Sand Mandala Explained
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
Monks from the Dalai
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
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
There are three or four
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
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
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
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 five Dhyani Buddhas
Tantric Buddhists put much
emphasis on the five Dhyani (or directional) Buddhas:
Of these, the two most
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
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
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
Blue is the foundation on
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Midway through the second day
The solution in
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
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
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:
Life is full of suffering.
Much of our suffering is caused by wanting things we don't
We can reduce suffering by reducing our wants.
An eightfold path (right aspirations, right livelihood,
etc.) can lead to fulfillment.
After the opening
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
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
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
Monks swept the sand into
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.
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