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Voices Spring-Summer 2006:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read “In the Midst of a Monastery: Filming the Making of a Buddhist Sand Mandala” by Puja Sahney here.
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Volume 32

In the Midst of a Monastery: Filming the Making of a Buddhist Sand Mandala by Puja Sahney

In June of 2005, I was selected by the New York Folklore Society to serve as a summer graduate intern at the Dutchess County Arts Council in Poughkeepsie. My first project was to assist folklorist Eileen Condon and a crew of fieldworkers in filming and photographing the Buddhist cultural festivities celebrated at the Kagyu Thubten Choling (KTC) monastery in Wappingers Falls, New York. I had been in the United States for one year at the time. As a Hindu from India, Buddhism is not altogether foreign to me. As Eileen described the monastery’s stupa on the bank of the Hudson River, I pictured Hindu temples along several rivers I know in India. When she spoke of documenting their fire puja, I pictured the havans (fire rituals) that my family held in our house.

Mandala team uses traditional tools to fill in the sacred design.
The mandala team uses traditional tools to fill in the sacred design. Photo: Eileen Condon

Located right on the riverbank in Wappingers Falls, New York, the Kagyu Thubten Choling monastery seems hidden among trees. The monastery was founded in 1978 as a one-story building on seven acres of land. The monastery is now a retreat center for serious students of the Kagyu branch of Tibetan Buddhism. On the day after my arrival in Wappingers Falls, I accompanied Eileen to the monastery to meet the crew that had volunteered to assist in making the documentary. The first thing that caught my eye on arriving at the monastery was the stupa by the river. It is a white building, with beautiful golden ornamentation on the roof and walls. Stupas were the first form of Tibetan architecture—originally “simple moundshaped” structures of brick and mud to cover the ashes and relics of the Buddha—but over the centuries they have become more elaborate buildings (Wangu 86). Ani Yeshe Palmo, a nun at the KTC monastery, explained that a stupa is also a “representation of the Buddha’s mind and is one of the things that an authentic monastery is supposed to have” (Palmo 2005). Ani Yeshe is a former folklorist. She had met with Eileen earlier in the year, introducing the monastery’s cultural activities and engaging the Dutchess County Arts Council’s interest in capturing its cultural art. Ani Yeshe told me that the KTC stupa was built for America. Buddhists believe that building a stupa helps to protect the environment and the country and pacify aggression, terrorism, and negativity (Palmo 2005).

As I got out of the car at the monastery, still gazing at the stupa, I saw monks and nuns walking from it to the main monastery building. They had finished chanting. Many of the monks were also busy getting tents ready for the KTC Olympics, which were to be held in ten days. The KTC Olympics—an annual event—allow members of different branches of the monastery to get together for discussion and training. The 2005 KTC Olympics would include a Wang, in which a learned practitioner gives students empowerment or permission to undertake certain meditation practices. The sand mandala that we planned to photograph and film would be part of the empowerment ceremony. In a tent close by, several monks were getting tsa tsas ready for the stupa. Tsa tsa literally means “representation”; they are little stupas made of clay, each with a small mantra roll inside with thousands of mantras written on it. The tsa tsas are put inside the stupa. According to Ani Yeshe Palmo, the tsa tsas are so filled with blessings that they help the stupa to magnetize and radiate energy (2005). When we headed to the dining hall of the main building, I saw monks and nuns busy with dinner preparations. In spite of all the activity, there was a sense of quietness all around. Everyone was moving around in a peaceful way that made me almost self-conscious of my steps. Friendly smiles greeted us everywhere. Karen Michel and Brian Farmer, who would assist us in filming and photographing the festivities, had already arrived at the main building. Ani Yeshe arrived after a few minutes. As we got down to dividing up the work, Eileen voiced her preference to film the making of the mandala for the Dutchess County Arts Council’s folklore archive, while Brian and Karen decided to document the festive activities of Olympics weekend.

