Tibetan Sand Mandalas

 

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The sacred art of sand painting comes from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition (Tib: dul-tson-kyil-khor – mandala of coloured powders; ‘mandala’ means circle in Sanskrit). Tibetan Buddhism (7th century) is based on Indian Buddhism (5th century). Its main goals are: a) to reach individual enlightenment, 2) the liberation of all beings, and c) the development of unconditional compassion and insight wisdom.  

Mandalas which are cosmic maps indicating the succession of initiations from the historical Buddha 2600 years ago to present day are a crucial aspect of most Buddhist traditions. They are used to guide practitioners to enlightenment and are usually painted or woven on scrolls and huge wall-hangings placed in the main prayer halls of temples or occasionally constructed in 3 dimensions (the Kalachakra Mandala at the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet). As new teachers, or acharyas, are initiated, lineage mandalas are updated so that all those who have succeeded to the teachings are indicated there.

Each mandala represents the entire universe with Mount Meru, a sacred mountain with 5 peaks manifesting physically, metaphysically and spiritually in Buddhist, Hindu and Jain cosmologies, in the centre. There are 3 realms inside the mandala: Arupyadhatu – the formless realm, Rupudhatu – the realm of form and Kamadhatu – the desire realm.

 

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In the Tibetan tradition, however, they are usually created from coloured sand laid on to a geometrical blueprint and represent a ritual in their own right. In addition they  are a sacred object of meditation in the memories of viewers. Similarly, the deities adopted in each lineage reside inside the mandala, the principal deity in the centre. The sand mandala is a two-dimensional representation of 3-dimensions and could be said to resemble an intricate palace where the deities reside.

It is ritualistically dismantled once it has been completed and all accompanying ceremonies and viewings come to a close. This process and its conclusion symbolize the Buddhist doctrinal belief in the transitory nature of material life, in other words, impermanence. Buddhists aspire to be liberated from all attachments to objects and beings on the material plane or in the visible world.  According to this tradition, the world we can perceive with our eyes is but a dream and reality is to be found inside and accessed by meditation.

History

The first references to mandalas made of sand in Tibet come from ‘The Blue Annals,’ an ancient history of Tibetan Buddhism written by Go Lotsawa Zhonnu Pel c. the 14th century called ‘The Treasure of Lives: A Biographical encyclopedia of Tibet, Inner Asia and the Himalaya Region.’ He started to write this seminal work by dictating it to his at the age of 84. The mandala was originally metaphysical or spiritual rather than tangible.  It was a way of accessing or unlocking the power of the universe during meditation and there are references to Buddhist teachers transforming themselves into mantras and then dispersing into the universe. 

 

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Purpose

The sand mandala is an intricate focus of meditation which monks study in depth, sometimes for as long as 3 years. It is designed to guide those who aspire to enlightenment by purifying and healing their minds, transforming them from an ordinary mind into an enlightened mind. When completed and dispersed, mixed with water and given back to the Earth, its blessings and beauty can be shared with all beings.  In this way, it is truly a metaphor for human life in that each being grows from a dependent child into a complex system of structures, memories, experiences and relationships.  But at death, this disintegrates and is returned to the earth.  In other words, nothing and no-one ever truly dies but just changes, growing at the same pace as the universe. The mandala is deeply rooted in the mind of its creator or creators and is often made at the request of a particular teacher or guru. The deities which reside inside its palace serve as role models or Bodhisattvas for practitioners.

 

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Materials

Originally, granules of crushed coloured rock and precious gems were used to create mandalas, but today white rock dyed with coloured inks is preferred. The grains form a dense kind of sand which is needed to limit interference from sneezing or sudden breezes. The colours used are white (crushed gypsum), yellow ochre, red sandstone, blue made from a mixture of gypsum and charcoal, red and black making brown, red and white making pink, etc. Also, corn meal, flower pollen and powdered roots and bark are used depending on their availability.  

The monks wear masks to preserve their work from breath. Small tubes and funnels called chak-pur are gently tapped with metal rods to create vibrations which lay down the sand into the blueprint a controlled way.  A skilled mandala maker can enable the sand to flow like liquid. Also, large pairs of compasses are used to draw circles accurately, but there is no engraving of any kind as the sand is laid on a flat surface.

