By Linda Smith
The impermanence of life is a subject that has been pondered throughout the ages. All good things on this world will end. Nowhere is this portrayed more tragically yet beautifully than in the creation of sand mandalas.
Mandala sand painting is a tradition common among Tibetan monks. The word mandala means “world in harmony,” and the sand mandalas represent imaginary palaces that are thought of during meditation. Each item in the mandala has a great significance, and there are commonly drawn mandalas that teach different lessons spearheaded by different deities. For example, the Amitayus Mandala depicts Amitayus, the Buddha of Boundless Life. According to an article on himalayanart.org, this mandala is intended to highlight the accomplishment of complete enlightenment. The visualized form of Amitayus embodies the metaphors of long life, life extension and deathlessness, the last of which signifies enlightenment in Tibetan Buddhism.
Mandalas also have three meanings: outer, inner and secret. According to an article on gomang.org, the outer level represents the divine form of the world, the inner represents “a map by which the ordinary human mind is transformed into the enlightened mind” and the secret “predict[s] the primordially perfect balance of the subtle energies of the body and the clear light dimension of the mind.” Crafting a sand mandala purifies and heals on those three levels.
The process of creating a mandala is long. First, a base is consecrated, which includes about 30 minutes of chants, music and mantra recitation. Next, the outline of the mandala is drawn, which takes about three hours. Then, over the course of anywhere from three days to two weeks, the monks pour millions of grains of dyed sand into the form of the mandala. This is done with chak-pur, which are metal funnels rubbed together in such a way that the colorful sand is able to slowly and delicately trickle out onto the base and into the appropriate spot. Then, the mandala is complete, and another consecration takes place in a closing ceremony.
Next comes one of the most poignant scenes a person can witness: the immediate dismantling of the mandala. One of the monks sweeps the mandala away in significant order, showing the transient nature of life and its material goods. Then, if requested, half of the sand is collected and distributed to those at the closing ceremony to represent wishes for personal health and healing. Whatever sand is not distributed is dispersed into a flowing body of water so that the whole world may enjoy the blessings of the mandala.
Just like that, the ceremony is over. Painstaking hours of detailed work go into an elaborate piece that is quickly dismantled. And yet, the most important thing to remember is that everything the mandala represents is given to the whole world in the end. There can be no better artistic expression than that.
There are a few episodes in season three of the Netflix original series “House of Cards” in which visiting monks go through the mandala process. It was beautiful testament to the power of the ceremony that it had a profound effect on several characters in the show. YouTube videos are another great way to see the creation process, as many videos show the mandala assembly process sped up. The websites I have referenced provide in-depth analyses and information on the mandala process. However, if virtually understanding the process is not completely satisfying, the Crow Collection of Asian Art will be hosting monks from the Drepung Loseling monastery from April 25 to May 3, who will spend the week constructing a mandala sand painting. You can also become a part of a mandala creation from April 28 to May 1 at the Crow, as some of the monks will teach visitors how to create a sand painting. Several other sacred and cultural events will take place during their stay. A schedule, ticket and registration information, and more details can all be found at crowcollection.org.