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Grain by Grain: The Construction of a Sand Mandala at Asia Society Museum

Published on
February 21

For five full days at the Asia Society, five Buddhist monks worked tirelessly on a huge sand mandala, painstakingly arranging grain after grain of colored sand in an intricate circular pattern. The completed mandala will be on display for the duration of the Asia Society’s new exhibit, “Golden Visions of Densatil: A Tibetan Buddhist Monastary.” At the conclusion of the exhibit, monks will destroy the sand mandala. I visited the museum on the third day of the mandala’s construction. This was my first ever trip to the Asia Society, and I was excited to explore the entire museum, which had just opened several interesting new exhibits. These exhibits were certainly quite interesting: an impressive collection of precious artifacts from a lost Tibetan monastery, interesting sculptures and glorious tapestry depicting Indian gods and legends, and a fascinating modern multimedia shadow play. However, the creation of the sand mandala was by far the most captivating experience I had that day. It was truly unlike anything I had ever seen before.

The mandala was my first stop on my trip through the Asia Society. Two large glass doors lead into a small, square windowless room. In the center, four monks in traditional dress and mouth guards sit around a square table. They had just come back from a short break and were already hard at work. The monks had previously completed the entire square section in the middle of the mandala, an incredibly detailed section with a great deal of vibrant color, precise lines, and several human figures. However, the much larger outer circle still remained to be completed – a rough pencil outline showed the full size of the mandala, and the monks were just beginning to fill in the centermost sections of it. The idea of making a dinner table-sized detailed work of art out of sand sounds daunting enough, but actually witnessing its creation reveals just how much work it takes. The monks would scoop up small amounts of colored sand into narrow, cornucopia-esque funnels with long stems. Then, they carefully, delicately work a bit of sand out of the small opening at the end by scraping the funnel stem with another tool. The monks return any excess sand to its vessel (being sure to get every single grain out of the funnel!) before scooping up a new color and adding a bit more sand to the mandala. The monks also occasionally used a small scraper tool to push the sand around or arrange it into lines, as well as pencils to make markings in the sand showing where a new color was to be added on top for extremely detailed sections. Though the process of creating a mandala is often used as an aid to meditation, it is still a slow and arduous process. Early on during my first visit to this room, one of the monks sat back in his seat and let out a loud, weary sigh (prompting a few laughs from the small crowd of observers). He was not afraid to admit how hard the work was; yet of course he persisted. That kind of dedication is truly inspiring.

During my first visit to this room, the monks were working independently and fairly quietly on their own sides of the table. However, on my second trip to the room after visiting another exhibit, the monks had rearranged. One was now kneeling on a pillow next to another monk. He had completed the large teal semicircular section of his side and was now helping his neighbor with his section. The mandala is divided into four similar sections radiating out from the center, each similar to the last with often only variations in the color of the sand. However, the mandala is ultimately meant to be a unified, complete, circular work. Though the monks tended to work individually on one of the four similar sections, at the heart of this was a shared, singular goal.

I stayed at the museum for around two hours, alternating between the mandala and the other exhibits. I was absolutely amazed by how much progress the monks had made on the mandala even in the fairly short time frame I was there observing. By the time I left, the monks had almost completed the entire first circular section surrounding the central square. While most of this was solid teal, each side also had an extremely detailed section in the middle featuring half a dozen unique colors and small details like ridges and circles. I cannot imagine how many individual grains of sand the monks arranged in those two hours, using only their hands and simple delicate tools. Nor can I imagine how many more grains remain before the mandala is complete. On my final visit to the mandala right before leaving the museum, only one solitary monk remained at the table, tirelessly finishing up a small detailed section. The other three monks were taking a quick coffee break outside the room, and looking at a picture of the completed mandala on an iPad. It was an interesting, almost incongruous juxtaposition. Yet this brief use of technology did not diminish the amount of effort and human labor that was needed to produce the mandala. While Tibetan monks certainly did not always have iPads to provide a reference, the actual creation of the mandala remains as painstaking as it has always been. In our rapidly changing world and our rapidly changing lives, this small, square room is truly a sacred space; in this room, art and time progresses slowly, inexorably, grain by grain.