Tibetan Yamantaka Sand Mandala

Teacher’s Guide

yamantaka mandala


About the Art

A mandala (MAHN-duh-lah) is a symbol* of the universe. It is a diagram whose colors, lines, and forms all have meaning. In the Buddhist religion, mandalas are used in sacred ceremonies and meditation, to help people on their journey toward spiritual enlightenment. Mandalas have been made since ancient times. They can be painted on cloth or carved or, like this one, created from sand.

This mandala is dedicated to the deity Yamantaka, Conqueror of Death, and represents his celestial palace. A meditating Buddhist proceeds from the outer rim inward, moving from the earthly world to various levels of spiritual growth and knowledge. The ultimate goal is to attain total enlightenment, or nirvana, at the center. There Yamantaka is represented by the blue vajra (VAHJ-rah), or thunderbolt, symbolizing compassion. In the mandala’s outer corners, symbols of the five senses are reminders that true knowledge comes through spiritual enlightenment, not from our fleeting perceptions. Smell is represented by a perfumed elixir bubbling up from a conch shell (upper left). A lute (lower left) stands for hearing, and a blue disc mirror (lower right) for vision. Peaches (upper right) symbolize taste. A flowing silk scarf, for touch, appears in all four corners. The circular rim’s outermost ring, representing the earthly world, shows eight burial grounds with images of suffering and decay: skeletons, floating limbs, scavenging animals, trees, mountains, and burial mounds called stupas, symbolic of the Buddha’s life and teaching. Next comes a circle of flames in a rainbow pattern of bright colors, then a ring of vajras, and finally a band of lotus petals, signifying spiritual purity and representing various deities. Now we encounter the square walls of Yamantaka’s palace, with gates at the four compass points. The palace is filled with symbols, including masked guardians, umbrellas, jewel trees, wheels, and deer. Within the innermost square, which is divided into triangular quadrants, is a circle containing symbols of nine Buddhist deities, with Yamantaka at the center. This is the realm of perfect enlightenment. All mandalas represent an invitation to enter the Buddha’s awakened mind. Tibetan Buddhists believe that in each person’s mind there is a seed of enlightenment that can be discovered by contemplating a mandala. The mandala’s design denotes the order and harmony of an enlightened mind. Order is shown through symmetrical organization, tight structure, and the use of >geometric forms such as the square and the circle. The complex symbols and calculated combination of primary colors express the principles of wisdom and compassion that underlie Tantric Buddhist philosophy.


*Terms defined in the Glossary appear in bold type in the text



Tantric Buddhism

Tantric Buddhism is the religion of Tibet. "The roof of the world," where clouds float on the ground, the land of Tibet is located in the Himalayas, a remote mountainous region of South Asia that includes Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain. The rugged geography and relative isolation have shaped the economy, religion, and art of the Tibetan people. The art of Himalayan cultures is primarily religious, and the process of image making is considered an act of devotion.

Buddhism was brought to Tibet about a.d. 700 by monks from India. It is based on the spiritual teachings of the Buddha, an Indian philosopher and teacher who devoted his life to a search for personal peace or enlightenment. He believed that by giving up material possessions and worldly desires, such as fine food and clothing, a person could attain enlightenment, or nirvana, a blissful state of freedom from the sorrows of the world. These ideas took hold in Tibet and blended with the native Tibetan religion called Bon. The resulting Tantric Buddhism has influenced all aspects of Tibetan daily life and culture.




Tibetan monks from the Gyuto Tantric University in northern India created this sand mandala at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts. After a ceremonial blessing, the monks began the process of making the mandala. First they drew an outline of the design on a wooden platform. Then, using metal funnels and various tools, they poured, sprinkled, and arranged millions of grains of colored sand in a complex design. The work took almost four weeks.

Traditionally, when a mandala sand painting is finished, it is swept up and deposited in the nearest body of flowing water, as a metaphor of life’s impermanence. But through a unique collaboration between the monks and scientists from the 3M company, this sand mandala became the first in the world to be preserved for future generations.

Because the crushed limestone typically used for sand mandalas will not hold colors permanently, the 3M scientists had to find a substitute. They searched for particles and pigments that would meet the monks’ requirements yet remain colorfast and withstand the application of an adhesive. They discovered that the silicate particles used in asphalt shingles filled the bill. Fine enough for making detailed designs, these particles could be permanently pigmented in colors acceptable to the monks. After the monks finished their work and blessed the mandala, a special 3M adhesive was applied, first as a mechanically controlled mist and then with an eyedropper, for the three-dimensional areas. Now the mandala hangs on the museum’s wall, its delicate design still intact and the colors pristine.



