Visual art can be so therapeutic, but, for some, it can also be stressful. Putting pressure on yourself to create something perfect (or at least decent) can ruin the entire process. Part of what makes us want to hold our art to such high standards is the permanent nature of our creations. We can continually examine our work, critique it, judge it, and possibly even hate it. Yet, at the same time, we might hesitate to get rid of our creations, because we feel attached to them. Fortunately, this feeling of attachment to permanent creations can be transcended—and the therapeutic value of art can be reclaimed—through the ancient practice of Tibetan sand mandalas.
Freedom through creation and destruction
Tibetan sand mandalas are temporary works of art that use colorful sand to create geometric representations of the universe. The process of creating them is intentional and meticulous, but, once the mandalas are complete, they are destroyed. This destruction is a reminder that nothing is permanent—not our art, and not ourselves.
The process of creating and destroying sand mandalas promotes psychological healing and inner peace. When we initiate the creation of a sand mandala with the full knowledge that it will be destroyed, we are liberated from the attachment of the result. We are no longer bound by our judgment of our work.
Does it look too asymmetrical for your taste? No problem, clean it away. Does it look impeccable? Don’t hold onto it. Just like an idyllic spring day, your mandala too must come to an end. The thing to remember is this: Whether your mandala comes out perfect or flawed, it is a reflection of the complex universe.
Related: “Buddhism and Minimalism”
Spiritual roots of sand mandalas
Mandalas are geometric formations, generally comprised of symbols, with roots in Eastern religious traditions. These symbolic art forms date back to the second millennium before the common era, with early images published in the foundational text of Hinduism, the Rig Veda. Since then, the use of mandalas has spread to other Eastern traditions, including Buddhism and Jainism. The earliest record of mandalas made of sand is in the history of Tibetan Buddhism written by Go Lotsawa Zhonnu-pei in the mid-1400s.
According to the Four Noble Truths of the Buddhist worldview, suffering (dukkha) is an inescapable part of an impermanent existence. The way to transcend this worldly cycle is to release ourselves of attachment (tanha). This can be achieved through mindfulness and meditation. Considering the central tenets of Buddhism, the creation of sand mandalas is an illustrative way to practice meditation and mindfulness. Similarly, the destruction of the mandalas is an immediate way to reflect on impermanence and practice non-attachment. Even if you aren’t a Buddhist, you can benefit from incorporating these values into your lifestyle.
Before trying to make a sand mandala, search online for videos of Buddhist monks creating—and destroying—these beautiful works of art. Get a sense of the spiritual energy involved in this activity. Try to imagine yourself taking part in it with respect. Notice that many of the monks are working with others—can you think of anyone who might want to collaborate on a mandala with you?
When you’re ready to get started, set up a dedicated area for your mandala. Because you should be working slowly and intentionally, your mandala might be a long-term project rather than an afternoon activity. If space is an issue, use a dish or a tray. You’ll also need sand of different colors, a small brush, and a straw for controlling the sand. All supplies are readily available at your local craft store, and you can find pre-packaged kits as well. You can download mandala templates to follow, or figure it out as you go along! There’s even an international community of sand mandala creators dedicated to unity and inner peace. To connect, check out the Sands of Peace Project.
Photo: Buddhist monks working on a sand mandala (Karan via Wikimedia Commons)