If you’ve already powered through the third season of House of Cards, you’ll probably remember the monks who spent weeks creating an awesome sand painting in the middle of the White House. In reality, Tibetan Buddhist monks have been creating sand mandalas (mandala means “circle” in Sanskrit) for more than 2,500 years. The process remains one of the religion’s most distinctive and beautiful traditions.
Every sand mandala contains a center point surrounded by a circle, and a symmetrical design with deep, symbolic meaning. In fact, all mandalas—there’s one for every tantric system—are said to have an outer, inner and secret meaning. Incorporating various religious symbols and deities, these unique creations represent the universe and are said to heal both the environment and the individuals within it.
Before creating a sand painting, monks must first consecrate the location by chanting mantras and playing specific music during an opening ceremony. Then, an artist will draw an outline of the mandala on a flat surface using a compass, ruler and ink pen, often drawing from memory alone. Once the outline is created, the monks can then begin pouring sand onto the canvas to create the three-dimensional image. Daily prayer and meditations are often part of the creation process.