The Artists

The Buddhist monks who made this mandala spent a month in residence in Minneapolis and invited the public to watch them work. They had a mission. They wanted to educate people about their rich heritage and culture and about their plight since China established Communist rule in Tibet in the 1950s. The Dalai Lama, Tibet’s temporal and spiritual ruler, fled to India in 1959, and many Tibetan monastic groups joined him in exile there. During China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, thousands of Tibet’s magnificent monasteries and temples were destroyed. Approximately 1.6 million Tibetans were killed or imprisoned in labor camps, and many were driven into permanent exile. The monks’ Minneapolis visit also called attention to a resettlement program that brought many Tibetan refugees to Minnesota.



Look, Discuss, Explore


  • What is this mandala made of? List all the different colors of sand you would need to make this mandala. Where do you see primary colors? secondary colors? complementary colors? Where do you see patterns? How are the patterns formed?
  • What shapes do you see? Are they geometric or organic? How are they arranged? Describe the kinds of lines that you see in this mandala. How do the lines, shapes, and colors make you feel?
  • Does anything in this mandala remind you of architecture? Point to the architectural features and describe them.
  • How do you think this mandala was made? What tools do you think the artists used? How long do you think it took? What makes you say that? Do you think it was difficult to make? Why or why not?
  • Is the design of the mandala symmetrical or asymmetrical? What effect does that have? Imagine that the design is not symmetrically balanced. What difference would that make?
  • Mandalas help Buddhist monks to meditate. Look at this mandala carefully. What do you see that would help someone meditate? Think about the color, line, shape, symmetry, and composition. The goal of meditation is to reach nirvana, at the center of the mandala. How does the design draw your attention to the center?


  • This mandala contains lots of symbols. Many are recognizable objects. Point out the ones you recognize. What symbols would you use in your personal diagram of the universe?
  • What are the five senses? Where are they represented on the mandala? Why are they shown in the corners? What symbols would you use for the five senses?
  • What is the purpose of making a mandala? What was the goal of the Tibetan monks who made this one? Think about the qualities of wisdom and compassion and what they might have to do with this mandala.
  • At the center of the mandala is a vajra, a symbol of compassion. Do you think compassion is important to Buddhists in their quest for enlightenment? Do you think it is important for all people to show compassion? Why? Think about times when you have shown compassion and how that affected other people.
  • A stupa is a monument of great significance to Buddhists. Can you think of any large monuments in the United States? Why do you think people build such large structures?
  • Sometimes making a thing is more important than keeping it around once it’s finished. Can you think of some examples? What about sand castles or ice sculptures? How do you feel when your work is destroyed or gone?


  • A mandala is a diagram symbolizing the universe. In the ancient Sanskrit language of India, mandala means circle. How are circles important in our universe? Investigate the use and meaning of the circle in various cultures. One example is the rose windows of medieval European cathedrals.
  • After studying the mandala’s design and meaning, do you see any similarities with other cultural icons such as Native American sand paintings, Japanese rock gardens, or Northwest Coast totem poles?
  • Traditionally, when a sand mandala is finished, it is swept up and ceremonially discarded in a body of flowing water, to show the impermanence of life. Why do you think this mandala was preserved? How do you think it was done? Think of reasons for and against keeping Tibetan religious objects in museums.




As noted, each activity is suitable for one or more of the following:

  • Elementary
  • Secondary
  • Visual Art
  • Language Arts
  • Science
  • Social Studies


Visual Art


1: Make a Sand Painting (Elementary, Secondary)

In the Tibetan sand mandala, brightly colored sand is arranged in a complex design incorporating symbols that have sacred meaning to practicing Buddhists. The process of making a mandala is important as an aid to meditation.

Direct the students to work in groups and make sand paintings using personal symbols. Provide tubs of uncolored sand and sand in primary colors(mix powdered tempera with the sand). The sand paintings can be made in large, shallow cardboard boxes. Give the students plastic funnels in various sizes, small sticks, straws, and forks for creating details in the designs. When the sand paintings are finished, ask the students to explain their symbols to the class.


