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. Thomas Nelson

    "The sand is taken to water, which carries the blessing throughout the world." No big deal, Americans do the same thing, just with oil instead of sand.

    June 2, 2010 at 3:39 pm |
    • IanM

      Wow, how much more ignorant can you get? Really, do you even know what BP stands for? Try BRITISH PETROLIUM........ so stop trying to bash America

      June 2, 2010 at 4:28 pm |
    • IanM


      June 3, 2010 at 2:01 am |
  2. Surendra P. Singh

    Patience in life, and experience the impermanence that follows.

    June 2, 2010 at 3:39 pm |
  3. Karen Saucedo

    There is something very magical about watching these men do this patient, beautiful work with such dedication.

    June 2, 2010 at 3:38 pm |
  4. MozRU

    Beautiful art created by beautiful people.

    June 2, 2010 at 3:37 pm |
  5. pistolanola

    Beautiful! Their are similar huge street carpets done like this in Antigua, Guatemala for Semana Santa (Easter Week). Google it.

    June 2, 2010 at 3:36 pm |
  6. Andrea M

    I was lucky enough to see a mandala being created several years ago in Boulder, CO. I worked a couple blocks away so I would check in every afternoon to watch the process. Interesting and very beautiful. The concentration and focus those monks have is incredible.

    June 2, 2010 at 3:34 pm |
  7. Byrd

    To the Buddhist monks, these mandalas are actually time machines. My question is: Does anyone know whether or not they really work and if so, what changes have they wrought and what else have they been hiding? If I ever see one being created anywhere around me, I intend to kick the table over.

    June 2, 2010 at 3:33 pm |
    • Treese

      Is it really that threatening to you?

      June 2, 2010 at 4:11 pm |
    • Kat

      Are you kidding me?! What a thing to say ....

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

      Byrd...Were you educated in the Arizona public school system? or was it Texas?

      June 3, 2010 at 5:36 pm |
    • username

      umm, treese, kat, arthea...maybe he's joking?

      June 12, 2010 at 9:56 am |
  8. James V


    June 2, 2010 at 3:33 pm |
  9. Jopmur

    Nice art but what amazes me is they didn't change clothes for 6 days.

    June 2, 2010 at 3:31 pm |
  10. J

    Recording it to watch later seems to sort of defeat the purpose. 🙂

    June 2, 2010 at 3:26 pm |
  11. Mohammed

    they should go into decorating cakes.

    June 2, 2010 at 3:26 pm |
  12. MRC554

    Totally useless! They could user their time to do something much more useful to people.

    June 2, 2010 at 3:25 pm |
    • jed

      Like arguing on the internet!

      June 2, 2010 at 3:33 pm |
    • robert

      I completely agree! and yes the internet is for arguing...

      June 2, 2010 at 3:54 pm |
    • KAW

      Not at all useless! Many people are touched, inspired, find peacefulness and a brief relief from day to day stress simply by looking at these beautiful works of art and symbols of spirituality. If you're not one of those people, fine...but that doesn't make it useless.

      June 2, 2010 at 4:23 pm |
  13. Ron

    As for wondering about sneezing, it must have happened at some point in history. A sneeze, somebody tripping, bumping the table, dog running across on on a floor. I assume it is not unheard of. And I assume they would see it in the same way as the destruction in the end. Nothing is permanent, even if that impermanence is caused by a sneeze.

    June 2, 2010 at 3:18 pm |
    • Phiddler

      I seem to remember an article a year or two (or more) ago in which someone's kid got loose and ran past the velvet ropes protecting a recently completed mandala. The kid had a blast kicking and sweeping the sand before the parent ran over and grabbed her arm. If I recall correctly, the monks took it very well, laughing it off in a very 'c'est la vie' kind of way. In a way, a random child happening by and destroying it was even more indicative of life than doing so in a ritual. The entire concept is extremely elegant and thought-provoking.

      June 2, 2010 at 4:22 pm |
    • Nancy

      This is the most beautiful post ever! And I love your comments, I laughed and at the same time I was awed. I love the fact that I can see harmony and goodwill in a post instead of bitter conflict over things that shouldn't matter.

      June 3, 2010 at 7:22 am |
  14. Michael


    June 2, 2010 at 3:14 pm |
  15. Mike

    Very interesting and beautiful art form. I couldn't help but think how the other monks would react if one of them sneezed at the wrong time...

    June 2, 2010 at 2:30 pm |
    • George

      Honestly I think they would just laugh.

      I have never met people of more patience and pure wisdom than Tibetan Buddhist monks.

      June 2, 2010 at 4:13 pm |
  16. Gis

    I saw them construct the mandala at FIU in Miami...it was absolutely gorgeous, and the deinstallation is beautiful as well. They also give away the sand in small containers when they "destroy it."

    June 2, 2010 at 2:10 pm |
    • George

      How could they recreate this display in Miami at FIU? They are a religious group at a forced 100% secular "no religion allowed" public funded university. How dare they openly express their religious beliefs. They should be locked up, prosecuted, persecuted, drawn and quartered, beheaded and put in front of a firing squad ... oh wait, they're ok; they're not "christians", so they're "allowed".

      June 3, 2010 at 1:00 am |
  17. Peter

    Yes, very beautiful and spiritual... although I would not call it destroying the artwork, end cycle perhaps and might be a time were same grains of sand become part of another mandala.

    June 2, 2010 at 1:59 pm |
    • Monk-ey

      I guess muslims try to show the same thing by blowing people.

      June 2, 2010 at 4:34 pm |
    • abc

      Well it wouldn't be possible cuz they swept away all together rather than collecting colour by colour.

      June 2, 2010 at 4:59 pm |
  18. Jean

    I can't get it to play! It doesn't give me anything to click on... Help! I really want to see this!

    June 2, 2010 at 1:43 pm |
    • Jean

      never mind! It just took a long time to buffer! Amazing!!!!

      June 2, 2010 at 1:47 pm |
  19. Brian

    what if someone sneezes?

    June 2, 2010 at 1:32 pm |
  20. Umesh

    Very Profound feeling !!! I have great respect to Monks ever since I grew up as a Kid. Godless bless the Monks !! as they travel around the world to spread peace. Peace has no language but unfortunately it takes time to understand the very essence of it in this modern world. Great work of art and it truly deserves a great Appreciation.

    Watch "Burma VJ" and you will find out more facts about Monks and fellow citizens of Burma.

    Thanks for the video CNN !!

    June 2, 2010 at 1:32 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.