Last Updated: March 14th, 2019

Tibetan sand mandalas are an ancient art form of Tibetan Buddhism. Mandala is a Sanskrit word meaning “cosmogram” or “world in harmony.”

In Tibetan, this sacred art is called dul-tson-kyil-khor which means “mandala of coloured powders.” The sand mandala is carefully constructed from dyed sand particles to represent the particular esoteric, textual traditions of Buddhism. It’s a transient art form, thought to have originated in India and transferred in the middle ages to Tibet. The sand mandala is constructed as a vehicle to generate compassion, realize the impermanence of reality, and as a social/cosmic healing of the environment.

Significance of the mandala

In Tibetan Buddhism, a mandala is an imaginary palace that’s contemplated during meditation. Each object in the palace has significance, representing some aspect of wisdom or reminding the meditator of some guiding principle. Various scriptural texts dictate the shapes, forms, and colours of the mandala. There are many different mandalas, each with different lessons to teach and blessings to confer. Most mandalas contain a host of deities, which are symbolic archetypes of the landscape of the mind.

In general, all mandalas have outer, inner and secret meaning. On the outer level they represent the world in its divine form; on the inner level, they represent a map by which the ordinary human mind is transformed into the enlightened mind; and on the secret level, they predict the primordially perfect balance of the subtle energies of the body and the clear light dimension of the mind. The creation of a sand painting is said to affect purification and healing on these three levels.

Every tantric system has its own mandala, and thus each one symbolizes an existential and spiritual approach. For example, that of Lord Avalokiteshvara symbolizes compassion as a central focus of the spiritual experience; that of Lord Manjushri takes wisdom as the central focus; and that of Vajrapani emphasizes the need for courage and strength in the quest for sacred knowledge. Medicine Buddha mandalas are created to generate powers of healing.

How it works

Among the Tibetan arts, painting with coloured sand ranks as one of the most unique and exquisite. Millions of grains of coloured sand are painstakingly laid into place on a flat platform over a period of several days, forming an intricate diagram of the enlightened mind and the ideal world. The most common substance used in the creation of dul-tson-kyil-khor is coloured sand ground from stone. Other popular substances are powdered flowers, herbs or grains. In ancient times, powdered precious and semi-precious gems were also used—lapis lazuli would be used for the blues, rubies for the reds and so forth. When finished, to symbolize the impermanence of all that exists, the coloured sands are swept up and poured into a nearby river or stream where the waters carry the healing energies throughout the world.

The creation of a sand mandala begins with an opening ceremony. Monks consecrate the site and call forth the forces of goodness by chanting mantras along with the accompaniment of flutes, drums and cymbals. The construction of the mandala begins with the drawing of the design on the base, or tek-pu. The artists measure out and draw the architectural lines using a straight-edged ruler, compass and ink pen. The mandala is a formal geometric pattern showing the floor plan of a sacred mansion. Once the diagram is drawn, in the following days you see millions of grains of coloured sand painstakingly laid into place. The sand, coloured with vegetable dyes or opaque tempera, is poured onto the mandala platform with a narrow metal funnel called a “chakpur” which is scraped by another metal rod to cause sufficient vibration for the grains of sand to trickle out of its end. The two chakpurs are said to symbolize the union of wisdom and compassion. The mandalas are created whenever a need for healing of the environment and living beings is felt. The monks consider our present age to be one of great need in this respect and therefore are creating these mandalas where requested throughout their world tours. When finished, to symbolize the impermanence of all that exists, the coloured sands are swept up and poured into a nearby river or stream where the waters carry healing energies throughout the world.

The mandala of compassion

Chenrezig (Sanskrit: Avalokiteshvara) is the Bodhisattva of Compassion. A bodhisattva is an enlightened being who has decided to delay becoming a fully enlightened Buddha and who has vowed to live a compassionate spirit life for the sake of all beings. With a mantra, Om mani padme hum (Hail the jewel in the lotus), he tirelessly attempts to deliver all beings from suffering. He appears in many different forms to assist suffering beings.

