Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

The Evolution Tibetan Sand Mandala: Perspectives on the Evolution of Life and Artistic Expression

alexandrakg's picture
See video

 The Evolution Tibetan Sand Mandala:

Perspectives on the Evolution of Life and Artistic Expression

In our class, The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories, we have discussed the concept of evolution and its implications.  We began with Darwin, and slowly worked our way further and further into stories.  We asked ourselves, what is truth?  What is life and death?  How does the world evolve?  It was difficult for me to find a cohesive explanation for everything we talked about, but I found in the Tibetan Sand Mandala a powerful metaphor.

The Sand Mandala is practiced by Tibetan Buddhist monks.  Mandala means “circle” in Sanskrit, a clue to the deep symbolism of its creation.  The Mandala “represents the cosmogram of a buddha or bodhisattva”, either the monk’s own, or one he wishes to appease (Bell).  Within the outer ring is a smaller square which represents the celestial palace or dwelling place of the deity with four gateways representing north, south, east, and west.  Both the circle and square often have many intricate layers.  Further inside the square is another circle, which is divided into nine sectors, which can either contain the deity itself in the central sector, or repeat the outside pattern.  If it contains the deity, the surrounding sectors contain the deity’s manifestations. Sometimes the overall pattern is contained in a square, and in each corner the pattern is repeated in small-scale Mandalas.  Different Buddhist symbols are often found throughout the design in intermediate spaces, though many Mandalas are simply geometric in their design (Bell).  Despite its fairly simplistic design, the Mandala is often extremely complex and can take days, or even weeks to complete.

Buddhist monks must first go through years of training to learn to make Mandala.  The ritual of the Mandala is considered extremely sacred, and cannot be done lightly.  Before making a Mandala, a monk spend a great deal of time in both artistic and philosophical study.  The monks must have an understanding of the meaning of the Mandala both in Buddhism and for themselves before they create one.  In the Dalai Lama’s personal monastery, the Namgyal monastery, monks will spend up to three years studying for the Mandala (Religion Facts).  The Mandala is therefore never a process to be taken lightly, and is considered a very deep and personal and sacred practice in Tibetan Buddhism.


The process of Mandala creation is very complex.  Traditionally, four monks will work together, with each assigned to one of four quadrants of the Mandala.  The monks will then each be given an assistant to fill in the colors while they work on the more detailed outlines.  The Mandala always begins  from the center and moves outward.  The monks will always wait for everyone to complete their sections before moving to the next, to ensure complete balance.

At the beginning, monks must first perform an opening ceremony.  The blueprint for the Mandala is subsequently drawn with white chalk, beginning with a dot in the middle.  The monks then draw four lines from this dot.  From then on, they will mostly work within their own quadrant.  After the blueprint is finished, it is then filled in with special sand, which is made from crushed white stone and dyed in vibrant and distinct colors.  The sand is applied with a serrated funnel or chakpu.  The chakpu is carefully and gently scraped with another chakpu creating a vibration that releases the sand onto the blueprint (“Living Words of Wisdom”).  Monks will often recite chants during the process, and complete the Mandala with deep, contemplative concentration.

The most unique and arguably the most symbolic aspect of the Mandala, is what is done after its completion: the Mandala is destroyed.  The monks brush away the sand, slowly pushing all of it toward the middle as though undoing the entire process.  After brushing away their work, the monks pour it into the nearest body of water, to return the positive energy back to the earth.  The action is also meant to teach the impermanence of all things, and to never grow attached to earthly objects.

The history of the Mandala does not have an altogether clear origin.  The Blue Annals, a history of Tibetan religious history written by Go Lotsawa Zhonnu Pel in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, contain a few references of the Mandala.  In the very beginning, the Mandalas described were often in visions.  These beginning references to Mandalas are very metaphysical, and not necessarily concrete paintings as we see today. 

