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The Art of the Fleeting: Tibetan Buddhist Monks and Sand Mandalas

The concept of impermanence is often explored in religions and philosophies. The universe, existing far longer than we have, is presumed to be ephemeral by our ancestors even before the existence of scientific proof. And yet it’s not an idea they were afraid of. Instead, it’s taken for what it is — a fact of life, something to celebrate, something to commemorate.

For the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the ritualistic art of mandala-making emphasizes the beauty and impermanence of the world. As avenues for both meditation and reflection, it’s a way to practice discipline and patience, as well as a means to express the universe’s transient nature.

A Brief History of Buddhist Mandalas

Buddhism was brought to other parts of Asia from India around the 6th to 8th centuries C.E., becoming more widespread in the continent during the so-called period of “Tibetan Renaissance,” around the 10th and 11th centuries C.E. The history of Tibetan Buddhism is rooted in other traditions, such as Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna, before it became a religion of its own.

The earliest references to Tibetan sand mandalas were found in the literary work The Blue Annals, written by the scholar Gö Lotsawa Zhönnu-pel around the mid-1400s. At this time, the mandala wasn’t much of a concrete object; it was metaphysical or spiritual, often used to reference the power of meditation and enlightenment.

This meaning is still kept in mind even in mandalas of other Buddhist practices. Generally, mandalas are works of introspection and insight; they prompt meditation to both the creator and the viewer. It also symbolizes the journey of spiritual enlightenment, starting from the center point to the outward circles which represent the individual vis-a-vis the universe.

Tibetan Sand Mandalas: A Ceremonial Art Form

For the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, sand mandalas — also called dul-tson-kyil-khor — are a unique practice. More than a mere art form, the creation of mandalas is one of the many methods of spiritual expression. In fact, it’s more of a religious ceremony than artistic pursuit.

Upon the beginning of the ritual, a group of Buddhist monks sanctifies the space in which the mandala is made by burning incense, chanting sacred hymns, and playing traditional Tibetan instruments. The leader will then imprint the circle — sometimes spanning as large as four meters — with detailed, elaborate patterns using chalk.

These patterns are usually drawn from memory as the participants of this ritual are already incredibly skilled in the art. The designs within these circles are Buddhist symbols and iconography such as the lotus flower and the wheel of life. They can also contain deities such as the Dhyani buddhas.

In older times, monks usually made use of crushed colored rocks and gemstones to fill in these patterns. Today, however, other more available materials are sourced: crushed white rock dyed with ink, pulverized roots and flower pollen, and even cornmeal.

These are then placed in very thin metal sprouts, like small pens, and extruded into the pattern to fill in the colors. Starting from the center, the monks will work around the different parts of the diagram, most often in quadrants. This is an extremely meticulous step that can take up to weeks. It requires a rigorous amount of patience, concentration, and discipline. The monks go through this process silently, and the quietude prompts moments of reflection and meditation.

The closing ritual commences as soon as the mandala is finally completed. The monks say a short prayer, and after what can be weeks of painstaking work, the sand mandala is instantly swept away. It starts at the midpoint, evenly spread in order, and fanning outwards the circle. Afterward, the colored grains are gathered into a jar wrapped in silk. 

The final steps of the ceremony involve throwing the jar containing the colored grains into a nearby body of water. The ritual’s close serves as a symbolic act and a way of blessing: The sweeping away of the sand mandala is a reminder of the universe’s ephemeral nature; the jar’s return to the ocean or the sea is a reunification of the pieces back to nature where they belong. This final ceremony stands to suggest that everything belongs to the universe and will return to the universe.

The Principles Behind the Tibetan Sand Mandala

The fascinating art and ceremony of sand mandalas are interpretive of universal Buddhist doctrines. Buddhists believe in the journey of spiritual enlightenment and being one with the universe; to achieve this is to be liberated from suffering. There’s also the concept of worldly impermanence which, as believed, isn’t something to be afraid of but something to regard as truth in life.

The unique Tibetan sand mandala ceremony requires up to weeks of painstaking artistic work only for it to be swept away and thrown into the water.

The monks and their impermanent art remind us that existence’s fleeting nature isn’t something to mull over or feel regretful over. It’s a reminder to take on a transcendent interpretation of the universe’s impermanence, a reminder that all the world’s beauty continues with, within, and without us. 

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