Sacred Sands: the making of a Mandala

Mandalas – ephemeral works of art. | Photo by Vladimir Melnik

Mandalas – ephemeral works of art. | Photo by Vladimir Melnik

Tibetan monks will be creating a Sand Mandala at the Sacred Sands exhibit this June at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden under the supervision of Venerable Khenpo Sondam Rinpoche. Sand Mandalas are intricate art made of powdered gems. It is only recently the Dalai Lama has permitted the Mandalas to be made in public as a means of teaching others about Tibetan culture.

Sand Mandalas have been around for a very long time. They were invented in antiquity, in Tibet. The same patterns have been used for thousands of years. A Mandala represents a Buddha’s divine place of residence. John Robinson is a member of a meditation group based in Kitsilano that invited three Tibetan Buddhist monks, from a monastery in Toronto, to perform the ancient tradition of making a Sand Mandala.

“These designs are very ancient,” says Robinson. “Some patterns no one knows who created them – that’s how old they are.”

Sand Mandalas: A distinct art form

The mandalas, with the materials and tools used, are a particular kind of art.

“What they do is take pretty semi-precious stones, ground them up into a powder so they look and feel like different color sand,” says Robinson. “They take a board and draw a pattern on it with chalk, and put down the sand.”

How they put down the sand is unique too.

A very narrow tube has the powder poured in it. A stick is rubbed on the tube, which vibrates the tube and allows only one grain to fall out at a time. This process allows for intricate detail in creating the mandala; but with multiple men working on it, this means a smaller mandala can take over a week to finish. Some of the bigger Mandalas have shifts of men working on them so it can be done quicker.


The work is often done in the open, and sometimes a breeze could blow powder away. One April, in New Jersey, a three-year-old boy jumped on top of the display and played in the powder. The Mandala was salvaged, but it was very smudged.

The monks could have been very upset, but working with nature’s elements has life lessons.

“That [leaving it in the open] is a risk we take,” says Robinson. “If it is destroyed, in some way, it is a reminder of the fact that everything is impermanent. And even if you work long and hard at it, it will still eventually vanish forever.”

The monks in New Jersey were hours away from ceremoniously destroying the Mandala, which is another important part of the tradition.

“They have a ceremony where there is chants and music,” says Robinson. “Then the head monk slowly sweeps the sand off the board and they wrap it up.”

The sand is then thrown into the river, or any body of water, which has a meaning as well.

“By working very hard on it, what they are doing is putting energy in the sand, and that energy is love and compassion, hope for peace, hope for unity and all positive things. The sand is filled with all these good things, and when you put it in the ocean or river that energy is released [and] it spreads all over the world.”

Sacred Sands will be at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden from June 11–17.