The sacred art of sand painting comes from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition (Tib: dul-tson-kyil-khor – mandala of coloured powders; 'mandala' means circle in Sanskrit). Tibetan Buddhism (7th century CE) is based on Indian Buddhism (5th century CE), and its main goals are to reach individual enlightenment, the liberation of all beings, and the development of unconditional compassion and insight wisdom.
Mandalas, which are cosmic maps charting the succession of initiations from the historical Buddha 2600 years ago to present day, are a crucial aspect of most Buddhist traditions. They are used to guide practitioners to enlightenment and are usually painted or woven on scrolls and huge wall-hangings and placed in the gompas (meditational halls) of temples. Occasionally, they are constructed in three dimensions such as the magnificent Kalachakra Mandala at the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet.
As new teachers, or acharyas, are initiated, lineage mandalas are updated so that all those who have succeeded to the teachings are indicated there. Each mandala represents the entire universe with Mount Meru, a sacred mountain with five peaks manifesting physically, metaphysically, and spiritually in Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain cosmologies, in the centre. There are three realms inside the mandala: Arupyadhatu – the formless realm, Rupudhatu – the realm of form, and Kamadhatu – the desire realm.
In the Tibetan tradition, however, they are usually created from coloured sand laid on to a geometrical blueprint and constitute a ritual in their own right. In addition, they are a sacred object of meditation in the memories of viewers. Similarly, the deities adopted by each lineage reside inside the mandala, the principal deity in the centre. The sand mandala is a two-dimensional representation of three dimensions and could be said to resemble an intricate palace where the deities reside.
Each sand mandala is ritualistically dismantled once it has been completed and all accompanying ceremonies and viewings come to a close. This process and its result symbolise the Buddhist doctrinal belief in the transitory nature of material life, in other words, impermanence. Buddhists aspire to be liberated from all attachments to objects and beings on the material plane or in the visible world. According to this tradition, the world we can perceive with our eyes is but a dream and reality is to be found inside and only accessed by means of meditation.
The first references to mandalas made of sand in Tibet come from The Blue Annals, an ancient history of Tibetan Buddhism written by Go Lotsawa Zhonnu Pel c. 14th century CE called The Treasure of Lives: A Biographical encyclopaedia of Tibet, Inner Asia and the Himalaya Region. He started to write this seminal work by dictating it to his monks at the age of 84. The mandala was originally metaphysical or spiritual rather than tangible. It was a way of accessing or unlocking the power of the universe during meditation, and there are references to Buddhist teachers transforming themselves into mantras and then dispersing into the universe.
The sand mandala is an intricate focus of meditation which monks study in depth, sometimes for as long as three years. It is designed to guide those who aspire to enlightenment by purifying and healing their minds, transforming them from an ordinary mind into an enlightened mind. When completed and dispersed, mixed with water and given back to the Earth, the blessings and beauty of the mandala can be shared with all beings. In this way, it is truly a metaphor for human life in that each human being grows from a dependent child into a complex system of structures, memories, experiences, and relationships. But at death, this disintegrates and is returned to the earth. In other words, nothing and no one ever truly dies but just changes, growing at the same pace as the universe.
The mandala is deeply rooted in the mind of its creator or creators and is often made at the request of a particular teacher or guru. The deities which reside inside its palace serve as role models or Bodhisattvas for practitioners.
Originally, granules of crushed coloured rock and precious gems were used to create mandalas, but today white rock dyed with coloured inks is preferred. The grains form a dense kind of sand which is needed to limit interference from sneezing or sudden breezes. The colours used are white (crushed gypsum), yellow ochre, red sandstone, blue made from a mixture of gypsum and charcoal, red and black making brown, red and white making pink, etc. Also, corn meal, flower pollen, and powdered roots and bark are used depending on their availability.
The monks wear masks to preserve their work from their breath. Small tubes and funnels called chak-pur are gently tapped with metal rods to create vibrations which lay down the sand into the blueprint in a controlled way. It is said that a skilled mandala maker can enable the sand to flow like liquid. Also, large pairs of compasses are used to draw circles accurately, but there is no engraving of any kind as the sand is laid on a flat surface.
First, the site where the mandala is to be made is consecrated with sacred chants, incense burning and Tibetan music played on Buddhist instruments. The leader of the team of as many as 20 monks will use white chalk or pencils to mark out the detailed drawing or blueprint of the lineages from memory, leaving an area around it which represents the charnel grounds or sacred area where traditionally corpses are left to decompose naturally. Sand mandalas can be as big as 4 m². It is important to note that Tibetan is a form of Esoteric Buddhism in that teachings are handed down from master to pupil and preserved orally. They are rarely written down, meaning that the working memories of most Tibetan monks are excellent.
One monk is assigned to each of the four gateways aligned with the compass points, and he and his team will work specifically on that quadrant until completion. Assistants or novices fill in the forms while the senior monks attend to the detail. Adding the coloured sand always starts from the centre where the principal teacher or guru resides.
When the mandala is complete, it is once more consecrated with an elaborate ceremony, and the final stage is the sweeping away of the grains in towards the middle which reverses the original process. Deities are removed scrupulously in a particular order, and the sand is collected in a jar, wrapped in silk and taken to a body of water to be released. According to the scriptures, this constitutes a healing, transmitting positive energies back into the environment and sharing the blessings from the beautiful ephemeral form with the universe.
The Kalachakra Mandala mentioned above, a three-dimensional ornate golden palace, embraces 722 different deities in a complex two-dimensional representation. According to scholars, it is now more or less certain that the ornate structures of Borabodour in eastern Java and Angkor Wat in Cambodia are three-dimensional mandalas. Their carvings and devotional intensity are a living meditation for those who visit to pay homage. However, due to the Esoteric nature of Mahayana Buddhism, this can never be entirely confirmed. Both of these structures are mystical and not intended to be analysed or labelled by the intellectual mind.
SAND PAINTING TODAY
It is thought that there are only 30 people in the world today who are qualified to teach the techniques and secrets of Tibetan sand painting. Losang Samten, an American Tibetan scholar and sand painting artist is one of them. The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism and the Tibetan nation, instructed his monks to make a sand mandala following the Sept 11 events at the New York Trade Centre as a protection from future disasters and also to heal the environment and the human life so devastated by it.