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. German Sport

    well ok folks, they did not post my message yesterday, today they posted my reply to Tom about the music, that was on June 3. Now we are on June 7, does anybody have a clue by now who the performer of the music is and where to get the entire piece? It's just so nice!

    June 7, 2010 at 3:47 pm |
  2. dick

    Big deal.
    Maybe some day they can come down out of their lofty place and actually do something that will help the world instead of playing with sand.
    Insane silliness at its best.

    June 7, 2010 at 3:26 am |
    • Joe Goebbels

      Completely agree.

      June 10, 2010 at 12:33 pm |
  3. Chell_S

    @worldpeacerocks, when I typed what you came up on your search for the name of the musical piece in the video into google translate this is what it said: Hold that a sun by Jia-Rong Lin / Hsu Shu-silk

    June 6, 2010 at 8:01 pm |
    • Mike C

      After searching Chinese websites, I found out that that song isn't the same. That song turns out to be a vocal ballad with a different tune.

      June 7, 2010 at 5:01 am |
  4. yipleaf

    a combination of art and philosophy

    June 5, 2010 at 5:48 pm |
  5. Al Bostick

    I feel the same spirituality as an artist....the way the pieces come together, to express the meaning. You are truly moved, hen the piece is gone leaving the lasting impression on your mind, and it's imprint in your heart....

    June 5, 2010 at 1:38 pm |
  6. Charles

    Dear CNN,

    Can we get the name/artist of the background soundtrack?

    June 4, 2010 at 6:52 pm |
  7. Srinivas Komanduri

    Buddhism is eternal like Hinduism. The great scholars of both religions have kept alive the great arts like Mandalas art. The laser like concentration of the Monks while at work is really amazing and this makes the ancient religion great.

    June 4, 2010 at 12:36 pm |
  8. jrdnj

    as a Buddhist of the Theravada school this is not something we normally do(although the Mandala is a universal Buddhist concept), but I have always loved the concept and the fact that it is destroyed in the end to signify the impermanence of all things(ie nothing lasts forever).

    as for putting the sand in the river, almost All "prayers" in Buddhism are for the well being of all living creatures, similar to this are prayer flags upon which are well wishes for all living beings. The wind flutters through the flag and brings the "prayers" across the world(as putting it in the river spreads it across the planet)

    June 3, 2010 at 6:18 pm |
  9. Stunned Young

    I'm just amazed and after watching this have become that much more respectful of Buddhist Monks (despite being a Christian ;O). They are truly an amazing people.

    June 3, 2010 at 6:15 pm |
  10. TammyB

    Comment to Joe: It took a big person to apologize for offending other people here and I respect you for that as apologizing can be difficult sometimes. Put this into perspective, however.....God created those men who created the mandala. Everything about the creation of the art is wondrous, just as God is! Everything the mandala stood for, compassion, is what your religion stands for as well! It's all good! Peace be to you, Joe.

    June 3, 2010 at 1:04 pm |
  11. Tom

    June 3, 2010 at 12:42 pm | Thank you for your feedback. We will look into it.

    Yay 🙂

    June 3, 2010 at 12:44 pm |
    • German Sport

      CNN, please, let us know who performed the music/ where to get the entire piece. It is to nice to go to let it go.........
      Just make us happy! Thanks!

      June 7, 2010 at 3:45 pm |
  12. Bob

    Come on CNN! Everyone has been asking since you posted the video, who performed the music?

    June 3, 2010 at 12:42 pm |
    • Tom

      Hold on Bob, im gonna report your post so maybe they will look into it 🙂

      June 3, 2010 at 12:43 pm |
  13. Wilbur

    Hey, we finally found something CNN can post that actually brings people TOGETHER in the comments. Art and music... maybe we need more of this in our world. And by maybe, I mean, its pretty obvious...

    June 3, 2010 at 11:46 am |
    • TammyB

      I agree with you Wilbur! This has been a most peaceful blog!

      June 3, 2010 at 1:05 pm |
  14. Zulu

    My wife was pretty good with her Super Spirograph when she was younger....

    June 3, 2010 at 10:44 am |
  15. SreWolfe

    This was something that contrasts markedly with the trite "bumper sticker theology" to which most of us are subjected. It took spiritual depth and dedication to conceive and execute this that stands so starkly against the in-your-face theology to which we are accustomed.

    June 3, 2010 at 8:42 am |
  16. Winslow Theramin

    This wasn't nearly as spectacular as I thought it was going to be. Two things in particular ruined it for me:

    1. They used RULERS to lay out the design!!! I thought this was going to be entirely hand made.
    2. Afterward, they didn't put the colors back into the original bowls. They just swept it all back up into a big mess!

    I'd like to see how well they'd do without the use of tools and it they really wanted to impress someone, put each grain of sand BACK INTO THE BOWL THEY CAME FROM!

    June 3, 2010 at 7:48 am |
    • Lilly

      Winslow I can see how that would be amazing but what they are doing is actually a religous thing and dumping it out is part of the tradition of making these.

      June 3, 2010 at 9:44 am |
    • Erlinda Brent

      Designing and composing the mandala is a form of prayer. Putting the sand back where it was in the beginning is not the point. The sands are thrown into the river so the prayers can be dispersed throughout the world.

      June 5, 2010 at 7:58 pm |
  17. M Z

    The song...the song...my kingdom for the song!

    June 3, 2010 at 5:17 am |
    • Tom

      I will chip in my kingdom too

      June 3, 2010 at 8:13 am |
    • Ashley

      I have no kingdom to offer but given that I've just spent three and a half hours breaking this piece down and running it through every music identification system I know of, really would be most grateful if someone might grant me a good night's sleep this evening. CNN music ninjas? Anyone? Is this thing on...? Hello?

      June 3, 2010 at 8:37 am |
    • Tom

      Like someone else said it is similar to Philip Glass his way of composing music. I havent slepped last night because i really wanted to find this song, and guess what! Its not philip Glass 😛 It also has an electronic style which is not likely to be of Glass, more Cliff Martinez. But I couldnt find anything under Cliff Martinez. My best bet is that it is some copyright free music composed by someone who made it in his attic (well done btw). Anyway, I cant figure out who composed it. Maybe that's a good thing just like the monks spend 6 days to create this mandala and it will take us 6 days to find the background about this piece of music 🙂

      June 3, 2010 at 12:30 pm |
    • Tom

      No, I stand corrected. This music is to complex to be made by some attic music nerd..

      June 3, 2010 at 12:32 pm |
  18. wawee

    Question: Is Usama bin Laden a BUddhist MOnk? He lives in a cave and he destroyed the twin towers as a point that nothing is permanent just like these BUddhists destroyed their artwork.

    June 3, 2010 at 2:57 am |
    • bash

      Actually, his friends the Taliban, destroyed many Buddhist statues in Afghanistan.

      June 3, 2010 at 7:20 am |
  19. Anonymous

    For anyone interested, German director Werner Herzog did a movie about the creation of a kalachakra (sand mandala) and Tibetan Buddhism called "Wheel of Time." If you're at all familiar with Herzog's works, this is definitely up there with "Encounters at the End of the World;" for anyone not familiar with Werner Herzog (and interested in the least in Tibetan Buddhism), I strongly recommend this movie. He interviews some interesting monks in the film, and you will come out of it with a little bit better understanding of what that part of the world is like.

    June 3, 2010 at 2:40 am |
  20. Stephanie

    I can't believe all the stupid people here. This was beautiful and amazing to watch. Try to see something beautiful and listen to the music. Let all the ugly thought go out of your head, maybe there will be hope in this world.

    June 3, 2010 at 1:27 am |
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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.