Tibetan Buddhist Sand-painting of Mandalas
--Cosmology in Sand Grains
A Buddhist symbol known as the mandala has led countless believers to worship. One of the most magnificent and delicate of all mandalas is the Tibetan Buddhist mandala, comprised of brightly-colored sand. This author was fortunate enough to personally experience the making of the Kālacakra Vajra Mandala in Qinghai Province’s Rebgong region. The author not only witnessed the mandala process from creation to destruction, but also the intense devotion of the more than 200,000 faithful worshippers in attendance.
In season three, episode seven of the American television series House of Cards, lamas are invited to the White House to showcase their creation of a sand-painted mandala. With the show running through the sand painting process from beginning to end, many viewers were amazed at what they saw, even if it was through a TV screen.
Amid sounds akin to the chirping of insects, several crimson-clad stand rapt, holding their breath, as they slowly layer grains of brightly-colored sand out onto a pattern from special metal funnels, called “chak-pur” in Tibetan. These streams of fine, colored sand come together bit by bit to form a magnificent pattern—this is what mandala sand painting, known as “dul-tson-kyil- kho” in the Tibetan language (meaning “colored powder mandala”), looks like. The scene comes from the remote snowy plateaus of the Qinghai-tibet region.
Mandalas are known as “dkyil-vkhor” in the Tibetan language, roughly meaning “wheel of rites”. In ancient India, mandalas were variously used to indicate national territory and as altars made in tribute to the deities. In Tibetan Buddhism, mandalas are incorporated into rites surrounding Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and monks. In Tantric (Esoteric) Buddhism’s dharma, demarcating lines or earthen altars adorned with Buddha statues and instruments of prayer are meant to ward off heretical “evil spirits”. These demarcating lines and dharmic altars, are another form of mandala.
Based on the original Buddhist cosmology, Tibet Buddhism enriched the content of the “world” in its cosmology through the localization of the religion. It retained the worship for the divinities of mountains, rivers, lakes and the earth, and it added combinations and layers into the previous Buddhist universe. Illustration/ Xiao Qiu
According to Tibetan creation myths, the cosmology of Tibet is: the universe begins with an egg-shaped chaotic state, then a mythical giant bird and a turtle tear it apart, thus creating heaven and the earth, as well as day and night. Illustration/ Xiao Qiu
As Dekyi Drolma, researcher of the Religion Research Institute of China Tibetology Research Center, told me, “It’s believed that mandalas had already existed in ancient India before the rise of Buddhism—they embodied a cosmology. Later, when Buddhism spread to Tibet, mandalas became a religious ritual of Tibetan Buddhism. They are the perfect linking of the spiritual with the physical world. Mandalas can be divided into three categories according to their method of creation: natural mandalas, two-dimensional drawn mandalas, and three-dimensional constructed mandalas. Sand mandalas are included in the two-dimensional group (which also includes others, such as Thangka mandalas and mandala murals). Natural mandalas usually refer to sacred places such as Mount Gang Rinpoche (Mount Kailash, Tibet). Temples and ancient cities are often considered three- dimensional, constructed mandalas.”
At the end of that House of Cards episode, once the beautiful mandala sand-painting is finished, it is immediately swept up, like rubbish, and taken away—the innumerable grains of sand to be poured into a river. The exquisite sand mandala, which took a tremendous amount of time and effort to create, vanishes in the blink of an eye. Of course, many are lead to ask: why do the monks wish to destroy this mandala, which they created with the utmost care? An artistic masterpiece, heartlessly swept clean and cast into a river. What does this signify?
Only after gaining a deep understanding of mandalas in the Qinghai-tibetan plateau did I receive an answer to this question. Of all these mandalas, the most exquisite that I saw was at a large Abhiseka ritual gathering in the autumn of 2014. (Abhiseka is a Sanskrit term, referring to the ceremony surrounding the enthronement of kings in ancient India. Tantric Buddhism appropriated this ceremony; essentially, when disciples converted to the religion or a preceptor (Buddhist teacher) inherits his position, the master must first sprinkle water or cream atop their heads.)
