Sand Art Takes On New Meaning

In the current heat wave, many folks might be dreaming of visiting a beach and creating a sand castle against a backdrop of waves and boardwalks. Others could be thinking of going to a summer carnival and layering colored sand in a small vase to make a decorative keepsake.

However, “sand art” has taken on an entirely new meaning for area residents who witnessed the creation of an intricate form of Tibetan Buddhist art at Bethany College earlier this year.

Noted Martins Ferry photographer Jay Stock had the privilege of documenting the work of six Tibetan Buddhist monks from start to finish. Stock visited the Bethany campus daily during the monks’ four-day stay to take a series of photographs of the project from its inception at historic Commencement Hall until its conclusion when sand from the work of art was scattered in Buffalo Creek.

“It was unbelievable,” Stock said, “for six men to take three days painting with sand, all colors of sand, to come up with this piece.”

The large work of art is known as a mandala, which is a Sanskrit word meaning sacred cosmogram or “world in harmony.”

The particular mandala design created at Bethany was called “Avalokiteshvara,” which means “The Buddha of Compassion.”

While taking photographs of the monks at work, Stock communicated with one monk who served as a spokesman for the group. The monk explained the steps involved in the process, and the meaning behind each action.

The project began with the monks drawing an outline of a pattern on a large platform. “Then they start by putting on one grain of sand. They build it up from there,” Stock said.

Millions of grains of sand are laid into place in this ancient spiritual art form, with spectacular results. The monks believe that, through creating the artwork, they are taking action in order to purify and heal the environment and its inhabitants.

The Tibetan Buddhist monks who visited Bethany are from Drepung Loseling Monastery, which has been re-established in exile in south India.

The monks’ visit was part of The Mystical Arts of Tibet, a world tour co-produced by Richard Gere Productions and Drepung Loseling. The tour, endorsed by the Dalai Lama and operated under the guidance of the monastery, “was designed to make a contribution to world peace and healing through sacred art; to generate a greater awareness of the endangered Tibetan civilization and to raise support for the Tibetan refugee community in India,” Bethany officials stated.

Painting with colored sand has been described as one of the most exquisite of the artistic traditions of Tantric Buddhism. As the monks demonstrated at Bethany College, millions of grains of sand are arranged on a flat platform over a period of days or weeks to form the image of a mandala. To date, the monks have created mandala sand paintings in more than 100 museums, art centers, colleges and universities in the United States and Europe, officials said.

Mandalas also can be created in other media, such as watercolor on canvas and wood carvings, but colored sand is the most common substance used to make these paintings. “Sand-painted mandalas are used as tools for re-consecrating the earth and its inhabitants,” according to a statement from The Mystical Arts of Tibet.

“In general, all mandalas have outer, inner and secret meanings,” officials of the world tour explained. “On the outer level, they represent the world in its divine form; on the inner level, they represent a map by which the ordinary human mind is transformed into enlightened mind; and on the secret level, they depict the primordially perfect balance of the subtle energies of the body and the clear light dimension of the mind. The creation of a sand painting is said to effect purification and healing on these three levels.”

During an opening ceremony in Commencement Hall, the monks consecrated the site and called forth “the forces of goodness” through chanting, music and mantra recitation.

In the next step, the monks draw a line design for the mandala on a wooden platform. The artists measure and draw the architectural lines using a straight-edged ruler, compass and white pencil.

After the diagram is completed, colored sand is applied to the mandala through the end of a metal funnel called a chak-pur. Each monk holds the traditional funnel while running a metal rod on its grated surface. The resulting vibration “causes the sands to flow like liquid onto the platform,” officials related. The artists begin at the center of the mandala and work outward.

Traditionally, most sand mandalas are destroyed shortly after their completion, as a metaphor for the impermanence of life, according to the monks. “Nothing is permanent in Buddhism,” Stock said.

In keeping with that custom, the sand from the Bethany mandala was swept up and placed in an urn. Half of the collected sand was distributed to the audience at a closing ceremony and the rest was carried to nearby Buffalo Creek, where it was deposited. The monks said they believe that “waters carry the healing blessing to the ocean, and from there it spreads throughout the world for planetary healing.”