The Tibetan Sand Mandala – Part One


I was given the opportunity to choose an aspect of any Asian culture I would like to experience and then write and analyse about that experience from an autoethnographic viewpoint. Autoethnography being described by Ellis et al. “… is an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyse personal experience in order to understand cultural experience”. Through minimal research of different topics, I came to an immediate interest in looking at the Tibetian Sand Mandala. The sand mandala is a creation from Tibetan Buddhists that signifies a representation of the world in divine form.

There is a Buddhist Temple that I can get to, the Nan Tien Temple, though making and designing of the Sand Mandala is not just a common every day activity and also not publicized on social media so my personal experience is limited to watching videos – like the one above to give an account of my perceived observations and understandings of making sand mandalas. I did have the interest in watching the making of the mandala without the need to watch it in a time lapse or sped up to some degree. By being at normal speed and going through the processes as the monks do it would be beneficial to get a real sense of how long making ones of the mandalas actually takes. So before I can acknowledge that my observations are a way of understanding a different culture I have to accept that based on the topic that I have chosen and the tools that I have at my disposal there are aspects of making a sand mandala that I cannot completely experience which puts a limitation on my experience and final outcome. Also while I am describing what I see and writing it down I am going off the video of someone I have never met and do not know, so my perspective is contained and critiqued based on what the producer of the video has put and edited into the video. So my observations to some extent will include the format and tech-work of the video.

Now for watching the video (I would suggest watching it in 1080HD or highest quality as possible that you can do). I have chosen a 9-minute-long video that showcases a mandala that took 1 week to create time lapsed into an 8-minute piece. Reasons for this being I felt the need to find a video in high-definition as there are a lot of intricate details that take place in creating a sand mandala and I needed a consistent top down view. The preparation of the mandala is one quite intriguing, with tools that resemble what a student would use in maths class or arts class – rulers, pencils, compasses and protractors are used so the markings for the mandala take shape. A large square is sketched out then turned into a grid of squares. This grid is the basis for the design of the mandala. Then using tools to draw an intricate design and using coloured sand to bring that design to life.


This compass not the other one. Source.

The design looks to be separated into 4 quadrants, while each quadrant appearing to be symmetrical in design there are slight variations of colour and patterns within certain areas. While visually the mandala is appealing there is a need of reflection on what the mandala means. The whole piece is symbolic of the universe and where each concentric circle is a reflection of the teachings and practices that Buddhism provides. While my understanding of Buddhism and Mandalas is borderline non-existent, my knowledge only comes from minor readings, films and observations. I will need to research the meaning and understanding of each aspect of the mandala more thoroughly, which in turn means looking at the practices and understandings that Buddhism offers.

The four square gates in each quadrant resembling the essence of Buddha, with each ‘gate’ an idea of understanding, such as boundless thought or the geographical directions – North, South, East and West. Each circle from the outside a barrier or challenge that an individual needs to overcome to reach enlightenment. Some examples of these challenges being greed, envy, illumination, rebirth and ignorance. While the mandala is powerful in symbolism a component of the full mandala process is the blessing and destruction of it. A piece of art (from an outside perspective) or a piece of religious expression to put the amount of hard work into creating these mandalas is nothing short of impressive. The video above as I mentioned was filmed over a week, you can see the sun rays significantly change over time – so suggest the monks making the mandala are putting in long hours each day to perfect the creation of the mandala. I would suggest pride would be a feeling felt when oneself or a part of a team accomplish such a delicate and long detailed work. But to feel pride in ones’ work is not something Buddhism deals with – as Buddhism teaches the understanding of impermanence. What we have in this life – like materialistic things we can no take with us when we die. Our actions, behaviour and what we put into this life will be reflected in our rebirth. The mandala is destroyed in a specific way and usually thrown back in the ocean to symbolize the way of life and also as a way to give back to the universe.


Ellis, C., Adams, T.E. & Bochner, A.P. 2011 ‘Autoethnography: An Overview’, Forum: Qualitative Social Research, vol. 12, no.1


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