THE WHEEL OF TIME SAND MANDALA: Visual Scripture of Tibetan Buddhism

Barry Bryant
HarperSanFrancisco: San Francisco, 1993.
256 pp., $35.00 (hardback).

Deborah Sommer

TIBETAN SAND MANDALAS from the roof of the world have weathered the descent into the American spiritual consciousness with remarkable aplomb. In their homeland, they were shielded from both profane admiration and the vicissitudes of temporal existenceeach one was purposefully dismantled at the end of its brieflife span of a few days or weeks. Their karmic fate took a new turn, however, as the esoterica of Tibet were reborn in the lower climes of the Western Hemisphere, where they encountered the exoteric media of the modern age. Publicly exhibited in museums and galleries on both coasts, relentlessly photographed and videotaped, and astutely marketed as posters, note cards, calendars, and book totes, these pliant expressions of pristine consciousness have over the past decade survived gross transmutations of shape and form with their voidness gracefully intact. Reincarnation in America’s own special brand of samsaric existence has not been without its highs and lows, as the art of the mandala has survived three-dimensional vertical expansion by computer-imaging systems and suffered horizontal demolition by the flailing body of a deranged Californian observer who experienced the mandala as the product of a death cult.

sand mandala book

As these visual images have accommodated themselves so willingly to translation into various Western media, one might suppose they would have generated a substantial literature as well. Yet the relationship between image and word is a delicate one: viewing a mandala is one thing; describing it is quite another; and explaining it in its historical, philosophical, and ritual context is something else again. Barry Bryant’sThe Wheel of Time Sand Mandala: Visual Scripture of Tibetan Buddhism is one of the few books accessible to a general readership that addresses all of these issues. His work, compiled in consultation with the monks of Namgyal Monastery, who are specialists in the art of mandalas, offers a detailed written explanation of the visual “text” of one particular type of mandala, the Kalachakra mandala, and places it within the larger perspective of the Tibetan religious system.

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