The aforementioned mandala was executed at the Upper Wutun Temple, in Tongren County, Huangnan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Qinghai Province. Tongren County is located in the Rongwo River valley (the Rongwo River is a tributary of the Yellow River), known in ancient times as Rebgong (meaning “golden valley” in Tibetan). Tongren is known as the center of Rebgong culture; the majority of villagers and monks here are engaged in creating art. The important event hosted by the Upper Wutun Temple included one of the most sacred ceremonies in Tibetan Buddhism—the sand painting of mandala.
In Tibetan Buddhism, many types of religious gathering are inseparable from mandalas. Normally these are painted Thangka mandalas, however. Only rarely, at major religious gatherings, are sand mandalas made. The making of a sand mandala is an extraordinarily arduous and sacred undertaking—the difficulty involved is beyond imagination. Here, finishing a mandala prior to a religious gathering requires eight lama masters working long into the night for seven straight days.
I was Fortunate Enough to Capture the Sand Mandala Process on Film
Of Tibetan Buddhism’s many types of mandala, Kālacakra Vajra Mandala is the most complex and delicate. The execution of a Kālacakra Vajra sand- painting mandala is the Abhiseka Ritual’s “pièce de résistance”. Outsiders are almost never allowed to take part in the Kālacakra Vajra Abhiseka Ritual; luckily, I was ultimately granted permission by the Upper Wutun Temple’s abbot, Master Gedhun Dargye.
Prior to beginning the mandala, the residents and monks of the Upper Wutun Village ceremoniously welcome the 8th Tulku (living Buddha) Shartsang Rinpoche of the Rongwo Monastery to their village, to lead the ceremony. The host temple Rongwo Monastery, as the largest monastery in Huangnan Tibetautonomousprefecture (located in southeastern Qinghai Province), enjoys considerable influence in the region. The Tulku Shartsang Rinpoche of this monastery were extremely influential leaders in the Rebgong region during the Yuan and Ming dynasties.
The Lama’s precession includes the dean of the Rongwo Monastery’s Buddhist academy, Guru Gedhun Cichen, and his twelve student disciples. The tall and imposing Guru Gedhun Cichen—addressed as vajra guru—will directly supervise execution of the mandala. At this ceremony, with guidance from the Tulku Shartsang Rinpoche and Guru Cichen, eight of the twelve disciples will work to create the mandala, while the remaining four conduct chants.
Before the ceremony begins, I follow several lamas down the lower reached of the Rongwo River where, among the pebbles lining its bank, they uncover a special glistening, spotlessly-white ore. The ore will be used to produce the basic element of the mandala—its colorful sand. The ore is first ground and milled into a fine powder, then combined with precious metals and gems (including gold, cornelian turquoise, and coral), as well as colored ores, in order to dye. The brilliant, multi-colored sand is ready for the mandala.
The mandala will be displayed atop a platform of approximately two square meters, in the center of an exquisitely carved red wooden pavilion to the side of the Upper Wutun Temple’s great scripture hall. Finally, on September 28th— after two straight days of continuous sutric chanting— the flaps on the red pavilion’s four sides are opened, and work on the mandala formally commences.
Before the sand painting begins, the lamas first draw a geometric pattern of vertical and diagonal lines and circles on the platform, to act as the basis of the sand composition. An outline is drawn, starting from the center and gradually working its way towards the edges. The finely-ground sand has already been packed into special conical receptacles; its flow is regulated by beating the receptacle with variably hard or soft force, causing the granules to pour out onto the template in thin rivulets.
I watched everything with reverent attention, not wanting to miss a single detail. The granules piled up, eventually creating a three-dimensional form. Myriad delicate patterns are “painted” atop the geometric shapes. All of this must be undertaken with extreme care—one small mistake could mean all the previous effort must be discarded. Even the men’s’ breathing can influence the granules’ stability. The masters thus wear surgical masks as they work.
