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June 2nd, 2010
05:27 AM ET

A masterpiece in minutes

Update, June 7: Many of you wrote wanting to know more about the music used in the time-lapse video. The song is called "Detectors in the Eyes" and it's by Andrew Shapiro.

It took six days for a group of Buddhist monks to create an extravagant sand mandala at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

But you can watch the entire process in about two minutes thanks to the time-lapse video above.

The sacred art was created March 22-27 as part of Emory’s annual “Tibet Week” celebration. The monks were from Drepung Loseling Monastery Inc., a nonprofit organization in Atlanta dedicated to the study and preservation of Tibetan Buddhist traditions.

Sand mandalas have been in practice for thousands of years, according to Tsepak Rigzin, assistant program director for Drepung Loseling and an adjunct Tibetan language instructor at Emory. Monks use a grated metal rod and a traditional metal funnel called a chak-pur to carefully place millions of grains of colored sand on a table.

“It has to be very exact and very precise,” Rigzin said.

There are hundreds of colorful mandala designs to choose from, Rigzin said, but they all share a basic format of geometric shapes and spiritual symbols.

“Normally the monks who do this, they have to go through a lot of training programs and they have to be authenticated by their masters,” Rigzin said. “They have to memorize the oral texts and learn the ritual.”

The ritual starts with the monks blessing the site of the soon-to-be mandala. They then take several hours to draw an outline of the particular mandala they are about to build – in Emory’s case, the mandala of Avalokiteshvara, or the Buddha of compassion.

Once the outline is in place, the tedious work of laying the sand begins.

“I was really awestruck by their level of concentration,” said Mark Hill, the CNN photographer who captured the time-lapse footage at Emory's Michael C. Carlos Museum.

“People were in there talking and walking around them, taking pictures. There was a lot going on in the room. But those monks who were building that mandala were absolutely laser-focused on what they were doing.”

Hill set up two cameras in the room. One was an overhead camera that didn’t move during the six days; the other was moved every morning to get a different angle. Both ran continuously, shooting one frame every 30 seconds.

When the last grain of sand was set, the monks didn’t spend time admiring their handiwork. Within about an hour, the elaborate art they had spent days crafting was carefully swept away during a ritualistic ceremony. This is normal practice, Rigzin said; it is done to symbolize the impermanence of life.

The monks passed out half of the sand to the audience as blessings for health and healing. The rest was poured into a nearby river, Rigzin said, as a gift to Mother Earth.

Emory will be having another “Tibet Week” of sorts when the Dalai Lama visits the campus October 17-19. The exiled leader of Tibetan Buddhists has visited the school several times in the past two decades, and he was the commencement speaker there in 1998.

That year, His Holiness also helped form the Emory-Tibet Partnership, which includes various exchange programs between Emory and Tibetan institutions of higher learning.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Buddhism • Culture & Science • Leaders

soundoff (261 Responses)
  1. cathy

    I had the honor of seeing one of these created several years ago, and it was truly a great experience. It's really hard to grasp how beautiful they are. True Art and the entire process is most interesting to watch, was very glad I took the time to see this.

    June 2, 2010 at 4:33 pm |
  2. Sarcasmo

    Well done, men. I'll be sure to not think about this later when I'm inside of a woman.

    June 2, 2010 at 4:31 pm |
    • BOB

      I'll be thinking of this Sarcasmo when I'm in you later.

      June 2, 2010 at 7:22 pm |
  3. James

    These are beautiful works of the mind. When the monks came my city, a small girl walked on the sand, destroying the artwork. No anger, no scolding. There was a peace we could all learn from in they way they just began anew. The art was in being not in the sand.

    June 2, 2010 at 4:29 pm |
  4. SartreClone

    Indeed, to quote Bill Murray from 'Groundhog Day': "What a waste of time!"

    June 2, 2010 at 4:25 pm |
    • Ann

      Your a waste of time!!!

