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Tibetan Buddhist Mandalas

The Herbert F. Johnson Museum is pleased to present the construction of two Tibetan Buddhist mandalas in conjunction with the visit to Ithaca of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. A tradition originally reserved only for the monastic environment, in recent decades the Dalai Lama has allowed the construction of sand mandalas in public places as a cultural offering and to promote preservation of Tibetan traditions. Two types of mandalas are being constructed here by monks from the Namgyal Monastery, Dharamsala, India, and its branch in Ithaca: a Kalachakra Sand Mandala, and a Thread-cross Mandala. Construction of such mandalas has the purpose of providing temporary dwellings for housing Tantric Buddhist deities. Upon completion, the mandalas will remain on display until October 13, when a dissolution ceremony involving the gathering up of the sand will occur. The public is invited to attend this ceremony and to join the procession that will carry the sand to Beebe Lake. The pouring of the sand into a body of water symbolizes temporality, the releasing of the deity, and the spread of compassion throughout the world.   

This exhibition is funded in part by a grant from the Cornell Council on the Arts. The Museum is also grateful to the Namgyal Monastery, Ithaca, and the Cornell East Asia Program for their support.

A rare and intricate Tibetan art form, the , or thread cross, is woven from colored thread onto crossed sticks, and serves as a trap for harmful spirits. A small thread cross is sometimes hung over the entrance to a Tibetan home for protection. Originating in the indigenous religion of Tibet known as Bon, the thread cross has been incorporated into Buddhist tradition where a three-dimensional construction of thread crosses serves as a mandala, or dwelling for a particular tantric deity. The various colored threads represent precious substances such as peacock feathers, coral, owl feathers, turquoise, iron, etc. Chanting and the presentation of offerings entice the deity to inhabit the thread cross mandala.

The Kalachakra Sand Mandala is based on one of the thousands of Buddhist tantras, or continuities, that express the origin, practice and effects of the Buddha’s teachings. At the center of Kalachakra, the Wheel of Time, is a multiarmed, multiheaded deity that is in blissful union with his consort, representing the perfect union of wisdom and compassion. In the sand mandala the deities are symbolized by Sanskrit “seed” syllables or dots, except for Kalachakra, who is represented by the vajra, or thunderbolt scepter. The student of Tibetan Buddhism uses this mandala as an aid to visualize Kalachakra’s palace and enlist the state of mind represented by the deity, as a progressive step on the path to enlightenment. This particular mandala has a broader function to purify the environment and bring prosperity to the world.

Consisting of five square mandalas, surrounded by six concentric circles, each square represents one of the five levels of Kalachakra’s palace, while the circles represent the elements earth, water, fire, wind, space, and, at the outermost circle, wisdom.  The mandala is created from the center outward, with each monk working on one quadrant, using an elongated metal funnel, called a chakpu, which is filled with colored sand. The sand is carefully released through vibration by using a second chakpu to rasp the surface of the first.  A wooden scraper, called shinga, straightens the edges of the sand and removes any stray grains.