 

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Method

First, the site where the mandala is to be made is consecrated with sacred chants, incense burning and Tibetan music played on sacred Buddhist instruments.  The leader of the team of as many as 20 monks will use white chalk or pencils to mark out the detailed drawing or blueprint of the lineages from memory with an area outside representing the charnel grounds or sacred area where bodies are left to decompose naturally. They can be as big as 7 feet square. It is important to note that Tibetan Buddhism is Esoteric in that teachings are handed down from Master to pupil and preserved orally.  They are rarely written down.

One monk is assigned to each of the four gateways aligned with the compass points and he and his team will work specifically on that quadrant until completion. Assistants or novices fill in the forms while the senior monks attend to the detail.  Adding the coloured sand always starts from the centre where the principal teacher or guru resides.

When the mandala is complete, it is once more consecrated with an elaborate ceremony, and the final stage is the sweeping away of the grains in towards the middle which reverses the original process. Deities are removed scrupulously in a particular order and the sand is collected in a jar, wrapped in silk and taken to a body of water to be released. According to the scriptures, this constitutes a healing, transmitting positive energies back into the environment and sharing the blessings from the beautiful ephemeral form with the universe.

 

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Famous examples

The Kalachakra Mandala mentioned above, a 3-dimensional ornate golden palace, embraces 722 different deities in a complex 2-dimensional representation of 3. According to scholars, it is now more or less certain that the ornate structures of Borobudur in eastern Java and Angkor Wat in Cambodia are 3-dimensional mandalas. Their carvings and devotional intensity are a living meditation for those who visit to pay homage. However, due to the esoteric nature of Mahayana Buddhism, this can never be entirely confirmed. Both of these structures are mystical and not intended to be analysed or labelled.

 

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Sand Painting exponents today

It is thought that there are only 30 people in the world today who are qualified to teach the techniques and secrets of Tibetan sand painting.  Losang Samten, an American Tibetan scholar and sand painting artist is one of them. The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism and the Tibetan nation, instructed his monks to make a sand mandala following the Sept 11 tragedy at the New York World trade Centre as a protection from future disasters and to heal the environment and the human life so devastated by it.

 

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Images courtesy of various Tibetan websites and Linden Thorp

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Mahayana Buddhism

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Definition

by Charley Linden Thorp

published on 15 March 2017

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Mahayana Buddhism (or the Mahayanas) can be defined as a major movement in the history of Buddhism which has its origins in northern India. It is made up of many schools and reinterpretations of fundamental human beliefs, values and ideals not only those of the Buddhist teachings. The recorded starting point for Mahayana, also known as the ‘Great Vehicle’ because it embraces so much, is the 2nd century CE, but it is assumed that this tidal wave of shifts began to grow before that date, building on existing schools and systems, and it continues today. Its exact origins are still not completely understood, but in contrast to previous Buddhist aspirations, great emphasis was placed equally on the doctrines of compassion (Skt: karunã) and insight (Skt: prajñã). In addition, the Bodhisattva, the human being who devotes him or herself to the service of others, became the new model for religious practice as opposed to the Arhat (Hīnayãna-Hearer or Seeker) who is concerned only with the self-interested pursuit of liberation.

This age also represents a massive social change in the way Buddhists practised because householders, lay practitioners, ie. those who have not renounced life to become monks or nuns, became equally as important as the clergy, ie. monastic practitioners devoting their whole lives to Buddha. Also, a new body of literature is associated with this movement known as the Perfection of Insight texts (Prajñã-pãramitã Sutras) in which Buddha Sakyamuni (the historical Buddha) is seen in a new light as a supernatural being (later formalized as the trikaya – three bodies) and the concept and doctrine of emptiness (Skt: sunyata) became of major importance. Today, Mahayana Buddhism is predominant in north Aisa and has been strongly influenced culturally and by existing religions there such as Taoism and Confucianism.

