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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Esoteric Buddhism: a definition

 

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Esoteric Buddhism
Definition
by Charley Linden Thorp
published on 30 March 2017

to view the original go to : http://www.ancient.eu/Esoteric_Buddhism/

Esoteric Buddhism

Esoteric Buddhism is also known by the terms Mantrayana and Tantra. These teachings are secret and not available to just anyone, whereas Exoteric teachings learned from books are accessible to everyone. The student of Esotericism (Jap: mikkyo) must have received proper initiation from a master or guru from a valid lineage of masters before him or her. Esoteric teachings have a mystical element, and Exoteric teachings are of a philosophical nature.

In Esotericism, the practitioner creates a special bond with a guardian Buddha, Bodhisattva, or deity during their initiations and eventually becomes spiritually united with that being. In Tibetan Buddhism (Vajrayana), this strongly characteristic practice is referred to as ‘Guru Yoga.’ Ritual formulae, such as mantras, mudras, meditation, and mandalas are essential devices enabling a shortcut to enlightenment.

FIRST APPEARANCE & EVOLUTION

Its roots are in northern India, as are all schools of Buddhism, originating with the enlightenment (Skt: bodhi; Jap: satori or kensho) of the Historical Buddha, Shakyamuni under the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya, present-day Bihar. Buddha deliberately forbade the fashionable magic and overt mystical ritualism of the Brahmins and Hindus of the time to seek benefit in the form of health, wealth, and other basic human needs. In fact, he strove to set new practical goals of spiritual liberation by means of self-awareness for the whole of humanity, insisting that seekers quit their role as householders, take vows, and enter a monastery. However, several hundred years after Shakyamuni’s death, people missed the excitement of dramatic rituals and mantras, so priests searched for other routes to enlightenment, and people, in general, were not willing to live apart from their families.

Then, Brahmanism and Hinduism witnessed a revival, and the mystical element of Buddhism again became fashionable. It was Nagarjuna, in the 2nd century CE, the first Indian Buddhist living in southern India, who developed the Buddhist Middle Way which people were searching for. He is known as the probable founder of Esoteric Buddhism which systematised all the different practices uniting them in something more recognisable to us today as Buddhism.

The Esoteric secrets, rituals, and symbols evolved to enable the student to communicate with a spiritual Buddha, the Dharmakaya, the true nature of the Universe and to aspire for rapid enlightenment. In Exoteric practice, the focus remained on the historical or physical body of the Buddha, or Nirmanakaya, and enlightenment lay beyond the horizon in another lifetime.

This shift to the spiritual was achieved by moving outside the intellectual limitations of space and time. The Dharmakaya of Buddha is represented by the great Vairochana Buddha, (also spelt Vairocana, Jap. Dainichi Nyorai), the Illuminator and embodiment of Awareness of the Continuum of Reality. In Esotericism this became the central Buddha form like the sun whose rays touch everywhere to stimulate growth.

THE SECRETS OF ESOTERICISM

This oral tradition of handing on teachings, along with initiations into certain levels of knowledge made in person by a guru, is perhaps the hallmark of Esotericism. Connection with the Dharma Stream is so crucial to the furthering of faith and to the protection of the teachings in Esotericism, as is the purification of body, speech, and mind in one’s daily life.

THE ORAL TRADITION OF HANDING ON TEACHINGS, ALONG WITH INITIATIONS INTO CERTAIN LEVELS OF KNOWLEDGE MADE IN PERSON BY A GURU, IS PERHAPS THE HALLMARK OF ESOTERICISM.

The notion that all sentient beings possessed Buddha Nature which could be uncovered intensified. This generated more lay orders and eradicated gender discrimination.

The emergence of Esoteric Buddhism in Japan is a vast subject, but briefly, Kukai, (Kobo Daishi) recognised as the 8th Patriarch of Esoteric Buddhism, embraced the richness of ritual and symbolism for his nation. While studying in China, he was recognised and initiated by Huiguo, the sole Chinese master of the teachings given by Amoghavajra, the great Indian mystic, at Qinglong-si temple in Chang’an, in 804. He was conferred with the title of Vairochana, the Great Illuminator (Jpn: Namu Henjo Kongo). As a consequence, Shingon Buddhism was established by Kukai, Japan’s first fully initiated great Master.

THE ORIGIN OF RITUALS OF ESOTERICISM

Ancient Indians believed wholly in the supernatural and the natural world. They especially envied the characteristics of some animals. The peacock was one such creature they revered and desired to emulate, especially when they realised it could eat poisonous creatures and survive. They were gifted at communicating with the spiritual or invisible world, so they developed mantras (spoken or chanted formulae) which emulated the peacock and brought the animal god closer to the human world. Then the concept of ‘poisons’ in general came to represent negative aspects of the human mind which required an antidote, mantras and invocations becoming viewed as antidotes.

The Homa (Jpn: Goma) ritual, Brahmin in origin, is one of the most dramatic of Esoteric rituals and originates with the making of offerings to the heavens and the god of fire, Agni.