The early Mandalas were very connected to nature and were more a representation of the spiritual.  One reference that may date back to the ninth century reads, "The ācārya Majñuśrīmitra understood Buddhaśrījñāna to be of excellent practice in mantras. In order to help him, he transformed himself into a maṇḍala of Mañjughoṣa ... (His teacher) asked him: 'Do you have faith in the teacher or the maṇḍala?' and he replied: 'I have faith in the maṇḍala.' (The maṇḍala then vanished), and he found himself and the teacher staying inside a small house” (Bell).  Go Lotsawa also writes of siddhas, or masters who have transcended or on the path to transcendence, who “were able to move in the sky, penetrate mountains and rocks, float on water, and exhibit before multitudes their forms inside divine maṇḍalas” (Bell).  The Mandala sounds more like a part of the spiritual world or a cosmic shape rather than the painting.  The text certainly is not clear as to the appearance of the Mandala, nor does it necessarily describe its exact use or meaning.

Even into the 13th century, the Mandala is not clearly described as a painting, as in the following text: “When he entered the maṇḍala (during his initiation), he saw a clear vision of the jñana-maṇḍala (/of the Kālacakra/jñana maṇḍala, or ye she dkyil 'khor, the true maṇḍala of a deity; samaya-maṇḍala, or dam tshig dkyil 'khor, the maṇḍala created by the adept in his Mind.)” (Bell).  In the Hevajira (Tantra), it is also said that, “The Mind is the recitation of Mantras; it is penance; it is homa; it is the Master of the Maṇḍala; it is the Maṇḍala itself. In short, the Mind has the form of an aggregate” (Bell).  The Mandala therefore becomes very connected to the mind, where it takes shape.  However, the Annals slowly begin to describe the Mandala as more of a physical form, and as a rite.  In the eleventh century, a Master is written to have “performed the rite of the maṇḍala of Sarvavid (kun rig)” for a girl who had died (Bell).  Slowly, the Annals begin to describe the Mandala as more physical, and so it began to be practiced as an art form.

Today, many have taken on the Mandala beyond just Buddhist monks, and it has become much more popularized.  Thought the practice still remains true to tradition, it is much more internationally renowned.

In terms of our class, though, The Story of Evolution and The Evolution of Stories, how does the Tibetan Sand Mandala fit into the Darwinist narrative?

In order to understand that, we must first look at Buddhism as a religion.  A core idea within Buddhism is renewal.  Human beings are in a cycle of mental and spiritual growth, reborn again and again until they achieve enlightenment.  Each life is a chance to grow and improve.  In a sense, each rebirth is a chance to change.  One of Buddha’s main teachings was of the impermanence of things, which is one of the teachings of the Mandala itself.

As for the Mandala itself, beyond its religious meaning, its simple imagery is a very powerful metaphor for life.  It is painstakingly created to form a beautiful, complex, intricate form, and when at last it is complete, it is brushed away, never to exist again.  Such is the course of life.  Each being slowly grows into a complex system of structures, memories, experiences, and relationships, seemingly only to be destroyed.

However, its apparent “destruction” is not absolute.  The Mandala’s sand is returned to the earth to spread its energy and rejoin the elements.  So, too, do all living organisms.  After death, each being decomposes to become part of the earth and reform as something else and return its elements to other living things.  According to current scientific thought, humans were made from stardust.  Even Judeo-Christian religions speak of “from dust we were born, and to dust we shall return.”  As an art form, the sand Mandala is made from dust, and it is returned to dust.  It is a metaphor for the continual flow of life, a brief moment of beauty, then all of it blown away to create something new. 

Through the Mandala story of life, nothing ever truly dies, it just changes.  It may be beautiful, but that beauty is not truly lost, but instead attains a new form of existence.   It brings back energy to the earth and to the universe.

The Mandala is also intended as a medium through which a monk can teach the ways of Buddhism and explore it further, while developing their own consciousness.  The Mandala originates from both a history of Buddhist practice as well as the practitioner’s own mind.  We have been discussing in class how everything is a story, and that there is no real truth.  The Mandala, too, is deeply rooted in the mind.  Its existence relies on the inner consciousness and spirituality of the monk or monks who create it.  While it certainly originates from a very distinct and traceable history, as does ours, its current state is very individualistic.

This is much like humanity.  We share many characteristics with our ancestors, and our lives follow the same pattern as many of those who come before us, but ultimately, we are the ones who have agency over our own lives, we create our own stories about what happened, and ultimately our lives are our own expression.

