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. George

    How could they recreate this display at Emory University in Georgia? Aren't they a religious group? They were at a forced 100% secular "no public display of 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 1:16 am |
    • Peacemaker

      Emory is a private school which is also deeply intertwined with the Christian religion on multiple levels. That said, they are quite open to other cultures, ideas, religions, and ways of thinking, as that diversity helps to provide a breadth of education that is rare in our society. If one is practicing what they believe is "the" true faith, how can other religions or religious displays be threatening to that?

      June 3, 2010 at 7:03 am |
  2. David Strong

    Whatever else this is, it is in no way idolatry. As it is the mandala of Avalokiteshvara, creating it and meditating upon it (and its desctruction) is an act of compassion and increases compassion in ourselves and in the world. We are all in this together, and there will be no second Noah's Ark. Live and learn, but most of all love.

    June 3, 2010 at 12:44 am |
  3. Teckelville

    Anyone know the music? Almost as beautiful as the sand. It's not Robin Trower, I checked.
    Thank you

    June 2, 2010 at 10:32 pm |
  4. Marlene

    Beautifully done. Reminds me of the Buddhist saying…it is the illusion of permanence that is the source of all suffering.

    June 2, 2010 at 10:27 pm |
  5. james

    Beautiful....its a good thing they had a KFC close by so they could eat double downs while they focused on the project.

    June 2, 2010 at 10:02 pm |
  6. Dan

    There is a huge difference between an artist and an artisan.

    Funny how people who have never been to Tibet ascribe such wisdom, intelligence, peacefulness, etc., etc. to people they do not know. Tibet has its own sordid history, like any other place. Shangrila does not exist.

    June 2, 2010 at 9:32 pm |
  7. sharp

    amazing how peaceful millions of grains of sand can be

    June 2, 2010 at 9:21 pm |
  8. Art

    This should give those hevens something to do while they burn in hell for all eternity

    June 2, 2010 at 8:41 pm |
  9. Andrew

    Im dying to know the name of the song & singer!

    June 2, 2010 at 8:36 pm |
  10. Philbert Suresh

    What the monks call as Sand Mandalas – the inricate colorful art in sand ia done in different parts of the country, esp the rural folks with a firm faith in their heart of pleasing the maker. It is called as as varipus names sich as rangoli, kolam etc etc

    June 2, 2010 at 8:10 pm |
  11. Tom

    cathy its not worth to go into arguiment with these kind of posts 🙂 Just enjoy and let haters be filled with anger!
    man i need to find this music 🙂

    June 2, 2010 at 7:02 pm |
  12. Cathy

    You obviously don't know what art is.

    June 2, 2010 at 6:59 pm |
  13. Tom

    squirrel, that doesnt seem to be correct 😛

    June 2, 2010 at 6:55 pm |
  14. Squirrel

    "Over You" by Robin Trower

    as noted by "Chris" at 5:08 pm. 🙂 Not sure if Chris is correct... just repeating what I found for you. Agreed: great choice of accompaniment.


    June 2, 2010 at 6:52 pm |
  15. Boris The Great

    Ok, lol. I really can believe some comments Iam seeing here. First of all someone compared this to Picasso and said that Picasso sucks. Lol, really??. I mean if it was for me I wouldn’t call creation of mandala art at all. Cause it all in the end looks the same, the geometry is the same, maybe colouring is a little different. Its all done following certain very strict procedures and although it takes a lot of skill and training its purely technical. Its like building a house with plans. A house might look nice but is the building procedure itself is an art?. To sum up this mandala building process is non creative, non imaginative purely technical following of instructions and with all due respect they did it in 6 days do you know how much time it takes a painter to create an art – sometimes years or even decades.
    The other shocking set of comments is how ppl try to assert to the monks some holier than though attributes. You all guys live in dream go read history of Tibet before Chinese invasion. Its not that nice with all the eye gauging and tortures by the same monks and Dalai Lama.
    And lastly to address the symbolism of all this. People call it profound. Is it?. I thought how I was going to die and that my life had no meaning when I was 4, I am pretty sure we all think about it one way or the other sometimes. And in the end its true :), everything you are doing in the end will become dust and it takes you 80 years not just 6 days.

    June 2, 2010 at 6:40 pm |
  16. Dave

    Beautiful art and prayer all rolled into one. A powerful message we should all pause to consider.

    June 2, 2010 at 6:39 pm |
  17. Tom

    I would really love to know who composed the music for this video, it touched me deeply.

    June 2, 2010 at 6:20 pm |
    • Squirrel

      "Over You" by Robin Trower

      as noted by "Chris" at 5:08 pm. 🙂 Not sure if Chris is correct... just repeating what I found for you. Agreed: great choice of accompaniment.


      June 2, 2010 at 6:53 pm |
  18. Tom

    There should be an iPad app for that!

    June 2, 2010 at 6:15 pm |
  19. BigLebowski

    These Monks are talented artists!

    June 2, 2010 at 6:05 pm |
  20. Archangel

    Odd that CNN posted so many comments about Christianity and what it does/does not have to do with this Buddhist mandala, yet it never did post an early comment I posted (when there were only 5 comments) describing the rhymic, raspy "music" made by the instruments the monks use to apply the sand to the mandala. Maybe CNN thought people weren't interested in such details, just in religious debates.

    June 2, 2010 at 5:43 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.