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Making a mandala

A mandala is a form of Buddhist prayer and art that is usually associated with a particular Buddha and his ascension to enlightenment. Regarded as a powerful center of psychic energy, it symbolizes the macrocosm of the universe, the miniature universe of the practitioner and the platform on which the Buddha addresses his followers. The tradition of making mandalas is said to be derived from ancient folk religions and Hinduism. Today mandalas are mostly made by followers of Tantric Buddhism.

A mandala can be a painting on a wall or scroll, a colored sand creation on a table, or a visualisation in the mind of person skilled at meditation. Mandalas have traditionally served as devotional tools. Painted one were often on scrolls in part so they could be rolled up and taken by missionaries, monks, travelers, merchants and warriors over long distances on foot or horseback. They were produced in Tibet, India, Nepal, China, Japan, Bhutan, and Indonesia and date back to the 4th century to present. [Source: Nancy Blume, Asian Society]

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “In Tibetan monasteries, Buddhist monks use mandalas as aids to meditation. Mandalas are representations of a deity and his or her entourage. They often take the form of a cosmic diagram with the main deity at its center. The architectonic arrangement of many mandalas resembles a square palace with four entrances surrounded by circular bands that represent abstract realms. Often the palaces are multistoried. The entire structure should be imagined as a three-dimensional stepped pyramid whose top is inhabited by the deity with whom the devotee hopes to become one. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

Tibetan Mandalas

In Tibet, mandalas can be painted, constructed of stone, embroidered, sculptured or even serve as the layout plan for entire monasteries. Many are painstakingly made from sand, preferably sand made from millions of grains of crushed, vegetable-died marble. The design for the mandala is said to have been brought to Tibet by the legendary 1,000-year-old lama, Guru Rinpoche, in the Each Ox Year of 749.

According to the Smithsonian: The Tibetan mandala is a tool for gaining wisdom and compassion and generally is depicted as a tightly balanced, geometric composition wherein deities reside. The principal deity is housed in the center. The mandala serves as a tool for guiding individuals along the path to enlightenment. Monks meditate upon the mandala, imagining it as a three-dimensional palace. The deities who reside in the palace embody philosophical views and serve as role models. The mandala's purpose is to help transform ordinary minds into enlightened ones. [Source: Smithsonian]

Most Tibetan mandalas are destroyed after a few hours or days. The destruction of mandalas after a short time ties in with the Buddhist idea that nothing is permanent and things are always in a flux and one should not become too attached to things because they will disappear and bring unhappiness.

Meaning of Mandalas

A mandala is a symbolic picture of the universe. It represents an imaginary palace that is contemplated during meditation. Each object in the palace has significance, representing an aspect of wisdom or reminding the meditator of a guiding principle. The mandala's purpose is to help transform ordinary minds into enlightened ones and to assist with healing.

A mandala is a symbol of the universe in its ideal form, and its creation signifies the transformation of a universe of suffering into one of joy. In to meditation it can helping the meditator envision how to achieve the perfect self. Tibetan mandalas contains deities, with the principal deity in the centre of the pattern. The deities who reside in the palace embody philosophical views and serve as role models. [Source: BBC |::|]

Mandalas have three levels: 1) the outer level representing the universe; 2) the inner level showing the route to enlightenment; and the 3) secret level depicting the balance between the body and mind. Each shape is said to contain an attribute of a deity, and sometimes these shapes are used to forecast the future.

Uses of Mandalas

Buddhists use mandalas as aids for mediation. Both making a mandala and gazing at one are regarded as forms of meditation. The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung called mandalas universal maps of the human subconscious and "antidotes for the chaotic states of mind." He said their circular shape was a symbol of the divine.

Mandalas aid individuals in visualizing various celestial Buddha realms. Two dimensional ones are regarded as part of the three-dimensional world of the central figure and a microcosm of the universe. During meditation a user using a mandala as a visual aid focuses on the deity, visualizing up to 722 deities associated with it, with the deity disappearing into nothingness and re-emerging as the deity. To do this takes extraordinary concentration.

According to the Smithsonian: It is said “Mandalas transmit positive energies to the environment and to the people who view them. While constructing a mandala, Buddhist monks chant and meditate to invoke the divine energies of the deities residing within the mandala. The monks then ask for the deities' healing blessings. A mandala's healing power extends to the whole world even before it is swept up and dispersed into flowing water — a further expression of sharing the mandala's blessings with all.

