Buddhist Mandalas & Books

This week, the renovated Crow Museum of Asian Art, in downtown Dallas features the Tibetan Buddhist Monks from the Drepung Loseling Monastery for their annual, fall week-long residency building a mandala painting from colored sands. The public is invited into the meditative space to observe the monks at work. I am visiting the new exhibit with two of my past design students.


The monks begin the mandala with a blessing of the space. Small bowls of sand and tools are laid along a back table with offerings to the Dalai Lama. The tools consisted of compasses, white chalk pencils, and chakpurs. Chakpurs are ribbed, tapered, metal tubes filled with colored grains of sand. A blueprint of the mandala design is drawn on a black wooden table. A monk holds the chakpur in one hand and uses a small pointed rod to rub across the ribs of the tube. Vibrations from the rubbing cause the sand to flow smoothly onto the marked design. Listening to the rhythmic sound of the monk rubbing the chakpur in the quiet of the gallery creates a sense of peace. Another monk adds second layer designs with a stylus on top of the first layer of colored sand fields.



The creation of the mandala painting uses prescribed iconography with geometric forms combined with spiritual symbols that re-consecrates the earth and its inhabitants. There are layers of meditative meanings in the designs moving from the physical life to inner spiritual life.

The design takes a full week to complete. When finished, a mandala is ceremonially consecrated and swept away. In a ritual symbolizing life’s impermanence, small bags of sand are given to observers who accompany the monks to Turtle Creek. The sand is poured into the flowing water.


Another item in the museum caught my eye. A Burmese Buddhist Kammavaca (lacquered book) manuscript from the Konbaung Period (1752-1885). The manuscript displays excerpts of the Tipitaka, the Theravada Buddhist canon and monastic code of discipline. Early texts were written with a stylus on unadorned palm leaf. During the 17th century, a square stylized letterform called Pali became popular. The thick, glossy black lacquer letters resemble tamarind seeds known as “tamarind seed script”.

Lacquered wooden covers protect the stacked pages made of folded sheets of palm leaf, lacquered cloth, ivory or metal. They were embellished with silver or gold leaf decorations. Classical Burmese lacquer boxes used red, black, yellow, and gold colors.


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