Art and culture

The Buddhist Artworks That Are Deliberately Destroyed

Sand mandalas are beautiful, but don’t get too attached, says scholar Lozang Hau

Nothing lasts forever: this is an important lesson in Buddhism. One way Tibetan Buddhist monks meditate on the impermanence of all things is by creating coloured, patterned mandalas out of sand – astounding works of art requiring days – only to wipe them away.

Mandala is a Sanskrit term for ‘circle’. It is drawn with intricate geometric patterns depicting the celestial palace of Bodhisattvas (enlightened beings). In this layout, the centre is the main hall where the enlightened one resides. Surrounding the centre are enclosures that house the deity’s consorts.

A mandala is drawn using five colours – yellow, blue, red, green and white – to symbolise the five fundamental elements of earth, water, fire, wind and ether. Buddhists seeking enlightenment contemplate the physical world as a mandala: beautiful and pure.

Tibetan Buddhists reproduce mandalas on fabric or on walls to help them in their contemplations. During important pujas, or rituals, monks create mandalas out of coloured sand. They scoop a bit of sand into a small tube, hunch down close to their work and scrape the grated surface of the tube to slowly spill out the sand. Days or weeks later, what results is an elaborately designed, vibrant circle. After a few more days of meditation, the monks destroy what they had created. The sand is mixed up, collected into a jar and, usually, released into a river.

I’ve attended a few pujas in Hong Kong in which sand mandalas were made and am moved by the monks’ religious passion each time I see them spending vast amounts of time and effort to make a mandala, all the while knowing it will be destroyed not long after completion. And to see a finished sand mandala – intricately designed but created with such simple tools – is a pure joy.

As the ritual comes to a close, the sand mandala’s beauty is forever lost, but it reminds us that nothing is permanent. If we can let go of unnecessary worries and keep a light heart, life is good no matter what happens in the outside world. It may be a mantra of Buddhism, but it’s a philosophical mindset that I’m sure resonates with non-Buddhists as well.

Lozang Hau is an adjunct professor at the School of Humanistic Buddhism at the Hong Kong Nang Yan College of Higher Education

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