Sand Mandalas

Mandalas constructed from sand are unique to Tibetan Buddhism. They are believed to effect purification and healing. The construction of the mandala begins with a ceremony in which the monks consecrate the site and call forth forces of goodness through chants, meditation, and music. According to the Smithsonian: Typically, a great teacher chooses the specific mandala to be created. Next, they make a detailed drawing from memory and then fill in the design with millions of grains of colored sand. At its completion, the mandala is consecrated. The monks then enact the impermanent nature of existence by sweeping up the colored grains and dispersing them in flowing water. [Source: Smithsonian magazine]

According to Buddhist scripture, mandalas constructed from sand transmit positive energies to the environment and to the people who view them. Mandala sand painting was introduced by the Buddha himself and there are many different designs of mandala, each with different lessons to teach. One monk told the Washington Post, "we never consider this an artistic work...It's like having a beautiful garden in which all kinds of different flowers grow. If there was just one flower, it wouldn't be very beautiful."

Nancy Blume wrote for the Asian Sociey: Over the course of ten days, monks pour millions of grains of colored sand from traditional metal funnels (chak-purs), purifying and healing the space and its inhabitants in the process. Shortly after its completion the monks dismantle the mandala to symbolize the impermanence of all that exists and disperse the sand in order to share its blessing. [Source: Nancy Blume, Asian Society]

Creating and Destroying a Sand Mandala

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Destroying a mandala

Describing the making and desctruction of a sand mandala, the BBC reported: The mandala sand painting process begins with an opening ceremony, during which the lamas consecrate the site and call forth the forces of goodness. The monks chant and dance in resplendent dress. A monk holds the chak-pur rod, a pen-sized metal implement ridged along its length, and scrapes it with a smaller tool to make the sand flow freely from its end The sand pouring from the chak-pur The design of the mandala is marked with chalk on a wooden platform. This meticulous process takes an entire day. [Source: BBC |::|]

“Starting from the centre and concentrically working outwards, the monks use metal funnels called chak-pur to place millions of grains of dyed sand to make the elaborate patterns. The vibrations of the chak-pur being grated with a metal rod cause the sands to flow like liquid. The sand used is often ground marble from Southern India. Other popular substances are powdered flowers and herbs or grains. In ancient times powdered precious and semiprecious gems were also used.

Once the mandala is complete the monks ask for the deities' healing blessings during a ceremony. As the monks chant, one monk begins the destruction of the mandala by scraping a knuckle through the sand, creating a cross of grey sand. Another monk takes a paintbrush and slowly and carefully sweeps the sand from the perimeter to the centre of the mandala. The destruction of the mandala serves as a reminder of the impermanence of life. The coloured sand is swept up into an urn and dispersed into flowing water — a way of extending the healing powers to the whole world. It is seen as a gift to the mother earth to re-energise the environment and universe.

Describing the monks at work making a sand mandala, Nicholas Day wrote in the Washington Post: "The monks precisely plop the sand down on fine lines...A false breath, a sudden shift of elbow or the wrist, and the mandala would scatter, kaleidoscopic dust in the wind...The monks themselves — almost prostrate on the table...convey a spiritual energy and sense of peace of unearthly patience. They work diligently and silently, although occasionally they stop briefly to debate their work in Tibetan. They work two-hour stretches, often in positions that look painful....The mandala is created — in a breathtaking paint-by numbers type of production — with 23 colors of sand and a highly detailed outline that the monks drew...The sand is poured through metal funnels called chak-pur, rubbing a rod against the ridged surface of the chak-pur produces vibrations that causes the sand to run out smoothly. The vibrations also produces noises — hoarse and dissonant — that sound like a yard full of crickets."

Mandala Paintings

A typical mandala painting measures five feet across and contains a pictorial diagram of Buddhist deities in circular concentric geometric shapes. Many are shaped like a lotus flower with a round center and eight pedals, with a central deity surrounded by four to eight other deities who are manifestations of the central figure. The deities are often accompanied by consorts. In large mandalas there may several dozen circles of deities, with hundreds of deities.

