Watch a Tibetan Wheel of Life mandala take form

Tenzin Wangdu Thokme, L, and Ven. Lama Losang Samten, R. Photo: Xeni Jardin.

I traveled to Santa Barbara this week to observe the Santa Barbara Tibet Summit, and the creation of a Tibetan sand mandala under the direction of Ven. lama Lobsang Samten.

Above, a short video I shot yesterday on my iPhone in which Samten explains some of the history and symbolism behind the "Wheel of Life" mandala, which is based in a very old tradition but also encompasses some newer creative elements.

It was a beautiful thing to see and hear, over the course of days. The chakpur, those conical metal tools you see in the video that they use to "paint" with the sand, make a raspy percussive rhythmic sound. It's hypnotic. When you can hear that you've achieved just the right pace and rhythm with that sound, one monk said, you know your mind has reached a meditative state of emptiness, and that is where you're supposed to be when you are creating the mandala.

The environment was reverent but there was also some goofing around, as evidenced in the photo below, in which Ven. Thepo Rinpoche takes an iPad snapshot of Samten's head. Yes, some monks carry iPads and iPhones and other gadgets, and they sometimes use them in interesting ways.

"His bald head is a mandala!" Thepo-la said as he snapped the picture. And then they both cracked up.

Ven. Thepo Rinpoche snaps a photo of Samten's head as he works on the sand mandala. Photo: Xeni Jardin.

Samten and assisting monks (and others) completed the mandala this morning at 11am PT.

Tomorrow, Saturday January 26, they will ritually destroy the mandala in a ceremony that takes place at the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara at 11am PT.

Why are the sand mandalas destroyed, when they are so beautiful and take so much labor and devotion to create? I asked Samten.

"They're like a birthday cake. They are meant to be eaten."

I will be there at the destruction ceremony Saturday. If you're a Boing Boing reader in Southern California, I encourage you to come, too. Schedule here; there are other things happening around the Tibet Summit over the weekend, including film screenings tonight and on Sunday (coincidentally, the Santa Barbara Film Festival is happening this week, too).

Losang Samten, working on the Wheel of Life mandala in Santa Barbara. Photo: Xeni Jardin


  1. Da fuq?!  I live in SB… I’ve never heard of this.  Where is it?!?!

    Edit: Oh wow….. nvm. Two blocks from my office at the Unitarian Society. How little I know about my own City….

  2. Thank you, I’ve seen these before, always astounding. 

    This one seems especially beautiful, and less, geometric? more representational.

  3. I love hanging around Tibetan monks because they seem to have a perfect balance of reverence and goofiness – they tend to have excellent senses of humor, and enjoy a good jokin’ around more than their serious countenance would suggest.

    I was once working at an event where one of the keynotes was going to be a traditional performance by a group of Tibetan monks. They had been around all day, and most of them spoke very little english, and since everyone running the event backstage was nervous about offending them or confusing them or whatever, people seemed to be walking on eggshells around this large group of monks. Finally one of the monks wisely decided to break the ice by declaring “TICKLE WAR” and tickling one of the stagehands. What ensued was wonderful and hilarious in every way.

  4. I wish all religions were as sane as the Buddhist. I mean, I think they are still crazy for believing in magic, but it is the sort of harmless crazy that adds character. Congregationalist are also on my list of “your beliefs in the supernatural is dumb, but I like you and you are a good human”.

    I have a good friend of mine who is a Congregationalist, and I swear that he does far more to covert the damned than any crazy ass bible wielding nut. The dude just leads by example and never passes judgment. Everyone agrees that he is an awesome chill dude who is a good and trust worthy person. He can comfortably sit down with a metal head friend of mine, strike up interesting conversation and pass on a second beer because he tries not to drink too much. When he gets in among godless heathens who make some off the cuff crack at religion because they assume everyone else at the table is a godless heathen, while I am wincing because I am worried about his feelings, he is laughing and chill. He can be around my gay friends and doesn’t feel that they are damned. If I had the capacity for make believe I would be a convert.

    I wish all religions to be as chill as Congregationalist or Buddhist. The world would be a much more pleasant place. You know what they say though, “wish in one hand and shit in the other, and see which one fills up first”.