Prior to the formal start of the sand painting, I had a daring idea: I could suspend a camera from the pavilion, looking directly down upon the making of the mandala from above, to capture every step of the process using time-lapse photography. Yet, I knew this idea would present terrible risks. Any mishap would destroy the mandala—dashing the hopes of the many worshippers in attendance—and it would be entirely my fault. After considering the idea for a long time, I devised a much safer option: I could install a beam to the top of the pavilion, in the center of which I would affix a tiny high-definition camera (little larger than a matchbox) meant for aerial photography. Once it was installed, the camera captured one photo per minute. In the end, I had thousands of images from a perfect angle, capturing the creation of the
sand-painted mandala, from beginning to end. I combined these photos sequentially into an “animated short”.
Day by day, under the masters’ Kalachakra Tantra (meaning “wheel of time”) chants, the mandala sand- painting gradually expanded. In the masters’ conception, countless Buddhas (according to the teachings of the Kalachakra Tantra, the Kālacakra Vajra Mandala has a total of 722 Buddhas) were being invited into the mandala to take their corresponding places, such that a grand and solemn world was taking shape before my eyes.
Creators of the Kālacakra Vajra Mandala: the “Best of the Best”
Taking part in the creation of a Kālacakra Vajra Mandala sand- painting certainly qualifies as the “Best of the Best”. Monks involved in the creation of these mandalas must attain two fundamental qualifications: first, they must be accepted into the Abhiseka Ritual as high-level lamas; second, they must pass through at least three years of strict specialized training--including an intensive study of all symbols drawn in the mandala and all related Buddhist scriptures. Although the Upper Wutun Village is filled with Rebgong art masters, not just any of them can participate in the creation of a Kālacakra Vajra Mandala-- only the high-level lamas of the Rongwo Monastery have this honor.
The bespectacled Tulku Shartsang Rinpoche is the leader of the entire ceremony, and he presides over the Kālacakra Vajra Mandala’s “groundbreaking” ritual, casting the first grains of sand. Wherever the tulku makes an appearance, followers immediately stand tall and pay their respects, and the air seems to fill with a solemn silence. Guru Cichen is directly responsible for the execution of the mandala itself, occasionally joining in on its creation. Chant Master Jamyang leads the sutra chants; the sound of his voice is magnetic, and has the sound of a mysterious and enchanting musical
instrument. Master Jamyang dreams of making a pilgrimage to the grand Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, with kowtow at every step, and paying his respects to the 12-year-old-likeshakyamunistatue there. He also wishes to make a pilgrimage to the sacred Mount Gang Rinpoche in Ngari.
After several days of observation, I was deeply impressed and moved by the lamas’ meditation and skillful drawing technique. They sat cross-legged on the platform for hours, leaning over the mandala, and never once did I see a single lama betray an expression of discomfort. I didn’t even see any of them stretch upon leaving the platform when the creation finished a section.
The lamas also never made use of diagrams of reference materials of any kind in drawing the mandala--the entire process was simply completed as described in the Kalachakra Tantra. They barely drew even a rough outline before proceeding, and they never communicated among one another. They simply undertook the arduous task in silent cooperation.
The “walls” of the mandala pattern were colorful, but each wall was not completed using monochromatic sand. Rather, many different colored sand were layered together to build up the walls. The inherent complexity in using so many different colored sand grains to create these precarious sand structures was obvious.
The drawing process had yet another difficulty: the sand to create the many images of the mandala--such as animals, plants, Buddhist implements and religious iconography-- had to be “inverted” into place. The lamas saw from differing perspectives (around the edges of the platform), all drawing towards the center of the mandala. Just imagine attempting to draw a Chinese character reversedly, dropping sand into place--it would be impossible without extreme skill and effort.
