Tibetan Sand Mandalas

While I was reading through the blog posts for this week from some of my classmates, I found that there was a strong focus on the negative impacts of destruction. When I think of the word “destruction,” my mind automatically brings up other synonymous terms and ideas such as annihilation, erasure, and removing something from existence. Usually, these come from moments of disaster, be they naturally occurring or deliberate human intervention. Destruction can be associated with loss and devastation, but it can also be thought about in terms of renewal and growth. What does it mean for a work of art to be “destroyed” by the hand of the artist? What if the destruction of the work was not malicious or out of anger? What if the act of destruction was the last stage of completing the work? In this blog post, I would like to bring these questions into the context of Tibetan Sand Mandalas.

Before taking various South East Asian art and architecture courses during my undergraduate degree, I had very negative ideas about the destruction of art (i.e. The Bamiyan Buddhas, the vandalism on Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch,” etc.). These moments in history were performed by people who were angry and had issues with the political, social, or religious climate by which they were surrounded.

During these art history courses, my views surrounding “the destruction of art” changed. I’m sure that most people doing this Museum Studies degree have seen a sand mandala either on the internet or in real life. They are beautiful and take days, sometimes weeks, to create. A mandala is a visual microcosm of the universe. It shows the universe perfectly balanced; positive and negative, male and female, creation and destruction, mountain and river. When a mandala is created, and all of these complementary energies are joined, aspects of the earth begin to heal.

Monks from the Drepung Loseling Monastery creating a sand mandala in Penticton British Columbia, September 2017. Image: Penticton Art Gallery, 2017 (http://pentictonartgallery.com/events/2017/9/13/drepung-loseling-monks

Sand mandalas are beautiful with their vivid colours, complex symbolism, and iconography. Each grain of sand is placed onto the mandala by a team of monks. This act is meant to bring the community together. A series of meditations occur both during and after the completion of the mandala, where the participants take a moment to reflect on the power of the universe. This article from The Ancient History Encyclopedia provides a detailed account of the processes involved in sand mandala creation.

Once the mandala is complete, and the last prayers and songs are sung, the monks sweep away the sand. The scoop every last grain into the nearest river or body of water to spread the energies of the mandala into the land, returning the sand back to the earth. This “destruction” is meant to symbolize that nothing is permanent and everything is ephemeral. Creating these mandalas is an exercise in letting go. The artists destroy their work in an act of furthering their attainment of enlightenment.

Monk sweeping away sand mandala. Image: University of Puget Sound, 2016 (https://www.pugetsound.edu/news-and-events/campus-news/details/1461/)

Earlier this month, I had the honour and opportunity to watch the Drepung Loseling Monks create a sand mandala at the Penticton Art Gallery, in Penticton B.C. Canada, which is where my family lives. The monks were apart of the Mystical Arts of Tibet, a world tour endorsed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in order to encourage community building and peace. It was incredible to watch! Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend the sweeping ceremony or see them scoop the sand into Lake Okanagan, but I am sure it was amazing.

The mandala design chosen for the Penticton Art Gallery was the mandala of Akshobhya which represents the Unshakeable Victor for conflict resolution and peace. This was chosen as a fitting theme to close their summer exhibitions which explored Canada’s relationship and history with its First Nations community.

The Penticton Art Gallery’s completed Akshobhya mandala, September 2017. Image: Penticton Art Gallery, 2017 (https://www.facebook.com/pentictonartgallery/photos/pcb.1453948504652351/1453948464652355/?type=3&theater)

My hope with this blog post is to bring to light another aspect to destruction. Building community, learning to let go, and impeccable patience are lessons to be learned from sand mandalas. While Nepalese earthquakes and losing photographs from your iPhone are indeed tragic, perhaps these too are lessons in the fleeting ephemerality of life.

Here is a link to the Penticton Art Gallery’s Facebook page where you can see a time lapsed video of the creation and destruction of the sand mandala: https://www.facebook.com/plugins/post.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fpentictonartgallery%2Fposts%2F1456192491094619&width=500


“Drepung Loseling Monks,” Penticton Art Gallery 13 September, 2017 – 17 September, 2017. http://pentictonartgallery.com/events/2017/9/13/drepung-loseling-monks.

Thorp, Charley Linden, “Tibetan Sand Mandalas,” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Published on 24 April, 2017. Accessed on 24 September 2017. https://www.ancient.eu/article/1052/tibetan-sand-mandalas/.

“The Symbolism Behind The Creation And Destruction Of The Buddhist Sand Mandala.” Published on 21 August, 2015. Accessed on 24 September 2017. https://buddhists.org/buddhist-art/the-symbolism-behind-the-creation-and-destruction-of-the-buddhist-sand-mandala/.

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