What is a Sand Mandala?
A sand mandala is a two-dimensional representation of an enlightened being’s place of residence and everything that is contained within it. When the Buddha taught the tantras (an advanced meditation practice), he took the form of the enlightened being whose Tantra he was teaching and emanated the complete mandala of that enlightened being. The mandala is an expression of the state of complete enlightenment and is used as an aid to meditation.
Just seeing a mandala creates a great store of positive energy and makes one’s mind peaceful and clear. Understanding it fully means understanding the whole path to enlightenment. Each part of the mandala is rich in symbolism and reminds the meditator of the insights, states of mind and feelings he or she is trying to accomplish.
Chenrezig (the Buddha of Compassion) embodies enlightened compassion. If each of us could become more compassionate, there would be greater harmony and less conflict in our world. The kind of compassion embodied by Chenrezig is unbiased and wishes to free all living beings, without exception, from the suffering they experience. To develop compassion two factors are essential. First we must fully acknowledge our own suffering because only then will we understand that all other ordinary living beings are suffering too, and then we must have the ability to see all living beings as near, dear and lovable, compassion can then arise quite spontaneously.
Many people who have seen and heard His Holiness the Dalai Lama speak have been moved by the universality and compassionate nature of his words. Tibetan people consider His Holiness the Dalai Lama as an emanation of Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion.
The exact proportions and all the details are laid down in ancient Buddhist texts on the creation of mandalas. The monks carefully follow the canonical iconography because every part of the mandalas symbolises different aspects of the teachings and the realisations of the enlightened being whose mandala it is.
Only monks who show a special interest and aptitude are chosen by senior monks with expertise in construction sand mandalas, and are taught to carry on the tradition. Since each mandala is extremely complex, monks specialise in the construction of only one or two different kinds. Each chosen monk carries out two years of intensive training where they construct the mandala again an again until they know the whole design by heart. When making a mandala the design is initially set down in chalk on the base before the sand is applied. If a mistake is discovered, the monk will cover the wide end of the chakpu (funnel) with a piece of cloth and suck the offending sand up into it. That part is then redrawn.
Significance of the Colours
Just as the exact portions and detail are laid out in the design so are the colours. Each symbol has its exact place and colour. The colours blue, white, yellow,red, green, black, brown, orange, light blue, light yellow, light red and light green are used. In the practice of tantra, white, yellow, red and blue-black are associated correspondingly with peaceful and then increasingly more powerful and fierce activity. Such activity is not used for personal purposes but exclusively in order to help other living beings.
Tools and Materials
The metal funnel used is called a chakpu. When this ridged funnel is rubbed with a piece of horn, the coloured sand inside trickles out in an even flow. A wooden scraper, or shinga, is used to straighten the edges and tidy up stray grains of sand. The fact that both the funnel and the horn are needed in the process reminds us that nothing has independent existence but that everything arises in dependence on a multitude of factors.
The sand used in the mandala is made of crushed limestone dyed with pigments. In Tibet natural pigments were used in this process but the pigments used now are purchased from India. The monks themselves collected the stones and crushed them to form sand, which is then sifted with the use of screens in order to obtain three grades: fine, medium and coarse. The monks carefully wash and dry the sand before colouring it.
It is essential for the monks to remain constantly mindful and attentive throughout the whole process of construction. As they work, they try to arouse feelings of love, compassion and altruism and as they create the different parts of the mandala they contemplate their symbolism. Their wish is to give happiness to those who see it: the kind of happiness which creates positive energy.
Often people ask how the monks manage to sit so still for so long. Years of practice! Day-to-day activities in the monastery involve long periods of sitting while studying, chanting and meditating. They often begin this at a very early age. Because they are fully absorbed in what they are doing, they are able to maintain their physical posture for a long time. It is, however, good for them to take a break periodically, when a massage is often greatly appreciated!
Dissolving of the Mandala
A core teaching of Buddhism is that all things that are produced, namely whatever comes into existence through causes and conditions, are impermanent. The dissolution of the beautiful and fragile mandala, which is the result of many hours of careful work, is meant to awaken in the mind the understanding of impermanence and non-attachment. After the mandala has been completed and its purpose fulfilled, the monks send back to their abodes the deities who had been invited to enter it. The monks run their vajras through the mandala and ‘destroy’ it. Many westerners find the destruction of the mandala almost shocking, a direct contradiction to the western ideal of having a material result at the end of a process.
The rituals accompanying the dissolution of the mandala include a washing ceremony to cleanse the living beings and their environment. Traditionally, the sand used for creating the mandala is poured into a river or the sea and offered to the nagas ( water spirits), non-human beings who inhabit water and who are said to possess fabulous wealth. Polluting earth or water angers these creatures, who may then cause skin diseases and other illnesses, whereas this kind of pure offering pleases them. The offering is made with the prayer that the place where the mandala was created and it’s surroundings, as well as all beings who live there may enjoy peace, prosperity and good health.
See more photos of the Medicine Mandala created by our monks Geshe Jamyang Sherab and Karma Gyasey, Whakatane 2014, in Our Gallery.