Throughout our lives we create for ourselves the illusion of permanency. We build pyramids, chisel faces on the side of a mountain, and make vows of eternal love. The feeling of constancy is reassuring and before we realize, we have placed more value on things with longevity. We forget to appreciate the beauty of a moment, the power of experience.

One beautiful, ancient artform helps to remind us to experience the moment and let go of trying to record it for the future. The art of Tibetan Sand Mandalas reminds us of the ultimate impermanence of our existence. It reminds us to appreciate our actions in the here and now.

Tibetan sand painting was introduced in the US in 1988 by the Venerable Losang, Samten, a renowned scholar and Buddhist monk. His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, instructed Samten to demonstrate this meditative art to the west.

Creating Tibetan Sand Mandalas is an ancient and sacred practice intended to enhance spirituality and benefit all who see it, as well as the environment as a whole. The word mandala means “circle” in Sanskrit. The circle of the mandala contains designs drawn from ancient teachings of the Buddha. Each color and design used has significant meaning and no grain of sand is arbitrary. Many years of training are necessary to design the symbols and images. The monks then have to learn to create them upside down, from the inside out. The complexity of creating this art is enormously challenging, yet to people watching it can seem like it simply flows effortlessly from the monks. As the Glencairn Museum describes the process, “This fragile, multi-dimensional, impermanent painting in sand is layered with outer, inner and secret teachings cultivated to benefit all sentient beings.”

The monks create the patterns by pouring sand from long narrow metal funnels called chakpu. These traditional tools are cone shaped, between 1-1.5 feet long, and have ridges along the sides. The monk moves one chakpu against the other to let the sand flow out of the fine point at the end. The movement, or rubbing, creates a meditative sound. Depending on the size of the mandala, a team of monks can take many weeks to create this piece of meditative art.

When the mandala is completed, a Dismantling Ceremony is held. The sand is brushed into the center of the mandala. It is then collected and ritually poured into a flowing body of water to complete the blessing of the artwork.

There are hundreds of mandalas that have been created. Rather than share some pictures, I thought it would be best to show two videos of the amazing, moving process.

In the first video, you can see the monks intricately laying the sand layers and patterns. There is a wonderful narration to explain each part of the ritual. In the end you can see the monk brushing the sand back to the center of the mandala in the dismantling ceremony.

This second video is a time lapse of a sand mandala created by Losang Samten in December 2009. It is impressive to see the construction take place.

I hope you enjoyed learning about Tibetan sand mandalas as much as I have. 


Marla Bender


ARTY-FACTS: The Ancient Art of Tibetan Sand Mandalas

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