I was most surprised by the almost complete lack of any errors or mishaps in drawing the mandala. In the event of even the slightest error, the lamas would place the end of a small cloth behind the metal funnels, and inhale the offending grains of sand away.
200,000 Devoted Followers Flock to Pay Homage to the Sand Mandala
A completed Kālacakra Vajra Mandala finally appeared before the spectators late on the night of October 5th, 2014. As work on this extremely symbolic “project” came to a close, the curtain was finally raised on the Abhiseka Ritual after a whole week of hard working.
Chanting believers from the neighboring Tibetan regions began to pour in, and every household in the now-crowded little Upper Wutun Village was filled to capacity, hosting guests. So long as a home had any space, strangers were happily invited in to stay. Most of the herds of visitors pitched tents outside of the village; in the space of one evening, a sea of tents sprang up as far as the eye can see. Master Dargye indicates that some 200,000 worshippers attended the ceremony. These 200,000 faithful haled from places including Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu, and Inner Mongolia; they camped under the stars, orderly in spite of their massive numbers.
The kitchens of the Upper Wutun Temple cranked out cauldron after cauldron of “eight treasure rice”, but were still able to feed only a portion of the visiting worshippers. Most of the attendees made due by cooking their own food with pots they’d brung along, with the help of water and firewood provided by the local villagers. The residents of the Upper Wutun Village made every effort to receive the massive number of visitors. Even supplying the firewood was a major undertaking—each household turned over 50 kg of dry firewood, which was piled up like a mountain in a courtyard near the encampment area. Yet even this was exhausted after a single day. Simultaneously, five tanker trucks ran continuously back and forth between the village and the encamped visitors, supplying water.
Every day, upon conclusion of the Abhiseka Ritual, the worshippers would line up in a kilometer-long queue, waiting to pay homage to the mandala. Originally, each attendee was expected to make a complete circle around the mandala, and conduct rites at each of the mandala’s four sides, before their worship was considered complete. Now, however, the ceremony has been temporarily simplified, and these strict requirements cancelled, due to the overwhelming number of attendees. The lamas have erected pillars several meters apart from the mandala, tied with khata (ceremonial scarves), and they’ve raised the mandala’s curtain. Worshippers need only catch a glimpse of the mandala from a distance, and conduct their rites at the khata pillars, to complete the “main objective” of this Abhiseka Ritual.
Aside from the mandala, the worshippers also form a massive queue to be received by the Tulku Shartsang Rinpoche, who rubs each of their heads with his right hand as a ceremonial rite; this ritual is conducted as a means of imbuing each worshipper with the blessings of the Gautama Buddha, and attain mahāsattva (one of the higher levels of enlightenment), a ritual which has been passed down for generations. The vast number of attendees means this ritual often stretches long into the night. Thus the Tulku Shartsang Rinpoche himself must be included among the hardest working figure in attendance, as he must begin each day eating a small, hurried meal before undertaking to rub the heads of countless worshippers throughout the ceremony. At the beginning, he stretches his own hand out to rub each head; but, later on, he is so tired that an aide must hold his arm up for him, as he holds a book of scriptures in his hand, each passing head tapping it as they stream by. This is considered an acceptable “passive” form of Mahāsattva blessing.
An especially giant tent looms on a hillside near the great hall; it contains the Bhikkhuni (Buddhist nuns) of the Qüezanglakuo Nun Temple of Hezuo, Gannan TibetanAutonomousPrefecture, and their leader, the Thubten Lama. Everyone from their temple is in attendance to participate in the ceremony. Master Thubten told me that this year, several of the temple elderly members of their temple are ill, but they have been brung along, in hopes that a pilgrimage to the sacred mandala might to heal them or, at the very least, provide them with an ideal reincarnation in their afterlife. I finally understood the significance of the mandala rites, that the sacred Buddha is a “talisman”, from which they draw strength for themselves and their prayers.
