Tibetan Buddhist Arts
What kind of art do you make?
Sometimes art tells a story. Sometimes art teaches a lesson. Sometimes art decorates tools. Sometimes art decorates a space. Sometimes art expresses emotions. Sometimes art shows history.
Ven. Ngawang’s mandalas do different things in different times and places. For a Tibetan Buddhist religious ceremony, Ven. Ngawang makes mandalas for celebration and meditation. For cultural demonstrations, Ven. Ngawang makes mandalas to teach people about Tibetan culture.
Does Ven. Ngawang create new mandala designs when he makes one? No, he uses ancient patterns first taught by Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, about 2,600 years ago. The lines, shapes and colors for each mandala were recorded in texts. Ven. Ngawang memorized these texts during his studies at the Namgyal Monastery. Now he makes mandalas from memory.
Tools, Technique, and Time
Ven. Ngawang starts a mandala by making an outline. He uses a ruler, a pen with silver ink, and two different types of compasses to draw the outline. He draws it on something sturdy, like plywood. This is the base of the mandala, called a theg-pu. The smallest mandala Ven. Ngawang makes is about three feet square and the largest is about six feet square.
Ven. Ngawang uses colored sand for filling in the mandala outline. Ven. Ngawang makes colored sand by first crushing white sand and soft sandstone to make a powder. He adds vegetable dyes or water-based colors. Then he mixes the colored sands with ground-up precious powders and blesses the sand before using it.
Ven. Ngawang makes three shades each of yellow, red, green and blue, plus black and white. Listen to Ven. Ngawang talk about the meaning of the mandala’s colors. You can read along by clicking here.
Ven. Ngawang uses the sand to create the mandala. He fills in the empty spaces with layers of intricate designs. He uses two metal funnels to apply the sand. Each funnel has bumpy ridges on top. He holds one of the funnels exactly where he wants to put the sand and uses the other funnel to rub against the first one, creating friction. The friction makes the sand fall slowly onto the exact place he wants it. A tool he uses to make straight edges is a wooden shingha. Ven. Ngawang must be meticulous and have steady hands to make a good mandala.
Click on the video icon to watch how Ven. Ngwang adds details to a mandala he’s making. The video clip has no words.
Ven. Ngawang often makes a mandala with other monks. It often takes several days. They usually say different prayers while they’re making the mandala. They display the mandala for a few days and then the monks cut the sand, sweep it into a vase, and carry it to body of water. They pour the sand into the water, so that all the prayers in the mandala can go out to the world. Buddhists believe in impermanence. Taking the mandala apart reminds people that nothing lasts forever.
Take a look at this slide show to see Ven. Ngawang dismantling a mandala. He and his translator Tsering Namgyal made the mandala in Madison as part of the 1998 Wisconsin Folklife Festival.