2: Make Art Impermanent (Elementary, Secondary)

After the students have done the "Make a Sand Painting" activity above and have talked about the symbols in their designs, have them sweep up and discard the sand, as is the tradition with sand mandalas.


3: Capture the Event (Elementary, Secondary, Language Arts)

Have someone document the "Make a Sand Painting" and "Make Art Impermanent" activities with a camera or video camera. Ask the students to write a descriptive paragraph explaining what their symbol means and how they depicted it.


4: Sense the Five Senses (Elementary, Secondary)

Through the five senses—sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell—people gather impressions of their environment. Discuss the five senses and how we use them for pleasure, learning, and survival. Discuss the images used for them in the sand mandala and their placement in the four corners, outside the realm of enlightenment.

Have the students create pictures of the five senses, using images of significance to them. Point out how in the mandala the monks combined some senses, enabling them to show all five within the four corners. The students can combine some of their images too.

Have the students collect images from magazines and other sources and create a collage of the five senses.


5: Design a Monument (Secondary, Science, Social Studies)

Images of stupasappear in this mandala. Stupas are Buddhist monuments that in their earliest form were dome-shaped burial mounds. Because the Buddha’s relics were buried under such mounds, the stupa became a sacred symbol of the Buddha. Stupas are often surrounded by gateways aligned with the four cardinal directions. Projecting above the dome is a narrower form, sometimes covered with tiered umbrellas.

Discuss these elements and have the students notice how they are depicted in the mandala. Discuss monuments the students are familiar with. Have the students design their own buildings, drawing diagrams. When they have finished, discuss their architectural concepts and how they were represented.




Language Arts


1: Write about an Idealized World (Elementary, Secondary)

The mandala represents an idealized world that is sacred to Buddhism. Ask the students to write about their own idealized world, describing their "place apart" from the everyday world. It may be an imaginary place or a favorite place such as the piano bench, the pitcher’s mound, the end of the dock, a special reading chair, or a spot where they are at one with nature. They might write a poem, a children’s story, or a personal narrative.


2: Explore Idealized and Imaginary Worlds in Literature (Elementary, Secondary, Visual Arts)

Lead the students in a discussion of idealized or imaginary worlds they have encountered in literature.

Suggested Literature


Black Elk Speaks, by Black Elk

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley

Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis

Lorax, by Dr. Seuss

Paradise, by Toni Morrison

Walden, by Henry David Thoreau


"Eldorado," by Edgar Allan Poe

"The Lake Isle of Innisfree," by William Butler Yeats


"Imagine," by John Lennon

"Woodstock," by Joni Mitchell


The Wizard of Oz

What are people really looking for when they go to Innisfree or Woodstock? Do idealized worlds exist? If so, where do you find them? What images (e.g., gold, gardens, sun) suggest an idealized world? The students could create a mandala using >symbols of an idealized world.


3: Study the Quest in Literature (Elementary, Secondary, Visual Arts)

A discussion of the quest as a theme in literature can focus on any number of ancient and modern heroes, such as Sir Gawain, Dorothy of Oz, Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, Moses, or Buddha. Have the students read a quest story. Then have them discuss the various symbols in the story and design a mandala based on the hero’s journey.


4: Write about Your Quest

Making and meditating on a sand mandala requires great skill, discipline, and patience as well as commitment to a goal. Discuss these qualities with the students, noting that Buddhist monks believe that by disciplining their minds and remaining focused they will gain awareness and enlightenment. Have the students write an essay about goals of their own—achievements in sports, music, or school, for example—that require discipline, skill, patience, and concentration. How are those qualities useful to them? What rewards come from such commitment and hard work?






1: Look for Symmetry, Balance, and Order (Elementary, Secondary, Visual Arts)

The careful arrangement of the various design elements contributes to the mandala’s function as an aid to meditation and to attaining enlightenment. Use the mandala to introduce the concepts of symmetry and asymmetry. Talk about how the orderly arrangement of geometric and organic shapes and primary, secondary, and complementary colors creates balance in the mandala’s composition.


2: Work with Quadrants (Elementary, Secondary, Visual Arts)

The palace in the sand mandala is divided into quadrants, each with a gate facing one of the four directions and watched by a masked guardian. Divide the students into groups of four. Give each group a large square of drawing paper marked off in quadrants. Tell them to use their imaginations, and ask each student to create a palace gate on one of the quadrants. When they have finished, discuss the overall effect of each group’s drawings and how the gates work together.


