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The word mandala literally means “circle” in the ancient Sanskrit language. A circle (or sometimes a square) is indeed an essential element of this spiritual symbol in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. It encloses a colorful and often complex pattern that may represent the enlightened state of Nirvana, the abode of deities, or even the entire universe.
Tibetan Buddhist monks originally made mandalas out of multicolored pulverized gemstones. The monks later decided that dyed sand was a more practical material than jewels. The instability and transience of this medium is an essential feature of the sand mandala. After spending a week meticulously pouring out millions of colored grains into a complex and highly symbolic design, the monastic artists ritually destroy their finished work. The Sisyphean conclusion carries as much spiritual significance as the painstaking process of creating the mandala. It embodies the essential Buddhist belief in the evanescence of striving, possessions, and life itself.
The sand mandala has more recently become a symbol of the endangered status of Tibetan Buddhism in its native land, after the People’s Republic of China “incorporated” Tibet in 1950. Imposing their authoritarian regime of intolerant homogenized conformity, Chinese officials systematically suppressed Tibetan culture and destroyed the monasteries that were the Buddhist equivalent of universities. The Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual and political leader, fled to India in 1959 to establish a government in exile. Other spiritual leaders and monks joined the Dalai Lama, re-establishing some of the monasteries.
The creation of sand mandalas was traditionally confined to monasteries. But in 1988, the Dalai Lama allowed the first public mandala construction in the West, at the Natural History Museum in New York. Since then, monasteries have sent teams of monks on tours to construct mandalas around the United States. One objective of the tours is to raise awareness of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism, and to solicit donations for the monasteries in India. But the main purpose is religious. Tibetan Buddhists believe that a mandala sanctifies the place where it’s located, and bestows the blessings of peace, harmony, and compassion on all who view it.
This mandala was created in December 2012 at Pacific Unitarian Church in Rancho Palos Verdes, California. It was the final stop of the Drepung Loseling Phukhang Monastery’s 2012 mandala tour of the United States.
Mandala-making begins with a consecration ceremony, in which the six monks who will create the mandala play traditional instruments and sing droning overtone chants. Then they begin the actual work by drawing the mandala’s skeleton, a basic geometric outline (including the main circle), in grease pencil on a wooden table.
The monks work individually or in groups of two or three, in well-practiced choreography, fleshing out the skeleton from the the inside out with sand. Their main tool is a long conical metal funnel called a chakpur. The outside of the chakpur has ridges, which produce a distinctive rasping sound when scraped with a metal rod.
A monk pours the colored sand into the wide end of the chakpur, positions the narrow end over where he’s working on the mandala, and then scrapes the ridges. The rasping vibrations release the sand; the monk precisely controls the flow by varying the speed and intensity of the scraping. The monks use other metal tools to sculpt the sand, and to incise patterns that give the mandala extra texture.
While watching (and listening to) the monks at work, I theorized that the rasping sound of the chakpurs has its own spiritual significance as it resounds through the space where the mandala is being built. I tried to ask the monks about that, but they didn’t speak enough English to provide an answer.
When the mandala is finished, the monks conduct a closing ceremony. It includes more of the traditional music, chanting, and multiphonic overtone singing heard in the opening ceremony. As the completed mandala is considered a two-dimensional symbolic representation of a deity’s multi-dimensional cosmic abode, the monks offer a special chant that invites the deity to take up symbolic residence.
But the deity’s tenancy has to be a brief one. For immediately after that invocation, a monk takes one of the handbells that were rung to accompany the chanting, and uses the end of its handle to deface each quadrant of the mandala. Then the monks all take brushes and sweep up the mandala, swirling and thoroughly mixing the sand.
Although the former mandala is now an amorphous heap of grayish powder, the sand retains spiritual power. The monks distribute half of it in small envelopes to everyone who was present at the ceremony. Sprinkling the sand around the outside of a house is supposed to have a protective effect. The monks carry other half of the sand to the nearest river, into which they disperse it. Tibetan Buddhists believe the river carries the mandala’s blessing to the ocean, where it can bring peace and healing to the entire planet.