CLASSIFICATION

To clarify this complex movement of spiritual and religious thought and religious practice, it may help to understand the three main classifications of Buddhism to date: Theravada (also known as Hinayana, the vehicle of the Hearers), Mahayana, and Vajrayana. These are recognised by practitioners as the three main routes to enlightenment (Skt: bodhi, meaning awakening), the state that marks the culmination of all the Buddhist religious paths. The differences between them are as follows:

Theravada is the only remaining school from the Early Buddhist period, its central texts are in Pali (Pãli Canon), the spoken language of the Buddha; and its exclusively monastic devotees strive to become enlightened for their own liberation.

Mahayana uses Sanskrit as its main language, and monastic and lay followers work for the liberation of all sentient beings, making compassion and insight (wisdom) its central doctrines.

Vajrayana, the Diamond School, originally exclusive to Tibet (in 20th century CE the Chinese occupation of Tibet forced it out of the country), emphasizes the permanence of the Buddha’s teachings as symbolized by the vajra (thunderbolt), a ritual implement used for ceremonies, employs Tantra (techniques to reach enlightenment quickly) and focuses mainly on lay practitioners.    

The main schools of Buddhism practised today are Pure Land, Zen, Nichiren, Shingon, and Tendai (all Mahayanas); and Tibetan Buddhism (Vajrayana). It is significant that Theravada texts exclusively concern the Buddha’s life and early teachings; whereas, due to widespread propagation (spreading of the teachings), Mahayana and Vajrayana texts appear in at least six languages. Mahayana texts contain a mixture of ideas, the early texts probably composed in south India and confined to strict monastic Buddhism, the later texts written in northern India and no longer confined to monasticism but lay thinking also.  

SCHOOLS & NOTABLE FIGURES

The term Mahayana was first mentioned in the Lotus Sutra (among the final teachings of Buddha Sakyamuni) at an indeterminate date between 5th and 1st century CE. However, according to recent scholarship, it may have been a mistaken term because instead of ‘yana’ meaning ‘vehicle’ or ‘cart,’ it could have been ‘mahajãna,’ ‘jãna’ meaning ‘knowing,’ therefore ‘great (maha) knowing.’ In this era, the Dharma, (Pali: Dhamma), the natural law of all existence according to Buddhism, was no longer regarded as a doctrinal element but as a medicine that would heal all worldly suffering.

In the Mahayanas, new schools started to appear such as the Madhyamaka (the ‘Middle School’, 2nd century CE), the Yogacara or Yogachara (based on the practice of yoga, 4th century CE), the Pure Land tradition in China (dates and origins uncertain but examples are T’ien-t’ai and Ch’an), and the Vajrayana (Tibetan Buddhism founded in 5th century CE by Padmasambhava). 

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                                    Buddhist Illuminated Manuscript, Goryeo Period

Mahayana Buddhism is prevalent in north Asia having spread from northern India, then to Tibet and central Asia, China, Korea, and lastly Japan. Due to the cultural influences and diversity of countries, the scope of Buddhist practice has widened even more to include the Tantric practices (Tantra meaning techniques to reach Enlightenment more quickly) and Shamanism (a shaman is an intermediary who has access to the world of spirits and healing) from central Asia; Taoism and Confucianism giving rise to the Ch’an school of contemplation in China and Korea, which developed eventually into Japanese Zen, and so on.

Notable figures of this movement are Asvaghosa who wrote The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana translated into Chinese c. 550 CE; Maitreyanatha who compiled the Mahayana path from the Yogacara perspective made up of 800 verses; Nagarjuna, founder of the Madhyamaka school, born c. 2nd century CE in south India; Aryadeva, Nagarjuna’s foremost disciple; Dogen, known for his teachings on Buddha Nature in Japan; Kukai, founder of Shingon Buddhism; and Hua-yen for the ‘Flower Garland’ tradition in China, Korea, and Japan.

DOCTRINES

As mentioned, the main tenets of this Mahayana Buddhism are compassion (karuna) and insight or wisdom (prajna). The perfection of these human values culminates in the Bodhisattva, a model being who devotes him or herself altruistically to the service of others, putting aside all self-serving notions; in contrast, is the preceding pursuit of self-interested liberation (Hinayana or Sravakayana). Bodhisattva (Skt; Pali: Bodhisatta) means an enlightened being or one who is oriented to enlightenment. This ideal human being is inspired by the life story of Buddha Sakyamuni who began by generating the wish to attain enlightenment for the sake of all beings in the form of a vow. Then he embarked on a religious life by cultivating the Six Perfections (paramitas).