Body, Speech, and Mind as represented by the Nirmanakaya, Sambhogakaya and the Dharmakaya are united in a single entity in Esoteric Buddhism represented by mudra, mantra, meditation, and mandala. According to Kukai,

These are symbolised in the elements, the syllables, wisdoms, and so on, in an always fluid whole contained in the Four Mandalas, the three-secrets empowerment, the 5 bodhisattva wisdoms which make a perfect mirror to reflect true enlightenment. (Yamasaki, 106)

 

Esoteric Buddhism 1

 

MUDRA
Representing the Body, the use of the hands in gassho (Jpn: Skt; anjali, Chi: ho-chang) palms pressed together and fingers long is a highly significant gesture which aids entering and self-entering between oneself and the Buddha. It is the main mudra known as ‘dharmakaya mudra.’ Buddha images show a variety of significant hand mudras, for example, the earth-touching mudra fearlessly calling the Earth to witness the Buddha’s enlightenment and the Dharmachakra mudra (the wheel of Dharma) in which the first finger and thumb of each hand touch to form a circle, and so on. Mudras are said to be like a seal which leaves an identical impression on clay or paper, imprinting certain qualities which will change the practitioner.

MANTRA
Representing Speech, the recitation or chanting of mantras. Mouths should be kept pure and speech Buddha-centred in order to chant and to reach the spiritual world. In fact, concentrated recitation of mantric syllables, according to Kukai, “employs the sound, the image, and the meaning of the syllable” (Yamasaki, 116). And as he wrote in The Secret Key to the Heart Sutra, “One syllable embraces a thousand truths, manifesting universal reality in this very body.”

Originally, in the Indian Buddhist tradition, silent recitation was said to have a thousand times greater effect than the voiced; and in advanced meditation, the practitioner learns to voice the sound within the mind. Kukai taught five methods of mantra recitation. The first involves the visualisation of a conch shell above a lotus within the mind and then the projection of the voice through the imagined conch shell. So the Esoteric practitioner evokes a level of mind in which the practitioner becomes the chant itself, as the deity or guru and the practitioner exist in inseparable unity.

MEDITATION
Representing the Mind, the original goal of exoteric meditation was to achieve a state of ‘no mind, no thought’ (Skt: asphanaka Samadhi; Jap. munen muso). However, in the Dainichi-kyo, one of the two principal sutras of Esoteric Buddhism, it is stated that visualisation may employ images of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, deities, human beings or non-human beings; in other words, any forms are embodiments of the universal self.

Mahayana Buddhism, in general, developed many practices of meditation focusing on virtues and powers, as well as the appearance of the Buddhas and deities. An early Esoteric sutra, the Kanjizai Bosatsu Tabatari Zuishin Darani-kyo, which focuses on the Bodhisattva Kannon, was the first to systematise so-called ‘three secrets’ visualisations. The practitioner first forms hand mudras and visualises Kannon as a mantric ‘seed-syllable,’ then as a symbolic object and finally in human form. In this way, the abstract gradually becomes concrete and the practitioner can relate directly to it.

 

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MANDALA
This is a sacred or circular diagram (occasionally oblong in Japan), also believed to represent the Body, Speech, and Mind of a Buddha (sometimes specifically one of these), usually used during initiations. Mandalas are said to exist in many dimensions as they convey things which cannot be conveyed in writing. The word ‘mandala’ means ‘that which has essence’ roughly translated. Buddhguhya, the 8th-century master, wrote that the ‘essence’ refers to that of the Buddha’s enlightenment itself so that the mandala is the realm.

ESOTERIC SUTRAS

The three principal sutras (scriptures) of Esotericism are the Mahavairochana Sutra (Jpn: Dainichikyo), The Diamond Peak Sutra (Jpn: Kongochokyo), and the Mahaparinirvana Sutra delivered from the deathbed of the Buddha. These are the core works of the three streams of Esotericism in Japan; the Shingon School, the Tendai School founded by Kukai’s peer Saicho, and the Shinnyo School founded by Shinjo Ito more recently. The first two were transmitted from India around the 8th century CE by fearless monks travelling the Silk Roads. The Mahaparinirvana Sutra arrived in China in three different versions: the Hokkien Text in 418 CE, the Northern Text in 421 CE, and the Southern Text in 436 CE.


Esoteric Buddhism 3

These three sutras hold the secrets of the Universe. The Mahaparinirvana sutra is “like a healer who has a secret cure that contains all possible medical treatments” and “like the most delicious milk having eight different flavours.” The Dainichikyo and the Kongochokyo contain the essence of the main Esoteric Mandalas.

ESOTERIC BUDDHISM TODAY
It is almost impossible to assess how many people practice Esoteric Buddhism worldwide, but it is certain that the main schools are all in the Mahayana tradition, ie. from the 2nd century CE onwards. Tibetan Buddhism (Vajrayana or Tantra) is found in Tibet, Bhutan, northern India, Nepal, southwestern China, Mongolia, Russia, and a variety of western countries and has existed since the 8th century CE. In China, three Indian teachers, Subhakarasimha, Vajrabodhi, and Amoghavajra brought it to great popularity in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), and today many schools there share the same doctrines as Japanese Shingon. In Japan, Shingon Buddhism is exclusively esoteric, and Tendai Buddhism uses many esoteric practices. Shugendo, mountain asceticism in which practitioners rid themselves of their human ego by exposing themselves to the elements with waterfall training and hot candle skin burning, was founded in 7th-century CE Japan and survives today as a combination of Esoteric Buddhism, Shinto (the national religion), and Taoist influences.

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.

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