Ti­betan Bud­dhist Sand-paint­ing of Man­dalas

--Cos­mol­ogy in Sand Grains

China Scenic - - Front Page - By Pei Liguang Pho­to­graphs by Pei Liguang Trans­la­tion by Paul Stephen (USA)

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.

Every early morn­ing, when a thick cloud of smoky in­cense shrouds the en­tire Rongwo River Val­ley, fol­low­ers come to spin the prayer wheels in each hall of the Up­per Wu­tun Tem­ple. In­fected by their pi­ous wor­ship, the air is filled with a sense of peace and

The kitchen of the Up­per Wu­tun Tem­ple pre­pares sev­eral caul­drons of eight-trea­sure rice for par­tic­i­pat­ing fol­low­ers each day. How­ever, the sup­ply only reaches a small part of the pop­u­la­tion

As the Kāla­cakra Va­jra Ab­hiseka Rit­ual comes to an end, the lamas in Up­per Wu­tun Tem­ple make ready the of­fer­ing rit­ual with an enor­mous Torma (a type of of­fer­ing in Ti­betan Bud­dhism), which is sur­rounded by of­fer­ings brought by fol­low­ers. Af­ter the event,

Led by the honor guard of the Up­per Wu­tun Tem­ple, Mas­ter Gurmey leaves the main su­tra hall, with the holy vase con­tain­ing sands from the de­stroyed man­dala in hands.

Piously seen off by the whole vil­lage, the lamas of Wun­tun­shang head to the Rongwo River to com­plete the fi­nal cer­e­mony of the man­dala sand-paint­ing—nir­vana. The whole process from birth to death of the man­dala is in­tended to demon­strate the Bud­dhist cosm

Walk­ing through the vil­lage and across fields and grooves, the lama mas­ters ar­rive at the banks of the Rongwu River. With solemn su­tra chant­ing and mu­sic, they pour the sand into the river, which ac­com­plishes the man­dala’s fi­nal mis­sion—bless­ing the wa­ter

Every morn­ing, en­veloped be­hind a gauze of in­cense smoke, the mag­nif­i­cent main hall and the stupa of the Up­per Wu­tun Tem­ple look more mys­te­ri­ous.

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