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                                                            A Bodhisattva, Gandhara

Early Mahayana texts stipulate that a Bodhisattva can only be male, but later texts allow female Bodhisattvas. The term Bodhicitta is used to describe the state of mind of a Bodhisattva, and there are 2 aspects: the relative, a mind directed towards enlightenment, the ceasing of all cravings and attachments, and the absolute, a mind whose nature is enlightenment. A Bodhisattva must place themselves in the position of others in order to be selfless and embody compassion: in other words, to exchange him or herself for the other. 

With this new focus on Buddha’s life lay practitioners or householders who were in a far better position than monks or nuns to fulfil the vow of a Bodhisattva emerged and became a key element of Mahayana Buddhism. The first lay Buddhist Cunda was enlightened at the Buddha’s Parinirvana (death of a Buddha) to the indignation of the enlightened monks and Kings attending to bring final offerings. On his departure from the world as an old man, the Buddha revealed that all beings, including women, could become enlightened not only monastic devotees. From this p oint onwards, enlightenment took on new meaning.

SCRIPTURES

Biographical literature of the Buddha first appeared during this Mahayana era and aided the rapid spread of Buddhism across the Silk Road to the east of India and north into Nepal and Tibet. In addition, Buddhist poets expressed their faith using literary expressions which transcended the doctrinal lines between the different schools.

THE NEW MAHAYANA EPOCH WAS ACCOMPANIED BY A CANON OF SCRIPTURES, KNOWN AS  ‘PERFECTION OF INSIGHT,’ CHARACTERISED BY THE DOCTRINE OF EMPTINESS, WHICH ENTAILS VIEWING BUDDHA AS A SUPERNATURAL BEING.

The new Mahayana epoch, long after the Parinirvana of the Buddha, was accompanied by a canon of scriptures or sutras, known as the Prajñã-pãramitã Sutras (Perfection of Insight). They are characterised by the doctrine of emptiness (sunyata) which entails viewing Buddha for the first time as a supernatural being worthy of devotion. This later led to the doctrine of his nature as the trikaya, or three wheel bodies (the Dharmakaya (the enlightenment or truth body), the Sambhogakaya (the bliss or clear light body), and the Nirmanakaya, (the form body manifesting in time and space). 

The Bodhicaryavatara, ‘Entering the Path of Enlightenment,’ composed by Santideva (685-763), a Buddhist monk, poet and scholar based a Nalanda University, is one of the main texts for aspiring Bodhisattvas. It describes various steps taken by a Bodhisattva to reach enlightenment. A famous quotation from it is:

Whosoever wishes to quickly rescue himself and another he should practise the supreme mystery-the exchanging of himself and the other. (8.120). 

Compassion can be tangibly used by Mahayana practitioners in the transfer of merit to all sentient beings, which is accumulated through devotional practice. Wisdom can be used to transcend the human condition via the conviction that all beings contain the Buddha seed so can, therefore, become a Buddha. The basis of the Bodhisattva vow is the six paramitas (perfections):

  • generosity (dana)
  • morality (sila)
  • patience (ksanti)
  • courage (virya)
  • knowledge (jhana or dhyana)
  • and intuitive insight (prajna).

In early Buddhism, there were ten paramitas, and later in the Mahayana, they were increased again to ten to match the ten stages (bhumi) of a Bodhisattva’s spiritual progress. Liberating or saving those who were lost or suffering becomes the sole life-purpose of those who take this Bodhisattva vow, even today.

PLACES OF WORSHIP

Another feature of Mahayana Buddhism is the presence of stupas – religious towers or domes which evolved from prehistoric burial mounds and eventually had tall spires known as pagodas, common structures found throughout Asia. The Buddha instructed that on his death a stupa should be constructed over his relics. Today, surviving stupas often contain sacred objects such as texts as well as relics or remains of revered beings. Their popularity as marking a place of worship increased as Buddhism spread to the masses who were mostly illiterate laymen. On the inside walls of stupas, pictures were inscribed and sculptures made depicting the life of Buddha and his previous lives as a bodhisattva.