3: Make Art with Geometry (Elementary, Secondary, Visual Arts)

Have the students use drawing tools, such as a compass, T square, and ruler, to make geometric shapes for a diagram. Find ideas for subject matter in the other activities.




Performing Arts


1: Listen to Monks Chanting (Elementary, Secondary)

Play the video Yamantaka Mandala: The Creation of a Sand Painting for your students. Tibetan monks believe that vocal and instrumental sacred music helps their journey to spiritual enlightenment. Have the students describe the sounds they hear. What are the voices like? How many voices are there? What is the tempo? What instruments do they hear? What mood does the music create?

Discuss the following terms:

Bass--A low tone. Tibetan monks are known for their sustained chanting over an extremely low tone. Training for this technique begins in childhood.

Chant--A rhythmic, monotonous utterance or song. Monks chant to consecrate a sacred space.

Pedal point--A low tone that continues while other music is played or sung above it.

Tempo Pace--In chanting, the slower the tempo, the more important the occasion.

Unison--Sung together as one voice. The choral chant of Buddhist monks is sung in unison over a pedal point.


2: Listen and Look (Secondary, Visual Arts)

Have the students look at the poster of the mandala as they listen to the monks chant during the blessings before and after the mandala’s creation. Does the music have anything in common with the visual qualities of the mandala? Is the music conducive to meditation? Why?


3: Select Your Own Music (Elementary, Secondary, Visual Arts)

Have the students think about an activity important to them that requires special concentration. Then discuss what music they would select to listen to before, during, or after they engaged in that activity.

Suggested Music and Sources

The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Edited by Stanley Sadie. London and Washington, D.C.: Macmillan, 1980.

World Sounds: Buddhist Chant I. Namgyal Monastery, Dharmalala. JVC VICG-5039-2. CD of Buddhist chant and instruments in a ceremony for the goddess Paldenlhamo.

Yamantaka Mandala: The Creation of a Sand Painting. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1992. A short video on the process of creating the mandala, which includes examples of Buddhist chant. Also available on-line.






1: Explore Issues of Art Preservation (Elementary, Secondary, Visual Arts, Social Studies)

Thanks to the efforts of scientists at the 3M company, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts was able to preserve the sand mandala for future generations. Discuss with your students the issues involved in preserving such a work. Talk about the unique collaboration of a museum, scientists, and Tibetan monks. Consider the tradition of an impermanent artform versus a desire to educate the public and build understanding. Think of permanent and impermanent materials that we encounter in everyday life. Ask the students if they try to preserve things—for instance, old photographs, recordings, or videotapes.


2: Be Inventive (Elementary, Secondary)

Scientists from 3M discovered suitable sand particles and special adhesives that made it possible to preserve the sand mandala. Ask the students to consider what new scientific discovery might be useful to them in their lives. Have them watch for new inventions in the newspapers, on television, and on the Internet.




Social Studies


1: Play "I Spy" (Elementary, Visual Arts)

can be found throughout the sand mandala. Look for the following and discuss their meaning.

Conch shell--Voice of Buddha expounding the doctrine

Jewel tree--Good fortune

Lotus--Spiritual purity

Vajra (thunderbolt)--Compassion

Wheel--Buddhist Law

Wheel with deer--Buddha’s first sermon, delivered in a deer park


2: Create a "Wheel of the Law" (Secondary, Visual Arts)

The eight spokes of the Wheel of the Law represent Buddhism’s Eightfold Path: Right Views, Right Resolve, Right Speech, Right Conduct, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. Discuss whether these could be universal rules of behavior for people who are not Buddhists. Have the students design a wheel with spokes representing their own laws.


3: Symbolize Your World View (Elementary, Secondary, Visual Arts)

Have the students create a diagram using symbols to represent their values and view of life. Ask them to include images, geometric forms, and architectural structures. They could use images from home, family, community, school, sports activities, religion, nature, and other areas of personal interest. Ask: What values do you hold? What goals do you strive for? How would you represent them?