Tibetans believe that every person whose heart is moved by love and compassion, who deeply and sincerely act for the benefit of others without concern for fame, profit, social position, or recognition expresses the activity of Chenrezig. Love and compassion are the true signs revealing the presence of Chenrezig.

Compassion is considered by many to be the most important religious practice. For Tibetan Buddhists, compassion means sensitivity to the suffering of others and attempting to relieve them of their suffering. It’s the realization that we (human beings, animals, and the Earth itself) are all interconnected. The Buddha is an example of compassion, for he taught human beings the way to freedom.

The mandala of Avalokiteshvara

Avalokiteshvara, or Chenrezig as he is known in Tibetan, is the Buddhist deity who personifies the ideal of compassion. He can be portrayed in several different forms, two of the most popular being as a white deity with either four arms or 1000 arms; the extra arms symbolize his ability to help many beings simultaneously.

The mandala can be described as being the residence of the respective deities and their retinues. The sand mandala of Avalokiteshvara originated from the tantric teachings of Lord Buddha Shakyamuni. Although depicted on a flat surface, the mandala is actually three-dimensional, being a “divine mansion” at the centre of which resides Avalokiteshvara, surrounded by the deities of his entourage.

Every aspect of the mandala has meaning: nothing is arbitrary or superfluous.

The four outer walls of the mansion are in five transparent layers—white, yellow, red, green and blue, representing faith, effort, memory, meditation and wisdom (these five colours also represent the five dakinis). The four doorways, one in the centre of each of the four walls, represent the Four Immeasurable Thoughts: love, compassion, joy, and equanimity and these are decorated with precious jewels. The lotus flower in the centre of the mandala represents the lotus family, one of the Buddha families that correspond to the five psychophysical components of a human being, which purify specific impure states of mind; the Lotus family purifies passion into discriminating awareness.

The white thousand armed, thousand-eyed Avalokiteshvara is standing in the centre of the lotus flower on a white moon disk. In the four directions are seated his retinue seated on white full-moon disks. The deities arise in unity from the wisdom of emptiness to bless the principle deity Avalokiteshvara. Seated on the eastern red petal is the purified aspect of hatred in the form of a blue deity Akshobhya, on the southern yellow petal is the purified aspect of misery in the form of a yellow deity Rathasambhava. Likewise, the purified part of ignorance and jealousy are represented by the white deity Vaivochana at the western petal, and the green deity Amogasiddhi at the northern petal, respectively. The central deity Avaloketishvara represents freedom from attachment. The four colours in the four directions emanate light rays of the four deity retinues. The lotus itself symbolizes the mind of renunciation. To protect the residence from negative conditions, it’s surrounded by a Vajra fence, which also symbolizes the continuous teaching of the Vajrayana (Tantric Teaching) by lord Avalokiteshvara. In the outermost part, it’s circled with burning flames that radiate with intense light not only for protection but also to burn away or to get rid of delusion and the darkness of ignorance.

The mandala shows a method of bringing peace and harmony in our world through genuine practices of the mind of Great Compassion, the Wisdom of Emptiness, and the meditations of mandala with their respective deities. We can generate these respective qualities and bring about a positive change in the world. Practitioners who meditate on the Tantra of Avalokiteshvara should familiarize themselves with every detail of the mandala and the deities within it, engaging in repeated exercises based upon visualizing the pure beings and pure environment which symbolize one’s own being and environment in purified, sublime form.

Such exercises, carried out within the basic Buddhist framework of developing wisdom and compassion, bring about a profound transformation of the psyche. Just to glimpse the mandala, however, will create a positive impression on the mind-stream of the observer, who for a moment is in touch with the profound potential for perfect enlightenment that exists within the mind of all beings.

At the end of ritual ceremony, the mandala is systematically dismantled and the sand powder of the mandala is thrown into a clean river or sea as a reminder of the impermanence of the world. It also serves to enrich the soil and the mineral resources and to eliminate the untimely death, diseases, famine.

We dedicate the merits generated in the preparation of this mandala together with its rituals to world peace and true happiness of all the sentient beings. May peace prevail on Earth!

by the Tibetan Monks of Drepung Gomang Monastery

Image by Marty-arts from Pixabay