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LAY & MONASTIC PRACTITIONERS

Many scholars claim that lay Buddhism was responsible for the flourishing of the Mahayanas. The centring of the movement on Buddha as the first Bodhisattva and the revelation that all beings could reach Enlightenment promoted Buddhism in everyday life rather than behind the closed doors of monasteries. There is also evidence to show that the excessive privileges and arrogance of monks was detested by householders, especially in Japan, and that the clergy looked down on lay practitioners as in other religions, notably Christianity. The Asokadattavyakarana Sutra advocated the wisdom of women and girls: the protagonist, a 12-year-old princess, refuses to salute the monks referring to them as “Hinayana jackals.” At the same time, the Vimalakirtinrdusa Sutra advocates lay Buddhism in the exploits of its hero, Vimalakirti.

Stupas were administered by lay devotees and so the importance of Buddha’s life became increasingly significant as a result. They provided not only an opportunity for a different kind of worship but also for social interaction. There was finally an alternative religious tradition for householders, some of whom became founders of new schools, e.g. Prince Shotoku of Japan who never took monastic vows though he lived out the Buddhist teachings in everyday life and also became the first Buddhist statesman to reorder Japan with a 17-article constitution. The widening of Mahayana doctrines and the universal appeal of attaining Buddhahood meant that many schools flourished outside monasteries and often focused on certain Mahayana texts. It might be said that for a long period of time monks remained cloistered hearing the Dharma, while the laity were actively working as Bodhisattvas in daily life.  

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                                                                     Stupa in Ajanta

The significance of the Buddha’s physical death as only an appearance is paramount in Mahayana Buddhism. Out of his compassion, he became ever-present to help suffering sentient beings trapped in samsara, the cycle of repeated birth and death that individuals must undergo until they attain ‘Nirvana‘ (enlightenment), in which they are blinded by the three roots of evil, namely greed, hatred, and delusion. Samsara, although not mentioned by name, is characterised as suffering (Skt: duhka) in the first of the Four Noble Truths. It is an ancient notion common to all mainstream Indian religions dating back to circa 800 BCE.

This striking change in attitudes to the Buddha and his teachings represents its reabsorption into the society which it had renounced and become distant from in the monasteries. This fundamentally created a new religious system and a self-awareness which is evident in the body of the Mahayana Sutras and which made such doctrines respectable. 

BUDDHISM TODAY

In the 21st century CE, it is estimated that 488 million (9-10% of the world population) people practice Buddhism. Approximately half are practitioners of Mahayana schools in China and it continues to flourish. The main countries which practice Buddhism currently are China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Tibetan Buddhism, due to the Chinese occupation of Tibet, has been adopted by international practitioners, notably westerners, in a variety of different countries.

‘Socially Engaged Buddhism,’ which originated in 1963 in war-ravaged Vietnam, a term coined by Tchich Nhat Hanh, the international peace activist,  is a contemporary movement concerned with developing Buddhist solutions to social, political and ecological global problems. This movement is not divided between monastic and lay members and includes Buddhists from Buddhist countries as well as western converts. Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka are the major Buddhist countries (over 70% of population practising) while Japan, Laos, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, and Vietnam have smaller but strong minority status.

New movements continue to develop to accommodate the modern world. Perhaps the most notable are the Dalit Buddhist Movement (Dalits are a group of Indians known as the ‘untouchables’ because they fall outside the rigid caste system but who are now gaining respect and status supported by UN); New Kadampa Tradition, led by Tibetan monk Gyatso Kelsang, which claims to be Modern Buddhism focused on lay practitioners; and the Vipassana Movement, consisting of a number of branches of modern Theravada Buddhism which have moved outside the monasteries, focusing on insight meditation.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

CHARLEY LINDEN THORP

Linden is a ValidLit writer/teacher living in Japan. Ordained as a Buddhist Priest, she is a Dharma/Meditation teacher working to make the ideas of Buddha Nature accessible to everyone, which involves many thousands of years of historical research.