Nancy Blume wrote for the Asian Society: The majority of painters, past and present, were pious laymen, usually from families whose hereditary occupation was painting. Some painters were monks. All painters were religiously minded, and in Tibetan Buddhism such painters were required to undergo certain initiation rites first. Artists worked seated on the floor with the painting propped in their laps or in front of their crossed legs. Paintings were commissioned by a patron and were created in a systematic way, proceeding through five steps:[Source:Nancy Blume, Asian Society]

1) Preparation of the Painting Surface: The most common support (the underlying material) was cloth stretched on a wooden frame. The cloth was sized by an application of gelatin to coat and stiffen it. Applied over the support was a ground, a top layer, of gesso (white earth pigment, either chalk or white clay). The gesso was polished to create a perfectly smooth surface. [Source: Nancy Blume, Asian Society]

2) Establishment of a design by sketch of transfer: The patron indicated what was to be depicted. A diagram might be provided. Many compositions were fixed by Buddhist iconography and artistic tradition. These might be drawn from memory or according to standard examples. The preliminary sketch is made with charcoal crayon. The final drawing reinforced the sketch in brush and black ink.

3) Laying down the initial coats of paint: Paints were of two types, mineral pigments and organic dyes. Brushes consisted of a tip of fine animal hairs attached to a wooden handle by a thread. Mineral pigments were mixed with a binder, usually hide glue, before being applied as paints. They were usually used for the first coat of colors.

4) Shading and outlining: Organic dyes were used for shading and outlining. 5) Finishing touches Most painters finished the work by scraping the painting with a knife edge in order to create an even surface. The artist then dusted the painting with a duster or rag and rubbed the surface with a small ball of parched grain flour dough. This restored a matte finish and picked up any remaining paint dust. The last pigment laid down was gold.

Treasured Small Mandalas at the National Palace Museum

The “Golden mandala inlaid with coral and turquoise” at the National Palace Museum, Taipei measures 38.6 x 27.4 centimeters. According to the museum: This splendid mandala is stored in a refined leather container made in the Qianlong reign (1736-1795). Inside the container cover is a label of white fine silk that records in four languages (Manchu, Chinese, Mongolian, and Tibetan) an important historical event of the Qing dynasty. The mandala was offered to the Hsi-huang Temple and had been brought to the court by the Fifth Dalai Lama via Hsi-ning and Inner Mongolia in 1652, during the reign of the Kangxi Emperor. This mandala, against this backdrop of interaction between religion and politics, therefore has particular significance. On one hand, the Qing court received the blessings of the Dalai Lama from Tibet, confirming the mutual friendship between these two regions, which also spilled over to Mongol tribes. On the other hand, the Dalai Lama was able to spread his Yellow Hat sect eastward and popularize it with the support of the Qing court, thereby stabilizing his religious and political status in Tibet. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei,]

“The mandala, known as a kilkhor in Tibetan, is a circular symbol of the Buddhist universe. The top of the cover of this mandala is composed of evenly cut and graded pieces of turquoise divided into tiers and shapes piled and inlaid. Mount Sumeru appears at the center of the universe and is symbolically represented here with a great continent in each of the four directions. Encircling the rim are pieces of large, round, colorfully red coral. The wall of the mandala is done in repousse low-relief sculpting from the reverse, creating decoration of fine stalks of lotus with Buddhist treasures. The rims are finely worked in a variety of manners. Regardless of technique or materials, this work represents a masterpiece of craftsmanship.

“Silver mandala with multicolored khatas” was presented by the Tuguan Hutuktu to the Qing court in the 19th century. According to the museum; The silver mandala with multicolored khatas was presented by Tuguan Hutuktu (1839–1894), the 6th Lama of the Gönlung Jampa Ling Monastery (in Qinghai) who stayed in China's capital city, to Empress Dowager Cixi on her birthday. The mandala symbolizes the Buddhist world; the surface of the mandala was engraved with wave-like text, whereas the center of the mandala contains a four-story square platform. Mount Sumeru, which represents the center of the universe, is found in the axis, whereas Mount Akravada-Parvata is observed covering the circumference of the surface. On the four sides of the mountains are city gates, which represent the four continents of Pūrva-videha, Jambudvīpa, Aparagodānīya, and Uttarakuru (the continents are represented by the symbols of circle, triangle, moon-like shape, and square, respectively). On the surface of the sea is a circle of garden stonecrop, whereas on the four sides of the sea are various objects (i.e., a moon, treasure bowl, sun, and ox) used to worship the Buddha. The outer edges of the sides of the mandala were embedded with corals and turquoise in lianzhu (connected circle) patterns, in which vajras gadas and lotus petals were used as decorations. In the center are rolled leave patterns separated from garden stonecrop; the center of the rolled leaf patterns shows a cross-shaped design comprising corals and turquoise beads. The patterns and workmanship of this artifact are awe-inspiring and embody a hint of Chinese styles, making it different from other Tibetan artifacts created during the eighteenth century. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei,]