4: Explore Tibet (Elementary, Secondary, Visual Arts)

Have the students research the geography of Tibet. Provide maps. Have them search the Internet. Discuss the role that geography and climate might play in religious practices and beliefs. (Elementary, Secondary)

Make a topographical relief map of Tibet using clay or dough on plywood or Masonite. Designate certain colors for the plateaus, plains, rivers, and major cities. (Elementary, Visual Arts)

Buddhism began in India and spread to other countries. Create a map of Asia showing where Buddhism began and where it spread. (Secondary)

Create a travel brochure for Tibet, advertising the climate and geography. (Secondary)

Prepare a report on the life and education of a Buddhist monk. (Secondary)


5: Discuss, Consider, Debate (Secondary)

Ask the students to research the history of Buddhism in Tibet. What happened when China invaded Tibet in 1950? What occurred during the uprising of 1959? How did China’s Cultural Revolution of 1966—76 affect Tibet? How did the Tibetan Buddhists respond to their oppressors? The Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political leader of Tibet, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for his commitment to nonviolence and world peace. Discuss how nonviolence relates to Buddhist ideas.

Suggested Reading

Buddhist Beliefs and Cultures. Anita Ganeri. New York: Children’s Press, 1996. An introduction to Buddhism, describing its origins and traditions.

Cultures of the World: Tibet. Patricia Levy. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1996.

Jataka Tales: Fables from the Buddha. Edited by Nancy DeRoin. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1975. A beautifully illustrated, modernized version of the ancient Jataka folktales, which have been likened to Aesop’s Fables. Animals speak and act like humans in situations with moral lessons. The Jataka tales point to cooperation, understanding, creativity, and wisdom as important values in life.

Learning from the Dalai Lama: Secrets of the Wheel of Time. Karen Pandell with Barry Bryant. New York: Dutton Children’s Books, 1995. Excellent photographs show the steps in making and dismantling a sand mandala.



Glossary of Art Terms

Asymmetrical--Arranged in such a way that division into mirror-image halves is not possible.

Balance--Stability and equilibrium achieved through the placement of elements such as form, line, and color.

Complementary colors--Color pairs that exhibit maximum contrast. They are opposite each other on the color wheel (red and green) and when placed side by side appear intensified. Also called contrasting colors.

Composition--The organization and structure of a work of art, determined by the arrangement of shapes, forms, colors, etc.

Geometric--Having an outline composed of straight lines or simple curves, as a square, triangle, or circle.

Organic--Having curving or irregular contours like those of forms found in nature.

Pattern--An artistic or decorative design, often involving regular repetition of shapes or colors.

Primary colors--Red, yellow, and blue. The fundamental colors from which all other colors are made.

Secondary colors--Orange, violet, and green. Made by mixing equal amounts of two primary colors.

Stupa --A bell-shaped Buddhist monument made of piled earth or stone and containing sacred relics.

Symbol--A form or image that stands for something else–another object or an idea.

Symmetrical--Identically arranged on either side of a central axis, permitting division into mirror-image halves.



Additional Sources

Brauen, Martin. The Mandala: Sacred Circle in Tibetan Buddhism. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1997.

Pal, Pratapaditya. The Art of Tibet. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1983.

Reynolds, Valrae. Tibet: A Lost World. New York: The American Federation of Arts, 1978.

Snellgrove, David, and Hugh Richardson. A Cultural History of Tibet. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1986.

Tibetan Education Action, Minneapolis. Phone: (612) 633-8020 (Nancy Dadak) or 439-4073 (Ani Ngawang). Fax: (612) 638-9646. E-mail: heartgem @ aol.com.




This teacher’s guide was produced by the Department of Museum Guide Programs and the Department of Teacher Resources at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Essay research and writing by Bonnie Gainsley

Discussion questions by Susan Hundman and Bonnie Gainsley

Activities by Bonnie Gainsley

For assistance developing these materials, special thanks are due Glen Keitel, Minneapolis Institute of Arts docent; Ted Kotsonas, Richfield High School (retired), Richfield, Minnesota, and Minneapolis Institute of Arts docent; and the following members of the Institute’s Teachers Advisory Committee: Joanna Cortright, Twin Cities music educator; Lynn Jermal, Associate Professor of Art, University of Wisconsin–River Falls; Pat LeFebvre, Battle Creek Elementary School, St Paul, Minnesota; Laura Pereira, Westwood Middle School, Blaine, Minnesota; and Ginny Wheeler, Burnsville Senior High School, Burnsville, Minnesota.

Edited by Elisabeth Sövik

Print Design by Jill Blumer

Print Production by Kristen LaFavor for Design Ahead