Recently in class, as part of a final presentation, my classmate and I showed a video of a group of monks creating and destroying a sand Mandala.  We felt that the video was a very strong metaphor that covered a great deal of aspects of the class.

The question is, does the act of filming the Sand Mandala affect its meaning?

The whole point of the painting is to impress upon its creators and observers the impermanence of life.  By preserving its creation and the Mandala itself on camera, its meaning may very well be changed.  The lesson seems perhaps disrupted by the filming, an unnatural method halting a process so deeply related to the natural.  A creation meant to represent the continual cycle of life is frozen in time.  The idea of a coveted, ancient practice caught on camera to be posted on the internet for millions to see is a difficult idea to grasp.  One wonders how the two very different worlds, new and old, could mix together.  It seems certainly to be an odd juxtaposition. 

At the same time, in a way, it allows for the Mandala to become relevant in the twenty-first century.  Our life now is certainly different than insulated Tibetan monks who lived centuries before us.  Today these monks are certainly not completely separated from everyone else.  The whole world is getting smaller, and few people can manage to live completely cut off from everyone else, let alone Tibetan monks who in the past few decades in particular have been thrown into the international spotlight, and not completely unwillingly at that.  The Dalai Lama is one of the most renowned symbols of peace in the whole world.  These monks no longer have the insular life they once did, and therefore all aspects of their life must change as well. 

In the past, the Mandala worked as a metaphor for life, but in the modern day, life has taken on new meaning.  Therefore, it is only natural that the meaning of the Mandala will change as well.  After all, few things can remain static in a continually changing universe such as ours.  This is the meaning of evolution.

Indeed, film is a medium through which the Mandala can continue to be relevant and keep its place in the world, while still maintaining its individuality.  Today, Tibetan monks travel around the world to give demonstrations, and clearly have given permission many a time for others to either photograph or videotape the process.  What many may wonder is what was their logic behind agreeing to film?

The Mandala in its physical form is still destroyed.  It will never have that appearance again.  It has been returned to water where it will rejoin the flow of the Earth and share with all beings its wealth of positive energy and healing.  It only exists in intangible pixels and bits and bytes.  The photo of it exists, but the Mandala as a sand painting is gone.  It has changed into something new.  If no one wanted the Mandala to be seen, it would never be shown to anyone save for the monks creating it.  It will still exist in their memory, though.  If they tell someone else about it, that image will then be carried on in their mind and so on.  Someone may draw it for their own enjoyment.  Another monk may incorporate some aspect of it into his own Mandala.  Even if there were no photograph or video, the Mandala will live on.  Perhaps one day, film will phase out and something completely new and unimaginable will capture this ceremony.

In the Modern Age, the camera is not considered quite in the same way as the brush or the chisel in terms of an art form.  Often on television, a show is broadcasted as “live.”  If it were really “live,” we would all be there.  Film is a way for people to show others what they do not have the opportunity to show them face to face.  This way the teachings of the Mandala stay the same, but are simply translated for the twenty-first century citizen of the world.  The Mandala stays a true metaphor for life, that it will go on, that it is every changing with the times, and always growing with the same pace as the rest of the universe.



Bell, Christopher. "The Mandala." Tibetan Renaissance Seminar. University of Virginia, n.d. Web. 3 May 2011. <ṇḍala.html>.

"Mandalas: Sacred Art and Geometry." Religion Facts: Just the Facts on Religion. ReligionFacts, 2004-2011. Web. 3 May 2011. <>.

"Sand Mandala, Universal energy healing." Living Words of Wisdom. Living Words of Wisdom, 2011. Web. 3 May 2011. <>.

Sullivan, Patrick. "Sifting Spirit: Tibetan monks deliver ephemeral art." MetroActive Arts. Metro Publishing, Inc., 22 Dec 1998. Web. 3 May 2011. <

"Tibetan Mandala Painting." Venerable Tenzin Yignyen. Hobart and William Smith Colleges, n.d. Web. 3 May 2011. <>.

Yoder, Scott. "History of Tibetan Mandalas." eHow. eHow, n.d. Web. 3 May 2011. <>


See video


Namkhang Tsamchoe's picture


The write up is amazing!!!Thank you for sharing this essay!!!Brilliant!!!