      June 2, 2010 at 6:29 pm |
  5. RJ

    If death takes away all that we struggle for, then ever question the nature of what we are seeking after – money, name, fame, legacy, ever lasting fight between good and evil etc., all is but in vain in the end just like this sand. We are product of nature and we will return to it in the end. So this bring up a point – we ought to know who we really are, which requires deep observation of us (projector) without any bias as supposed to the projection of our mind which is what we see in the word out today.

    June 2, 2010 at 4:23 pm |
  6. Joe

    That was truly beautiful! They must wait until the local pollen count is low ... sneezing would be frowned upon.

    June 2, 2010 at 4:15 pm |
  7. anne

    Why is this relevant news? Buddhists have been doing this forever. It's interesting, but aren't there more important things to talk about on a NEWS site?

    June 2, 2010 at 4:13 pm |
    • Jason

      Looking for the normal chaos and mayhem? We have enough of that already, I'd rather see more of this!

      June 2, 2010 at 6:28 pm |
  8. VoiceInTheWilderness

    The monks are demonstrating that nothing is permanent. Like sands through the hour glass, these are the days of our lives. All one has to do is read Luke 21:25-28 and look to the sun at sunrise/sunset, watch the moon over the course of two weeks, and see the news reports of tsunami and rogue waves all over the world to see that our world is a fragile, temporary thing, indeed.

    Though not all of mankind is destined for impermanence.

    The monks would have better educated their audience by selling their work and donating the proceeds to starving children than donate their time crafting disciplined and skillful art for the purpose of reminding us all what the world has already learned many times over, and at great cost.

    True beauty is worth preserving.

    June 2, 2010 at 4:13 pm |
  9. Okami

    I was actually a monk for 3 days as a funeral cermony. Ive never seen this before but it is truly amazing and let me tell you it is very hard being a monk, even for 3 days. This is why I live by the way of buddhism and not treat it like another religion. It's a part of how I live life.

    June 2, 2010 at 4:10 pm |
  10. matt

    ha..hahh..haachoooo....oops! solly

    June 2, 2010 at 4:09 pm |
  11. Ted

    This video is similar to scenes in Martin Scorsese's lesser known "Kundun", about the early life of the Dali Llama. There is a remarkable sequence showing a time lapse creation of a mandala and, once finished, being wiped away by Chinese invaders. I'm not sure what music was used here, but it is also reminiscent of the score in Kundun by Phillip Glass. If you liked this article, you may like the movie.

    June 2, 2010 at 4:00 pm |
  12. Ed

    Aaaah-choooooo !

    June 2, 2010 at 3:56 pm |
  13. robert

    These are men who do not provide anything to the well being of society. The men that feed them have to work more hours to compensate for their lack of personal responsibility. I can't find anything I don't understand more than the absolute worship of pouring pretty sand on a table. We as the human race will never have peace, we will never have respect until each man takes care of themselves. These men don't even raise their own food. Look it up.

    June 2, 2010 at 3:53 pm |
    • Okami

      We all know this. Monk's are usaully given food before 11am every morning by the villiagers.

      You seem to have a disliking towards them? What religion are you? Or what do you believe/follow?

      June 2, 2010 at 4:12 pm |
    • robert

      I am of the religion of pull your own weight and Tibet in under the dali lama had the most repressive class system in the world. Except for the US of Course. I don't dislike these men, they are products of their environment. I don't respect any of there acts however....

      June 2, 2010 at 4:17 pm |
    • James

      I lived once in a house near a cemetary. The cemetary was 150 years old. Rain had washed away all of the names on the stones. Who was wealthy, who was useful, who pulled their weight? Who was the village drunk? Who mattered? All of their names were lost to the sand, made equal.

      June 2, 2010 at 4:35 pm |
    • NorthernDG

      Robert is just a pathetic little feces who's looking for attention... crawl back under the rock from which you came from.

