are characterized by impermanence, and that the only permanent feature is impermanence itself.  As Buddha said, “No matter whether perfect beings arise or not, it remains a fact, and a hard necessity of existence, that all creations are transitory.”

A sand mandala is an example of this, being that once it has been built and its accompanying ceremonies are finished, it is systematically destroyed. The sands were swept up and placed in an urn.  To fulfill the function of healing, half was distributed to the audience in little packets at the closing ceremony, while the remainder was carried to a nearby lake, where it was deposited. The idea is that the waters then carry the healing blessing to the ocean, and from there it spreads throughout the world for planetary healing.

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