The Grains of Sand are Poured into the River, Completing their Mission
On October 11, 2014, a sudden snowfall blanketed the entire Rongwo River valley in a sea of white, as the great Abhiseka ceremony finally came to a close. That day, as the flawless mandala was on the verge of completion, and thus nearing the end of its short but magnificent existence, I was suddenly overcome by a wave of melancholy. Early that morning, a dozen lamas entered the great hall to chant for a final time. Once the final chants were finished, the Tulku Shartsang Rinpoche—a leader of the ceremony—took a special long-handled shovel, with which he removed grains of sand from several specific points in the mandala, while another lama poured the granules into a vase. Next, the tulku spoke softly to himself as he picked up a vajra (a ceremonial mace), using it to carve eight gashes from different directions, moving from the outer edge towards the center, splitting the mandala apart.
Eight expressionless lamas—the same eight lamas who had toiled over every fleck of colored sand to masterfully create the mandala—immediately, without hesitation, each of them took a khata scarf, and swept the mandala clean. The once magnificent work of art had been pitilessly destroyed by its own creators in an instant.
I had known the mandala would be destroyed. But I hadn’t realized how quick and simple it would be; nor had I realized that it would be destroyed by those that had created it. Why did they seem so emotionless? In the instant before the mandala was destroyed, I had stood beside it, transfixed, on the verge of tears, wanting to shout out, “Wait! Just wait one more minute!” But, in the blink of an eye, a transcendent work of art was reduced to dust.
At that moment, all the lamas in the Upper Wutun Temple stood tall and in complete silence. With mandala destroyed, they began to collect the sand for safekeeping. Once this was complete, the lamas suddenly swarmed the bare platform, wiping it with both hands, collecting stray grains of sand, which they rubbed onto their foreheads. Some even placed gains of sand in their mouths to taste. They believe these grains of sand contain the Buddha’s vitality.
Once they mandala sand is collected, a portion is given to those who supplies the ceremony, and to the thousand villagers and lamas of the Upper Wutun Village, who will use the sand to produce amulets. The efforts we paid to the shooting over the course of twenty days were also very moving to these locals, who had given to much to this ceremony. Master Dargye placed grains of sand into a folder piece of paper to give us. We specially requested a vase at Rongwo Temple, and carefully poured the fine grains into it for safekeeping; to this day we still have the vase.
With the mandala destroyed, the final stage is “nirvana”. Senior Rongwo Temple monks, accompanied by a Upper Wutun Temple honor guard, and with all the villagers in tow, proceeded through the village, passing through fields, until we reached the bank of the Rongwo River, where the senior monks, amidst chants and music, poured in the sand. Thus the sand had completed the final element of this ceremony: it joined the river, blessing its waters and the earth itself.
In the Buddhist cosmology, the world passes through the four stages—creation, continuation, destruction, and emptiness— as it continues the process of “evolution”. These four stages are described as kalpas or “eons” (Vivartakalpa, “eon of evolution”; Vivartasthāyikalpa, “eon of evolution-duration”; Saṃvartakalpa, “eon of dissolution”; and Saṃvartasthāyikalpa, “eon of dissolution-duration”), and together form the complete samsara, which is variously translated as the “cycle of existence” or the “wheel of suffering”. Allowing the magnitude of this perfect yet cruel process to sink in, I felt both shaken and enlightened.
As I watched the grains of sand drift away down the river, I recalled the past twenty days, and felt as though they had been a dream—a dream I had suddenly awoken from. Aside from the pictures in my camera and the sand given to me by Master Dargye, the entire experience truly felt ethereal, almost as though the experiences hadn’t actually occurred.
Later, as I talked to Tulku Shartsang Rinpoche and the lamas, I couldn’t help but blurt out the question, “When it comes time to destroy the mandala you’ve toiled over, do you feel any hesitation?” The tulku replied, “During the ritual, the mandala progressively takes form, before it is returned. This process is in accordance with the Buddhist doctrine of ‘impermanence’. Everything is at once living, and at once dying. This includes everything in the cosmos, even our own bodies follow this essential rhythm. Eventually, everything is destroyed.”
