Sand Mandala Explained

Paul LeValley


    This report has now been published in my book, Seekers of the Naked Truth: Collected Writings on the Gymnosophists and Related Shramana Religions.  New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2018.


            A few years ago, Tibetan Buddhist monks constructed a sand mandala at FSU, where I had taught Buddhist Art and Art of India.  This report was written for the Tallahassee Democrat.  But they decided they had already run a photo of the monks, and that would be enough.  So this explanation was never published.

            But it and many other essays can now be found in Paul LeValley.  Seekers of the Naked Truth: Collected Writings on the Gymnosophists and Related Shramana Religions.  Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.  2018.


Monks creating the mandala


Monks from the Dalai Lama's monastery constructed a mandala of colored sand at the FSU art museum January 23-27.  I can partially explain what it means as a work of art.  I can't begin to explain what it means as an act of faith to a practicing Buddhist.  But one of the key messages of Buddhism is the transitoriness of things--that so many things we choose to spend our time on really don't last.  Indeed, life does not last.


I have had to explain the basics of mandalas before.  I learned many new things by watching quietly and asking a few questions.  The monks used copper tubes to lay out the sand.  Over the course of several days, I saw two different monks put the tube to their mouths and erase a mistake by sucking the sand back up into the tube.  It is reassuring to know that anybody can make a mistake, and that it can be corrected with a minimum of fuss.



What kind of Buddhism is this?


There are three or four main varieties of Buddhism.  In the original Theravada Buddhism, there are no gods, no Buddha statues.  The Buddha taught in his final sermon that each person must rely on his own conscience.  Some 500 years later, shortly after the time of Christ, Mahayana Buddhism turned the Buddha into a god, multiplied him into many Buddhas, and added heavens and hells.  Mahayana Buddhism spread to China and Japan, where many sub-varieties developed.  Several centuries later, a third major branch, Tantric Buddhism focused on religious mysteries.  Right-hand tantra concentrates on chants and diagrams such as the mandala constructed in Tallahassee.  Left-hand tantra gets into sexual mysteries--but that is a different story.  Some people call Zen a fourth variety of Buddhism, with its concentration on minimalist art, poetry, and the tea ceremony.  But we are concerned with Tibetan Buddhism, which is tantric.


In tantra, a mandala is a spiritual map, and therefore orientation to the four directions is important.  Unfortunately, the monks in Tallahassee had gotten turned around, and thought east lay to the south.  Answers to my questions indicated that they firmly believed they were properly oriented to the east, so I did not cause consternation by pointing out the difference.


The five Dhyani Buddhas

Tantric Buddhists put much emphasis on the five Dhyani (or directional) Buddhas:  







Buddha of

























touch earth



fear not

turn wheel





crossed scepter



Of these, the two most important are Vairochana, the cosmic Buddha; and Amitabha, Buddha of the Western Paradise--around whom a salvationist cult developed in China and Japan.  There he was known as A-mi-t'o-fu or Amida.  The Chinese pronounced Vairochana as Locana.  The Japanese had two names for him: Roshana or Dianichi.


            There are rare depictions of a sixth Dhyani Buddha, Samantrabhadra--to be discussed later.





As a memory device, I tell my students to think of the geography of east India--with the blue ocean to the east, the yellow sands to the south, the red sunset to the west, and the green foothills of the Himalayas to the north.  Except for green, this roughly corresponds to the elements associated with each Dhyani Buddha.


When we hang a map on the wall, we put north at the top.  Buddhists put west at the top.  I always thought that was because of the relative importance of Amitabha.  The monks in Tallahassee informed me that that is not the reason at all.  What matters is that blue be at the bottom.  Just as day begins in the east, so the mandala begins with the east.  In the first few days of construction, the leader of the group worked on the blue side, and always stayed a few steps ahead of the others.  (All of them had memorized the scriptural formula for creating the mandala, but only he had to keep reciting it mentally at every step, while the others followed his lead.)  Once they reached the outer rings, this directional lead no longer seemed important.


Blue is the foundation on which the mandala is built.  When a painted (not sand) mandala is hung on a wall, this takes on added significance, for in Hindu and Buddhist mythology, the continents float on the ocean.  Or more accurately, they rest on the back of a giant fish, which is the first incarnation of Vishnu, and the fish swims in the primordial ocean.


Originally, monks obtained the necessary colors by grinding precious stones such as lapis lazuli.  But as those stones became depleted, they used vegetable dyes which lacked the same brightness.  Now modern dyes allow the monks to create mandalas in all their original splendor.




Constructors of mandalas can pay special honor to any particular Dhyani Buddha by moving his color to the center, and switching places with Vairochana.  In Tallahassee, they made red the dominant center color, and moved white to the (supposed) west.  There is nothing unusual about that.


