Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Tibetan Mandala Sand Painting

If you’ve been binge-watching season three Netflix’s original series “House of Cards” like I have, you may have seen a really cool work of art in one of the episodes of this highly anticipated season. In episode seven, “Chapter 33,” the White House is participating in a cultural exchange with Tibet. Four Tibetan monks are working on a month-long sand painting using colored sand to create a detailed, intricate work of art. Later in the episode, when the monks are finished, they hold a ceremony. They chant and play special instruments, then brush all the sand together and put it in a container. They then take the sand to a river and pour it into the water.
Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) observes the Tibetan monks at work.
This art process is not something the creators of the show made up for our viewing pleasure. Mandala sand painting is a Tibetan Buddhist art form that has been practiced for thousands of years. In Tibetan, this art form is called dul-tson-kyil-khor, which means “mandala of colored powders.” “Mandala” is Sanskrit for “world in harmony.”

Mandalas can have different meanings. They are meant to guide an individual down the path to enlightenment. Each mandala teaches a different lesson and offers a different blessing. When monks meditate upon a mandala, they imagine it as a three-dimensional palace. Each object in the palace represents a guiding principle or aspect of wisdom.

The colored sand used in the creation of these mandalas is usually ground from colored stone. Sometimes, flowers, grains or herbs are used. In ancient times, monks would sometimes use precious gems, such as rubies for red powder.

The first step in the creation of the mandala is an opening ceremony. Monks chant, play music and recite mantras for 30 minutes. This ceremony is usually open to outsiders. For the ceremony the monks need:

  • Mandala base (5 x 5 foot plywood board no less than 1 inch thick and painted dark blue),
  • One table for the altar that is the standard height of about 49 ¾ inches and a minimum length of 3 feet,
  • Two bouquets of flowers,
  • A pitcher with water,
  • Seven pieces of fruit: apples and/or oranges,
  • One pound of uncooked rice, and
  • Nine pillows and one comfortable chair.

Next, the monks draw the outline of the mandala on the base. A teacher chooses the design, and the monks draw the outline from memory. They use a ruler, compass and ink pen, and the process takes about three hours to complete.

The mandala is then ready to be filled in. The monks use metal funnels called chak-pur to lay the millions of grains of sand within the outline. The monks hold the chak-pur in one hand and rub a metal rod over the funnel’s grated surface. This process causes the sand to trickle out of the funnel like water onto the mandala base. During the laying of the sand, the monks also chant to invoke the energies of the divine beings that reside inside the mandala and ask that the deities bestow healing blessings.

Monks at The Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Photo credit: Huffington Post.
Once the mandala is completed, the monks host a closing ceremony that, once again, outsiders are welcome to attend. The sand is swept up to symbolize the impermanence of existence. Half of the sand is placed into an urn and the other half is distributed among the audience as a blessing for personal health and healing. The half in the urn is taken to the nearest body of water and poured in to symbolize the spread of the mandala’s healing energies.

Although it is sad to see such a beautiful work of art destroyed, the symbolism of all parts of the mandala’s construction and deconstruction is harmonious and peaceful. The sand mandala is meant to generate compassion, recognition of the impermanence of existence and environmental healing. In today’s world, these are three things that we could certainly use a reminder of.

Watch the video below from The Crow Collection of Asian Art to see a time-lapse video of the making of a mandala.

1 comment:

jsutton said...

The Tibetan sand painting activity is representative of work without attachment to its fruits. It is a symbol of non-attachment that these monks created an exquisite work of art that takes hundreds of hours of effort only to destroy it when it is finished. So this activity and its outcome contrasts with the strange lives of the President and his First Lady, along with all the other characters for whom outcome is so meaningful, and who experience the suffering that comes from attachment.