      June 2, 2010 at 6:05 pm |
    • endrewsmith

      Your claim of these monks have no contribution to society, speaks the volume of how ignorant you are. These monks have been providing spiritual needs of local people. They are providing a place where people find solace when they are in need, like pastors of churches do. Do you know that these monks also give sermon at funeral and, the very same monks are asked to guide children to become morally sound person by their own parents? They are getting offers from people for their service; just like you get paid for what you do. I suggest you not to be too conceited and respect other ways of living that aren’t like yours.

      June 2, 2010 at 7:16 pm |
    • jimi

      They just did!!

      June 3, 2010 at 1:14 am |
  14. Kathy Lique

    well, yes, it is beautiful, but we miss out on a significant part of its spiritual meaning by speeding it up so intensely. We all need to learn to slow down!

    June 2, 2010 at 3:53 pm |
  15. Tony

    How many children starved to death while that art project was being made? The monks should have been growing food to give to the poor instead of having arts and crafts time.

    June 2, 2010 at 3:52 pm |
    • Okami

      Oh shut up. How many more people have to starve for anyone else to realize as well? Dumb.

      June 2, 2010 at 4:13 pm |
    • Huh?

      Uh, why would anybody coorelate starving people with a sand mandala? Enjoy what these people bring to the table and the peace it represents. I'm choosing to ignore the self-righteous claptrap of the narrow-minded and bigoted..of whoch you're clearly one.

      June 2, 2010 at 4:17 pm |
    • Chops

      And do tell us, Tony...Instead of taking the time to be cynical and casting your disparaging remarks, should you not have been helping an elderly person across the street? Brightening a stranger's day in a nursing home? Doing anything that, without yelling "HEY LOOK AT ME! I'M DOING A GOOD DEED!!!" would simply make someone smile. Let alone grow a garden and offer the fruit of your labor to someone homeless. You are a very bitter man, Tony. Take a Valium now and relax. It'll all be over soon.

      June 2, 2010 at 4:49 pm |
    • Tom

      Hey Tony, imagine how many childeren died when you typed your message. There's blood on your hands also mate.

      June 3, 2010 at 12:37 pm |
    • username

      hey tony...how many children starved to death while you sat at your computer hitting the stumble button? Is there a rescue mission or a food bank in your town? Did you help serve food there? Have you given some canned goods to the food bank?

      Or, have you created art that inspires people, that maybe they begin thinking deeply about matters, changing within, and becoming better, more generous people who go out and do something to change poverty in the world?

      Better get on that, then come back and lecture the mandala makers. sheesh

      June 12, 2010 at 10:02 am |
  16. Marky

    Yeah, but can they do Kung Fu

    June 2, 2010 at 3:48 pm |
  17. Bob Ross

    So, their good at arts and crafts. What gives?

    June 2, 2010 at 3:46 pm |
    • Bob Ross

      by "their" I artfully meant to say "they're". Forgive me kind people of CNN's readership.

      June 2, 2010 at 3:47 pm |
    • Dawn

      What gives?
      More than you could comprehend, apparently...

      June 2, 2010 at 7:01 pm |
  18. Rajeev

    No doubt that it is a wonderful art form. It is amazing though that Buddhism continued with this art form from Hinduism and most of the Hindus still continue with it. If you checkout Indian houses, most of them do this decoration during festivals at least once a year. The designs created are much mroe complex than what you saw here. The sad part is that Buddhist never seem to provide enough credit to the source of their art. At the same time, the reporters also display such a short sighted vision where they do not even show curiousity about the origin of this art. Just saying 'wow' with an open mouth is not reporting. To dig deeper to draw sense out of it is what makes an article worthy. In any case, Thanks for sharing it.

    June 2, 2010 at 3:41 pm |
  19. David M

    These guys came to my school in Maryland (SMCM) and I had the pleasure of watching them create one of these beautiful works of art. They are incredible to watch.

    June 2, 2010 at 3:41 pm |
  20. Matt

    What would be really cool, is if they decorated a large cake with the same detail. The cake could be "destroyed" by eating it!!

    The sand painting looked a lot like frosting to me! 😉

    June 2, 2010 at 3:39 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.