The Significance of the Mandala

The sand mandala’s creation was the most elaborate Buddhist ritual that that our group recorded. The mandala’s religious and symbolic significance is more complex than film can capture, but its patterns and colors are a folklorist’s delight. When I first heard of the sand mandala I couldn’t quite imagine how the finished object would look. Although similar to the Indian art of rangoli, Tibetan sand mandalas have more intricate patterns with secret meanings. They can also be made from paint or can be three dimensional buildings—but they cannot be made up. All mandala designs come from the deity itself and have to look exactly as the written teaching says they should (Palmo 2005). The mandala we witnessed was made of colorful sand. It was the mandala of Korlo Demchok, who is an extremely complex deity, encompassing qualities of wisdom, compassion, and all things of merit.

Lama Chopal pours sand meditatively on the outer rings of the mandala
Lama Chopal pours sand meditatively on the outer rings of the mandala. Photo: Eileen Condon

The word mandal comes from the Sanskrit word for circle. Sand mandalas are symbolic of the circle of life and death. Although they are made painstakingly, they are destroyed after the ceremony, reflecting the Buddhist doctrine that nothing is ever permanent. Most often, the completed sand mandala is thrown into a river, where its sand is believed to bless all the land the water touches. Mandalas are made when a need is felt to heal the environment and other living creatures. There are other motivations, as well:
Making . . . the mandala is also a Tibetan meditative practice; sound, sight, and motion are not treated as distraction but as means to channel physical energies into currents that carry the spirit forward instead of derailing it. Mandalas are treated as the current of sight and with their colors and holy patterns they treat the eyes to icons whose holy beauty draws the beholder in their direction (Smith and Novak 2003, 108–9)

Making the Mandala

On the day that work on the sand mandala was scheduled to begin, Eileen and I headed to the stupa an hour early to set up our cameras. We figured that a mandala would require major preparations, but when we reached the stupa, we were met with only a blank blue board, five feet square, on an easel at the entrance. The monks and students who were to make the mandala were still at breakfast.

The heat of the day had already begun, so we decided to enter the stupa. It had not yet been fitted with a lock, but once the door was bolted, it could only be opened through the delicate intricacies of a metal rod waiting at the entrance. At our previous meeting Ani Yeshe had demonstrated the whole process to us. One had to insert the rod carefully between the two doors and give it a slight push. After a few tries each we finally were able to push it open. The stupa is extremely small and closed inside, but peaceful, with the sounds from outside shut out. A man was meditating on the carpet in front of the stupa’s huge bronze statue of the Buddha. The lights were rather dim, adding to the majesty of the statue. After we brought in all our equipment and loaded the cameras with new tapes, we sat down in front of the Buddha, and I gazed at it. The Buddha is sitting in the pose of Enlightenment, with legs folded in the lotus position and hands loosely on his lap (Wangu 1993, 85–6). The peaceful smile, erect back, and hands in the lap looked so relaxed that before I knew it, I held the same posture. I looked over and saw Eileen sitting the same way. I have no idea how long we sat there or when the man who was meditating left. I opened my eyes with a start when I heard someone walk into the room. The crew that was to make the mandala had finally arrived.
Metal cones traditionally tapped to release sand
Metal cones traditionally tapped to release sand, alongside Buddhist prayer beads. Photo: Puja Sahney
When I first noticed Lama Chopal, he was already bending over the blue board and putting it on a stand. He is a gifted craftsman, trained in traditional Tibetan art. I quickly glanced at Eileen to see if we were to begin filming. She was already getting out the digital camera. Lama Chopal didn’t bring the board inside the stupa. He left it at the entrance. He was measuring the board with his fingers and a piece of paper. He then took a long string from a roll and placed it horizontally on the blue board. A student standing next to him, as though instructed, then pulled at the thread, and it left a chalk line across the blue board.

He repeated the same process vertically. Someone leaned over and whispered that the point where the lines cross is the exact center of the board and that there cannot be any mistake.

