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Impermanent Wonder: Creation of a Sand Mandala

by Paul Cotter

Imagine spending a week of your life creating something beautiful, complex and meaningful – and then discarding it in an instant, with no sense of loss or remorse. That’s what happens when Buddhist monks create a sand mandala.

I had the joy of photographing this remarkable process when monks from the Drepung Gomang Monastery visited a church in Laguna Beach, CA. They spent a week building an intricate mandala design from millions of grains of colored sand. When their work was finished, they destroyed their creation as a way to deepen our understanding of impermanence, which Buddhists consider essential to the pursuit of enlightenment.

As you’ll see in the accompanying slideshow, their work was slow and meticulous, requiring great patience and sustained concentration. The monks wore masks so their breath would not disrupt a single grain of sand. Throughout the week, they approached their task with a joyful spirit and a peaceful presence that radiated throughout the church.


About Mandalas

According to the Drepung Gomang Monastery, “mandala” is a Sanskrit word that means cosmogram (a graphic depiction of the universe) or “world in harmony.” These symbols have appeared in Hinduism and Buddhism since ancient times and are a form of sacred geometry where every line has spiritual significance. Mandalas can be used as spiritual teaching tools, as meditative aides, or for the creation of a sacred space. There are many types of mandalas, and the one created for us by the monks is called a healing mandala.


How Sand Mandalas are Created

In Tibetan, the art of creating a sand mandala is called dul-tson-kyil-khor, which translates as “mandala of colored powders.” The monks began with a small piece of paper that showed the mandala design. This paper was folded into small squares, allowing the monks to draw the design to scale on a large blue surface called a tek-pu which was divided into an identical number of squares. Once the design was drawn onto the tek-pu, the monks began the painstaking work of pouring grains of colored sand into place through a slender metal funnel called a chakpur. A second chakpur was rubbed against the first, creating vibrations that caused the sand to trickle out at a carefully controlled pace.


The Dissolution Ceremony

Watching the mandala taking shape was truly inspiring, but seeing it destroyed was even more unforgettable. After every grain of sand was finally in place, the monks erased their work with graceful geometric swirls of a brush. Some of the sand was scooped into small bags and given to the audience as blessings. The remaining sand was taken to the nearby beach and poured into the ocean: a gentle reminder that all things are impermanent and there’s nothing to be gained by clinging to physical attachments.

As I watched the brightly colored sand swirled and mixed into a single pile, I was reminded of another fundamental truth: although our world contains billions of individuals, we are all one. This unity was demonstrated in a heartfelt way when the head Buddhist monk and the Reverend from the Christian church embraced at the dissolution ceremony. The Reverend told his congregation: “I believe that if Jesus and Buddha were here right now, they’d be having a grand time together.”

Amen to that.


Paul Cotter is a photographer, writer and teacher who lives in the Bay Area of California. His work can be seen at paulcotterphotography.com.