Of all the traditional Tibetan tantric practices, the art of painting with colored sand is one of the most unique and exquisite. In Tibetan language, this art is called dul-tson-kyil-khor, which literally means “mandala of colored powders.”
Millions of grains of sand are painstakingly laid into place on a flat platform over a period of days or weeks before ultimately being dismantled in order to release and disseminate the deity’s blessings into the world to benefit all sentient beings.
Formed into traditionally prescribed Tibetan iconography that includes geometric shapes and a multitude of historical Buddhist spiritual symbols, the sand-painted mandala is used as a tool for consecrating, or blessing, the earth and its inhabitants, and provides for the practitioner a visual framework for establishing the enlightened mind of the Buddha.
Pronounced mahn-DAH-la, meaning ‘house’ or ‘palace’, the mandala represents a Buddha’s divine place of residence. There are hundreds of mandalas representing each of the different tantric deities, each with its own unique set of details. To the practitioner, the mandala represents the activities and teachings of the particular deity represented in the mandala, and can be described as the residences of the respective deities and their retinues.
Whether made of sand, cloth, or metal, mandalas are used to aid in visualizing these dwellings. Sand mandalas are one of the most magnificent types of mandala construction and are associated with the most profound and elaborate Buddhist ceremonies in Tibet. Every color, dot, and line in the mandala represents an essential part of the deity and Buddhist philosophy. Each component must be placed in exactly the same place every time the mandala is constructed.
Although sand mandalas are made on a flat surface they are, to the devout, a three dimensional palace, representing the mind of the Buddha. The person contemplating the mandala enters into it, as they would a building or an enclosure.
The mandala construction itself is the result of long and disciplined effort, but it is nonetheless a temporary work. When the monks are finished, there is a dissolution ceremony where the deity is released by the dismantling of the mandala. The sand is cast into a body of water to emphasize and highlight the impermanence of all things and the importance of nonattachment. When the sand enters the water, the kindness and compassion of the deity are disseminated into the world to benefit all beings.
Mandalas are immensely complex symbolic structures, with many layers of meaning and beauty. Although very beautiful and aesthetically pleasing, mandalas are meant for religious use, and are not intended as museum works of art. It is only in recent years that the Dalai Lama has permitted mandalas to be made in public, as a means of teaching about Tibetan culture.
The teaching of the mandala is passed through an oral tradition started by Shakyamuni Buddha over 2500 years ago. It has been passed down over the ages and can be traced back through the lineages to the historical Buddha.
In its most basic form, Tibetan Buddhism can be broken down into two schools of study. First, the study of sutras is perfected; these are the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha. The next phase of study is tantra, which was also taught by the Buddha to advanced practitioners. Tantra is the study of meditation on a deity, or Buddha, and is considered to be the swift path to enlightenment. Traditionally, a student of Buddhism is required to study the sutras before being allowed to study tantra. This still holds true for traditional monastic scholars in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.
In 1988, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism allowed the first construction of a mandala in the west to be open to the public. This mandala was the Kalachakra Mandala and was constructed in sand by the Namgyal Monks from Dharamsala India at the Natural History Museum in New York City. His Holiness opened up the viewing of the mandala as a cultural offering, and as a means to preserve Tibetan culture. His Holiness felt that it would be a benefit to the world, as it would enhance the lives of all living beings near the construction site.
A mandala is thought to bring peace and harmony to the area where it is being constructed. Simply viewing a mandala is believed by Buddhists to be enough to change one’s mind stream by creating a strong imprint of the beauty of perfection of the Buddha’s mind, as is represented in the mandala itself. As a result of this imprint, one may be able to find greater compassion, awareness, and a better sense of well-being.
His Holiness also wished to open this practice to the west as there was much confusion and misunderstanding concerning the purpose of the mandala. Since the construction of the first mandala in the west, many mandalas have been created all over the world. Many people are said to feel strong emotions upon viewing a mandala, regardless of the culture or part of the world they are from.
Sponsoring an Exhibition
Acting as cultural ambassadors from the exiled personal monastery of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, the monks of Namgyal Monastery Institute of Buddhist Studies have become especially well known for the creation of sand mandala exhibitions in museums and galleries throughout the world.
In keeping with His Holiness’s mission to preserve Tibetan culture and its rich history of traditional tantric arts and ritual practices, the resident Namgyal monks are available to create sand mandalas at museums, galleries, universities, cultural centers, and other institutions. Organizations interested in sponsoring a sand mandala exhibition should contact Namgyal Monastery.