Buddhist Sand Mandalas – Why do Monks Create, Then Destroy Them?

What is a sand mandala?

colorful sand mandala
Photo Credit: Ancient History

A mandala is any representational picture such as a drawing, painting or geometric pattern that represents either the universe or something from the world. 

The subset of sand mandalas originates from an ancient Tibetan Buddhist custom which involves ritual geometric outlines made from colored or dyed sand.

The sand mandala signifies the human journey from ignorance to Buddhahood.

The act of making a sand mandala is believed to be sacred and has deep philosophical important, symbolism and meaning. Each sand mandala varies in size, shape and color depending on the lesson the monks wants to teach. 

No two mandalas are identical, but all are beautiful and colorful works of art. All sand mandalas are created by hand with intricate details.

Therefore, creating a mandala takes an enormous amount of patience, resolve and cooperation. A sand mandala can take several weeks to complete, which is why several monks will usually work on one project together.

Why do Buddhist monks make sand mandalas?

The highest purpose of the mandala is to help one train their mind to become more enlightened. In this pursuit, mandalas are typically used as a spiritual tool to aid the monks in meditation.

The process is meditative for the monks because of the intense concentration level that is required. One of the goals of the monks is also to maintain harmony throughout the entire process.

Historically, a mandala represents the world, but they also incorporate and symbolize Buddhist concepts such as impermanence, wisdom, compassion, loving-kindness, inner peace, etc.

Often the mandala will represent an imaginary palace that’s envisioned during meditation. Each part of the mandala has its own significance and represents an area of wisdom that reminds the monks of a principle of Buddhism.

Who makes sand mandalas?

Sand mandalas are usually created by trained, professional monks. These monks have been trained in this art form for several years before they can create them in public.

They are proficient in the specific rules of mandala philosophy and design. The training phase can take three years or more. Mandalas are made following the rules passed out down in Buddhist Tibetan texts.

There are also specific rules for various types of mandalas.

The making of sand mandala

colorful sand mandala patiently created by a monk
Monks creating Mandala – Photo Credit: My modern met

In the ancient days, monks used valuable and semi-valuable stones to create mandalas.

Today, using precious stone isn’t very practical so monks use dyed or colored sand.

The sand is usually very thick so that it does not easily move due to wind or accidental disruption.

Before working on the mandala, a few ceremonies will usually be held by the monks.

Outsiders are not often permitted to participate in the opening ceremonies, which comprise of chanting, dancing, and prayers. Once these ceremonial rites are over, the work on the mandala begins.

After the opening ceremonies, the monks begin the drawing phase. They draw the mandala’s basic design on a flat board. The design usually begins with a dot in the center and is where the image of the deity is drawn.

Most mandalas take the form of a square with a circle at the center point and four gates surrounding the circle in the shape of a “T”.

In Buddhism, the outer circle typically symbolizes wisdom. Once the outline is drawn, then monks begin at the center and work outward filling the outline with the colored sand. 

The destruction of the sand mandala

After the mandala is completed and the ceremonies and public viewings are over, the mandala is intentionally destroyed by sweeping the sand to the side.

This signifies the law of impermanence – that nothing lasts forever, and everything is in constant change.

The sand is then sometimes thrown into a river so that the sacred sand will be dispersed far and wide.

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