    1. Well.  There is plenty of terrible shit within the Buddhist history, you know. I mean, Buddhists are still human and they aren’t always perfect. I dated a Buddhist once… He was very serious about his Buddhism. I also had to get a restraining order on him. :) The first and only time I’ve ever had to do something like that, btw.

      (This did not make me bitter toward Buddhists, btw! I own some prayer beads, and those were a recent purchase.)

      1. I’ve definitely run into some angry, angry Buddhists in my meditation classes because I WASN’T DOING IT RIGHT!!

        1. What you observed is called “Buddhist Personality Disorder.” I’m trying to get this listed in the DSM, but nobody is listening!

          1. The symptoms are hard to miss: eyerolling, rapid side-to-side head movement, tsking, harrumphing and ants in the pants.

          2. It’s probably in the same part of the spectrum as Vegan Personality Disorder.

            But obviously not all Buddhists are enlightened.

  5. I’ve always been blown away by the sand mandalas. Never heard the birthday cake thing. It was always “this is impermanence. Is this not like your life here on earth? You build and create and make beauty, but in the end, it gets destroyed, has no meaning etc…” I like the birthday cake metaphor just a tiny bit more, cause at least birthday parties are fun.

  6. Am I the only one to find it ironic that these guys wear wrist watches?

    Also, I know it’s a digital artifact from the camera, but I kept seeing weird perspective distortions in the background, like Scarecrow from Batman Begins.  A bout half-way through, I thought it was the really spicy curry I had for dinner, and I was communicating with my own personal Siddhartha.

  7. How wonderful! There’s a mandala in a San Antonio art museum, perhaps the only one you can see unless you are watching it being made. Xeni, how did you move the camera so smoothly, like a steadycam?

    1. There are a few sand mandalas that their creators have allowed to be preserved. There aren’t many, and I’m honestly kind of torn about the whole thing (even though the museum I work at has one). There’s an argument to be made that preserving one or two examples of the form is important for posterity’s sake, but the philosopher in me can’t help but feel slightly betrayed.

      I’ve seen the preserved mandala we have, but I’ve also seen one while it was being made (that was later destroyed after it was on view for a week or so) and another while it was being destroyed. As much I like examining the preserved one we have in our gallery, I have to admit that watching the other be destroyed was much more satisfying.

      1. The Denver Art Museum has one, I believe. The story behind it is fascinating. The museum didn’t know how to preserve sand and display it on a wall so they called in 3M to somehow bind the sand together. When they hung it up, they really had no idea what would happen but it clung together and is still there to this day I believe.

        I respect Tibetan culture, but I’m glad there are a few preserved mandalas out there.

    1. Who do you think mends their robes?  Themselves.  Of course some go with the mass manufacturing route.

  8. There’s a sequence in Samsara showing the making of one of these. I think the most astonishing part is when they just wipe it all away after finishing it.

    1. I think there is some ritual involved, like sweeping up the sand, walking it to the river, and pouring it into the water.

      1. I saw one made in Wilmington, NC. They dumped it in the sea afterwards – not really much of a ritual but just walking out on the beach, getting into the waves, and letting it go. It was pretty funny to see these monks all in their saffron robes walking on the beach, all the curious beach goers in their bikinis and jams crowding around to see. The monks were totally comfortable with everyone. They walked into the water and dumped it out.

        My daughter was pretty young, about 8 or 9, and had enjoyed watching it being made so much. She had a really hard time with them dumping it out in the ocean. 

  9. i am so disapoint…all they did in the vid was talk about it, no actual making of, or “watching it take form” was to be seen in the video :( :(

  10. They did one of these in DC and it was more than half done when some crazy person rushed in and ruined it.

    The monks weren’t upset, they just said “He did exactly what he needed to do, and he may have been the one that that the mandala helped the most.”

    And then they started over.

  11. The photo of the monk snapping a photo with his iPad is clearly NOT a photo of him snapping a photo. The image on the iPad screen was taken over the let shoulder of the monk in the photo. Sorry, fact nazi in the house…

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