Very Old Cloth Mandalas

Describing a 68.2-x-50.5-centimeter mandala Paramasukha-Chakrasamvara Mandala, from Nepal, dated to around 1100, Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “The painting depicts the Paramasukha-Chakrasamvara (Supreme Bliss Wheel) mandala. The main circular area contains a diagram of a palace with four elaborately decorated gateways. This structure should be imagined as three-dimensional. From the square base, the palace rises up as a pyramid and is topped by a circle within a square containing the major deity, in this case Chakrasamvara, a horrific form of the Buddha Akshobhya, one of the five cosmic Buddhas from the Esoteric Buddhist pantheon. He is shown in union with his consort, the goddess Vajravarahi, a metaphor for the union of wisdom and compassion, ways and means. The main figures are surrounded by a group of six attendant deities standing within stylized lotus petals. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

“Surrounding the main circular area are vivid depictions of the traditional eight charnel grounds of India, auspicious sites for meditation on wrathful deities. Here the worldly existence of transitory pleasure and the inevitability of death contrast with the realm of the Buddha envisioned in the center. The horizontal shape of the lower register resembles ancient Indian wooden book covers used to bind manuscripts written on palm leaves. The Pancaraksha, the five protective goddesses especially favored in Nepal, are flanked by donors on the right and a monk on the left, each seated in front of offerings. This is the earliest paubha (painting on cloth) known from Nepal. The style of apparel worn by the monk in the lower register is typically Nepalese rather than Tibetan.”

The 84.5-x-73.3-centimeter cloth Mandala of Jnanadakini from the School of the Ngor monastery Tibet is dated to the late 15th century.“In this mandala, the deity is the wrathful goddess Jnanadakini, who sits within a red circle on a throne guarded by two lions. She has three heads and six arms to display her multiple powers. Her wrath protects Buddhists from the evil and ignorance that hinder their quest for spiritual enlighten- ment. Surrounding her are four other seated deities and four lesser, animal-headed deities. The palace is set inside concentric circles of styl- ized lotus petals, vajras (ritual thunderbolts), flames, and extraordinary scenes of charnel (cremation) grounds. The latter are auspicious places for the contemplation of wrathful deities. In each of the four red circles at the outer corners is a female deity in an energetic pose, flanked by smaller attendants. There are thirteen lamas in the row at the top; on the bottom register in the two niches on the left, the donor of the painting is seated in front of an offering table. The other figures in the register are wrathful deities and protectors of the faithful.”

Three-Dimensional Mandalas


Three-dimensional mandalas look like elaborately-sculpted wooden wedding cakes and sometimes take years to make. Some of them are representation of the Shi-Tro mandala, a mansion for deities with so much power it can release any person from his or her negative karma. Many three-dimensional mandalas were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.

Describing one three-dimensional mandala, Teresa Watanbe wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "The intricate work included wood working, painting and shaping figures ranging from sea dragons to deities. But the dense spiritual meaning embedded in every doorway and post, measurement and form, is most striking."

"The floor doors to the palace, for instance, represent the 'four immeasurables' of loving kindness, compassion, equanimity and joy. There are lion beams signifying strength and a fire circle in which all negative forces are burned and transformed into wisdom."

Image Sources: University of Purdue,, CNTO; Mandala images, Univeristy of Liverpool, Harvard Education Review

Text Sources: 1) “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China”, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K.Hall & Company, 1994); 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, ~; 3) Ethnic China *\; 4) \=/; 5), the Chinese government news site | New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated September 2022

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