The two lines are called the Brahman lines. Barry Bryant explains, “The radius of the mandala is then divided along the Brahman lines into thirteen equal parts. The divisions are not done mathematically but by trail and error, folding a strip of paper until it has thirteen equal parts totaling the length of the radius” (1992, 183). For about four hours Lama Chopal continued to draw lines in the same fashion across the board; only once in while would he use a compass to draw a circle or a ruler to take measurements. Mostly he used paper, folding or cutting it to different sizes as he measured. As he did so there were students or other monks pulling at the string, and by noon the entire board was covered by zigzagging lines. The chalked string is a traditional and ancient way of laying out the mandala, developed before rulers and other instruments of measure. The geometric figure of a mandala is usually a “circle inside a square and is regarded as the dwelling place of the gods,” according to Madhu B. Wangu. While creating the two-dimensional sand mandala the monks are visualizing the palace of the deity: a form of meditation. In the center of the mandala is a “figure of the Buddha or some other divinity, while surrounding it are fantastically intricate symbols and depictions of other gods and religious scenes” (Wangu 1993, 94).

While Lama Chopal and two students worked on making the outline of the mandala at the entrance, Ani Karma Chotso—a nun visiting from Florida, who was in charge of the sand mandala project—began to open small packets of color and set them out in bowls. These would be the colors used in the mandala, she said. The color would be laid between the outlines, which would make the mandala like a colorful painting of sand. Mandalas are made from the colors black, white, red, blue, yellow, and green. There are three shades each of red, blue, yellow, and green, making a total of fourteen colors. While in ancient times the sand of colored stone would be grated, “these days white stones are ground and dyed with opaque water colors to produce the bright tones found in the sand paintings” (Bryant 1992, 177–8). Ani Karma had ordered the best sand on the Internet. The sight of the small colored packets drew almost all those around the stupa inside, making the small space quite stifling for a moment.

While Lama Chopal was still busy making the outlines, Ani Karma let the assembled students begin practicing laying the colors on old newspapers. Sand mandalas are made on thick wooden boards with objects called chak-purs. A chak-pur is a cone-shaped funnel that is perforated on the narrow end. You scrape a flat, metal rod against the cone, and the vibration allows the sand to flow like colored water from the chak-pur’s end. The rubbing of the two rods is believed to be symbolic of the union between compassion and wisdom (Bryant 1992, 195). While the sand trickling out of the chak-pur is indeed a beautiful sight, the vibration between the chak-pur and the rod creates a feeling of spirituality in itself. It is a sound of manual labor, but more meditative and soothing. Barry Bryant explains, “The monks interpret the sound of the hollow metal chak-purs being rubbed together as an expression of the Buddhist concept of emptiness or the interdependence of the phenomenon” (1992, 195).

Lama Chopal finishing the outer ring of a Buddhist sand mandala
From the cover: Lama Chopal finishing the outer ring of a Buddhist sand mandala. Photo: Puja Sahney
While the sound of the chak-purs filled the stupa, Lama Chopal continued to work diligently on completing the outline. He had now begun the inner patterns of the mandala, using a black pen to draw the intricate designs. It took Lama Chopal, assisted by a few students, a day and half to complete making the entire outline of the mandala. The following day, Lama Chopal and the rest of the crew got down to work laying the color carefully on the mandala. He would begin on the outline and then carefully fill the remaining area. Sometimes he would painstakingly shade the areas using the different light, medium, and dark tones.

After two days filming the making of the mandala, Eileen felt confident to leave me alone with the camera. Each day as the lunch hour approached, Lama Chopal asked the crew to take a break and have some lunch, and each day he invited me to join them. Many monks and nuns recognized me and would greet me in the dining hall or on the campus. By the third day of work on the sand mandala, I had begun to feel at home in the monastery. After lunch the crew would head back to the stupa, and the post–lunch session would get under way. Lamas, other monks, and nuns constantly dropped in to admire the mandala and encourage the crew making it. Oftentimes a Buddhist would chant mantras in a corner while the crew worked, adding to the meditative atmosphere inside the stupa. The biggest treat for everyone would be when someone from the monastery kitchen would bring in a big steel vessel of Indian chai.

By the fourth day, the mandala was nearing completion. I had seen all the stages of its making and had by now become familiar with the sounds of the chak-purs and the way that the workers’ hands moved. During the post-lunch session, Ani Karma came up to me while I was filming and suggested that I try my hand at the chak-pur. I was a bit surprised, but also flattered that she had asked me. Usually only monks make a sand mandala. The KTC crew was mostly Buddhist, but most of the workers were not monks or nuns. The Kagyu Thubten monastery wants to encourage the mandala tradition in America and does not see the benefit of limiting participation. I had been hesitant to ask Lama Chopal if I could color a section, but by then I should have known better than to fear a monk would refuse anything to anyone. So later on, while he was working alone on the mandala, I asked him if I could give it a try. I was glad that he was delighted by my request.