Compared with the arduous creation of the mandala sand-painting that lasts for seven days, its destruction seems effortless and transitory. Swept with khata scarves, a magnificent and exquisite universe in Buddhist cosmology collapses in an instant into a
Witnessing the Remarkable Beauty of Qinghai’s Rebgong Sand- painting Mandalas
Tulku Shartsang Rinpoche is the soul character throughout the whole Abhiseka Ritual and the creation of the mandala sand-painting. He takes charge of hosting the whole event and conducts every key step. In this picture, he and his disciples carry out a fi
Every step of the mandala sand-painting needs extreme concentration and precision. After finishing the dotted outline of the mandala, a lama master begins to draw solid lines with white sand.
It is hard to believe the spectacular and intricate mandala sand-painting is created only by simple tools made by the lamas themselves. These metal funnels are called chak-pur in Tibetan. According to different purposes in the drawing, they have different
The mandala sand painting begins with a green “pyramid” in the center---- the center of universe in Buddhist cosmology----mount Meru. It is comprised of two parts: the mandala where the Kālacakra Vajra live and 16 peripheral square- shaped mandalas. In th
The flaps around the pavilion, where the mandala is enshrined, are dropped down throughout the whole drawing process, in case airflow caused by passersby blows the sands.
Finishing a mandala sand-painting requires the cooperation of several skilled lamas. Every step is carried out meticulously: first, complete geometric patterns, including vertical lines, diagonal lines and circles; then, draw the outline of the mandala; a
The resplendent Kālacakra Vajra Mandala consists of triple squares and six circles. The inner square parts represent the cities of the three Vajras (body, speech and mind), and the six circles signify the six elements that created the world, according to
Photos of the Creation Process of the Kālacakra Vajra Mandala These eight pictures were taken by a miniature camera hanging directly above the Kālacakra Vajra Mandala. It took a shoot once every minute. The photos belong to each stage of the process of m
During the creation of the mandala sand painting, a giant tent is set up on the square in front of the Upper Wutun Temple, which serves as a venue of dharma teaching for the lamas
After seven days of intense and strenuous work, the mandala is about to be finished. Looks of relaxation and contentment appear on the lamas’ faces. To memorialize this invaluable masterpiece, they all take out their cellphones and take pictures of it.
After the Kālacakra Vajra Abhiseka Ritual, one procedure remains unfinished—the “destruction” of the Kālacakra Vajra Mandala. Complying with the ritual practice of the Kalachakra Tantra, Gedhun Cichen, a Guru from the Kalachakra Institute of the Rongwo M
Upon the completion of the “destruction ritual”, lamas holding khata scarves go up to sweep way the mandala sand paining all together.
To Buddhist followers, the sand grains constituting the mandala painting are treasures containing immeasurable merits and virtues. After the sands are picked up, the lamas of the Upper Wutun Temple dash up to collect any leftover grains, smearing them on
The destructive process of the mandala goes in the completely opposite direction of its creation—from the edges to the center— signifying the meaning of “going back to starting point,” which is in accordance with the birth and death of the universe.
Believers from Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu and Inner Mongolia set their tents up on the slopes outside Upper Wutun Village, making the whole area “a sea of tents.” According to Tibetan Buddhism, participating in the worship ceremony with the mandala ensures
The crowds of followers bring much life and bustle to the usually tranquil valley. The animistic Tibetans hold a special ritual— throwing paper “wind horse” to the sky (the horse is a symbol of blessing in Tibetan culture)—to ask for permission from the m
To accommodate such a large number of followers, Upper Wutun Village turns a piece of farmland with an area of more than 6 hectares into a sub-venue for the event. Unripe corn is harvested and a huge electronic screen is set up, broadcasting live the teaching of Tulku Shartsang Rinpoche in the sutra hall, where 200,000 followers participate in the Abhiseka Ritual.