But this mandala was dedicated to Avalokiteshvara, bodhisattva of compassion, (who underwent a sex change in China and became known as Guanyin, goddess of mercy).  A bodhisattva is a person who has reached enlightenment, but has chosen to stick around helping others;  bodhisattvas function a little like Christian angels.  Anyway, Avalokiteshvara is not one of the Dhyani Buddhas, so a special space had to be created for him/her.  Here it is instructive to look at other examples.


FSU has a slide of a mandala honoring a rare sixth Dhyani Buddha, Samantrabhadra.  His iconography never did get fully worked out.  In this example, he is black and in the center.  The white Vairochana has been pushed down, with the blue Buddha of the east below him.  That gives the mandala a rectangular, rather than square shape.


There would be little reason to study Samantrabhadra, except that the giant stone mandala of Borobudur in Java was laid out by followers of his cult.  The monument looks like a huge wedding cake of five square layers, topped by a round layer.  Visitors to the site circumambulate (walk clockwise around) each layer, examining the many relief sculptures of Jataka tales (previous lives of the Buddha) and episodes from the Buddha's life.  Then they follow illustrations of a pilgrim like themselves, who went from teacher to teacher, seeking understanding.  Finally in the uppermost square layer, the famous pilgrim meets Samantrabhadra, who is able to provide the insights none of the other teachers could.  Visitors then enter the round realm of Vairochana with its white Buddha statues under latticework bells.  That is what visitors see from the inside.  From the outside, they see lots of Buddha statues in niches.  Those statues were once painted in the appropriate color for each direction of the mandala.  But the top square layer (that of Samantrabhadra) rings the structure with yellow Buddhas using the mudra, or hand gesture, of understanding.  The center white stupa rises above that.  


Inner part of the mandala

        Midway through the second day





The solution in Tallahassee was a little like that at Borobudur.  The monks created a tiny inner circle for Avalokiteshvara, whose symbol is the lotus.  The lotus represents purity, for it grows in the mud and reaches up to bloom.  The tiny circle contained a side view of the flower.  But we also got a birds-eye view of a lotus in the larger central circle, where red dominated the petal colors.  (I'm not sure why they associated Avalokiteshvara with Amitabha, red Buddha of the Western Paradise, though both have the same lotus symbol.)  Interspersed between the red petals were two yellow petals representing the helpless stages of babyhood and old age, a green petal for adulthood, and a black petal of death--in other words, the whole cycle of life.


In each of the four directions, the monks pictured gateways to the various paradises--each gateway topped with a wheel flanked by two deer.  This symbolizes the Buddha's first sermon (often called setting the wheel of the law in motion) delivered in the deer park at Sarnath.  Likewise, the square portion was framed by four bands symbolizing the Four Noble Truths (or main points) of the Buddha's first sermon.  Those four points were:

1.  Life is full of suffering.

2.  Much of our suffering is caused by wanting things we don't need.

3.  We can reduce suffering by reducing our wants.

4.  An eightfold path (right aspirations, right livelihood, etc.) can lead to fulfillment.


After the opening ceremony, the monks took out their compass and straight edge; it was like high school geometry class, as they marked out everything described so far, and a circle around it.  On the first full day, they filled in the square geometric portion with colored sands.  On the second day, they traced free-form sand outlines of auspicious symbols in the round field.  Then they gradually filled in and added a green background.  I am not sure what the various cloud forms, banners, and heart-shaped medallions symbolize, and I don't think I am supposed to know.  Some secret meanings of the mandala are not intended for laypeople.  After that, the monks took out their compass again, and marked out the three outer rings that would form the third day's work.


To keep from smudging, the monks had to work from the inside out, but a mandala is read from the outside in.  The outer ring of rainbow colors with flame-like designs represents wisdom.  The next narrow band represents compassion--of special importance here since this mandala was dedicated to the bodhisattva of compassion.  The third circle contained symbols (that looked like double tombstones) representing 82 varieties of buddhahood.  (Sometimes these are dots or tabs; sometimes the number is 42.  I suspect that the form and number depend on the amount of space available.)  The point is that there are many forms of enlightenment, and they are attainable to all who seriously seek--but they must first pass through the realms of wisdom and compassion to get there.


The compassion ring contained symbols including the vajra, which looks sort of like a perforated dumbbell, but represents a stylized thunderbolt that symbolizes tantra.  At the dismantling ceremony, the head monk took his metal vajra and cut into the doors of the four paradises, releasing the central energy into the four directions.


Monks swept the sand into a brownish heap, put it in a pot, and with a blare of horns, left to deposit it into the headwaters at Wakulla Springs.  And so the compassion symbolically spreads through this part of Florida.


But more happened.  Each person who saw the mandala took something beautiful away in his or her mind.  Buddhism, like most Indian religions, teaches that we must first recognize something beautiful, something sacred within ourselves before we can recognize those qualities in someone else.  Love spreads outward.  It's spreading.


Return to biography.


Return to the Paul LeValley school page.