The feeling of holding the chak-purs in my hands was overwhelming because they held so much history and tradition. I didn’t dare to start on an intricate design; I instead chose to color a broad quadrant. I moved my hands and the color just fell like magic from the other end. As I knew from observation, “The flow of the sand is controlled by the speed and pressure used in rasping. Slow, soft rasping causes the sand to trickle out, even just a few grains at a time, while harder, faster rasping causes it to pour out in a steady stream” (Bryant 1992, 195). I bent a bit closer to the board in order not to spill anything outside the line. By then the rest of the crew trickled in and smiled to see me at work. At first my hands moved quickly. But after twenty minutes of sitting on the ground, my bent back and crossed legs began to tire. My hands, too, started to ache. I looked around and saw the others working diligently and felt ashamed of feeling tired so soon. It was only after I had been at it myself that I began to admire the stamina and dedication of the people around me. Coloring the mandala was an exhausting task that required immense concentration, physical stamina, and a steady hand. After I got back to filming the process, I would sympathize with people when they would turn around, stretch their legs, massage them a bit, and get back to work.

The nearly complete mandala
The nearly complete mandala. Photo: Eileen Condon

At the end of the fifth day, work on the mandala was finally ending. People from the monastery came down to watch. Many of the monks and the nuns began chanting mantras, while Lama Chopal gave the mandala a few final touches. It was finished. In the corner of the stupa, the mandala held within itself the positive force that all the strength and goodwill of the crew had given it.

Dismantling the Mandala

After five days of labor on the mandala, its ultimate fate was to be thrown into the river at the end of the KTC Olympics. Although I was inclined to use the word “destroy,” Buddhists see it as a form of blessing on all the land where the water flows and also on any aquatic life in the water. For them it is a great sharing, instead of destruction.

The sand mandala was taken with due reverence to the water in a blue truck, in which all the crew who had made the mandala also rode. I was surprised that everyone sat quite merrily in the open truck with the mandala. I had assumed that they would be nostalgic to see their labor swept away, but once again I was misinterpreting the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence. “The dismantling of the sand mandala may be interpreted as a lesson in nonattachment, a letting go of the self-mind,” Bryant notes (1992, 230). Several monks and nuns tilted the board, allowing the sand to slip into the river. While most of the sand went into the water, some of it was saved for future blessings. I asked Ani Yeshe Palmo what became of the blue board on which the mandala had been made. She said that it was carefully placed in the woodshed until the next time they make a mandala.

I was surprised how happy I was on the way home that last day. The Buddhist doctrine that everything is impermanent had become a reality for me, too. I was simply glad that I had been part of the mandala’s journey this once. Buddhists believe that even looking at a mandala is a blessing, and after a week at the monastery, I did feel truly blessed.


Puja Sahney served as graduate intern at the Dutchess County Arts Council in Poughkeepsie, New York, during the summer of 2005, thanks to a grant provided by the New York State Council on the Arts and the New York Folklore Society. Sahney is currently a second-year master’s student and instructor in the folklore program at Utah State University in Logan, Utah. This essay is written in honor of the people she met and the love she received at the Kagyu Thubten Choling monastery.

Sand mandalas are symbolic of the circle of life and death. Although they are made painstakingly, they are destroyed after the ceremony, reflecting the Buddhist doctrine that nothing is ever permanent. Most often, the completed sand mandala is thrown into a river, where its sand is believed to bless all the land the water touches...

Works Cited

Bryant, Barry. 1992. The Wheel of Time Sand Mandala: Visual Scripture of Tibetan Buddhism. New York: Harper-Collins.

Palmo, Ani Yeshe. July 25, 2005. Interview by Puja Sahney. Tape recording.

Smith, Huston, and Philip Novak. 2003. Buddhism: A Concise Introduction. New York: Harper-Collins.

Wangu, Madhu B. 1993. Buddhism. New York: Brown Publishing.

This article appeared in Voices Vol. 32, Spring-Summer 2006. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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