Healing the World, Healing
the Self: Comparing Sand
Painting in Tibetan and
Navajo Traditions
Dr. David Otto, Professor of
Religious Studies
What is a Mandala?
A highly symmetrical design
Concentrated on a center
Divided into four quadrants
Built on concentric circles and squares
Often using symbols to depict gods
Designed to be used only once
But what should I look
What direction is the Mandala facing?
• Black, in the east, is associated with
the element of winds. Sometimes also
seen as Green.
• South is red, its elements is fire.
• West is yellow, associated with the
element of earth
• North is white, representing water.
Next, locate the Gates
Each gate leads into the central palace
Gates are T-Shaped and placed at the
four cardinal points
Where is the Central
Mandalas work as two-dimensional
and three dimensional objects
So far, we have been viewing the
temple from the sky—literally, a “god’s
eye view”
If we look at it in three dimensions…
So where is the temple
In Tibetan cosmology, the universe is
comprised of hundreds of millions of
Each cylinder represents a universe
On each universe, a temple for the
gods is constructed.
Temple as Mount Meru
Mount Meru is a place which
simultaneously represents the center
of the universe and the singlepointedness of mind
Thousands of miles in height, Meru is
located somewhere beyond the
physical plane of reality, in a realm of
perfection and transcendence
Building a Foundation
Space/ether represented by the
farthest concentric circle
Next, the air disk
Then the fire disk
Water disk
Earth disk
Earth Disk
Water Disk
Fire Disk
Air Disk
Switching Viewpoint
So, when we travel back to our “god’s
eye view”, how do we locate the lower
Viewing the Foundation
Earth Disk (Green)
Water Disk (White)
Fire Disk (Red)
Air Disk (Black)
What is the purpose of
the Mandala?
To reduce order to disorder through
Movement toward emptiness
Shift through the three perspectives
– Outer perspective
– Inner perspective
– Alternative perspective
Outer Perspective
Comprised by the six elements of
earth, water, fire, air, space and
wisdom; and all objects of smell, sight,
taste, touch, sound and Dharma.
Another division follows the cosmic
buildup of the universe.
Each universe is born, lives, and dies.
The lesson: Impermanence
Inner Perspective
Consists of the body and mind of living
beings, the psychophysical
aggregates, the sensory and psychic
Includes the six types of living beings
(gods, demigods, humans, animals,
hungry ghosts and hell-beings), the six
energy centers (chakras) of the body
Inner Perspective
In short, the human body is a
Head as the dwelling
place of the gods
Trunk of body as
Mount Meru
Legs and arms as the
four main continents of
the universe
Eyes as the Sun and
Alternative Perspective
Describes the spiritual method leading
to enlightenment in the form of
Kalachakra (a special type of
mediation based on the mandala)
It describes the Generation and
Completion Stages of meditation
So, what about Navajo
Sand Painting?
Navajo Sand Painting
In its earliest form, exclusively bound
to healing rituals and exorcisms.
With increased tourism, sand painting
has been largely removed from its
religious context, with much of its
symbolism removed.
Navajo Sand Painting
In a literal sense, Navajo Sand
Painting (iikaah) means “A place
where gods come and go”
In the religious context, sand painting
used during Chantway rituals to
restore the balance to the universe
Navajo traditionally believed that the
Dine (Holy Ones) placed them on
Earth to keep the cosmos in balance
through Chantways.
When illness occurs, apparently a lack
of balance between goodness and evil
(both considered necessary for life to
Hozo and Sand Painting
Only three Chantway Ceremonies
make use of sand painting:
– Blessingway (ceremony of cosmic
– Holyway (rebalancing due to improper
contact with gods or supernatural forces)
– Evilway (rebalancing due to improper
contact with ghosts or witches)
Chantway Sand Painting
Sand painting ritual occurs only during
the last four days of the Chantway
ceremony (which will last either five or
nine days)
Can only occur under the direction of a
“Singer” who is trained by the Dine in
the construction of the painting.
How is a Sand Painting
like a Mandala?
A highly symmetrical design
Concentrated on a center
Divided into four quadrants
Often using symbols to depict gods
Designed to be used only once
What Should I Notice?
First, look at the border of the
Literally serves as a “containment
field” so the supernatural beings
cannot disrupt that which stands
outside the painting
Opening always on the East
What should I notice?
Next, identify the gods.
Clockwise from the top:
– Talking God (B'ganaskiddy), the teacher
– At the bottom, Calling God (Hastye-o-gahn),
associated with farming and fertility
– On each side, left and right, are two
humpbacked guardians, seed gatherers and
bearers. The two guardians usually carry
tobacco pouches.
Why These Gods?
Mythic tale of journey and adventure
to discover a cure to a disease
Apparently, this sand painting will be
used for an ill “patient”
Once painting is complete, the patient
will be seated in the middle of the
work, thus becoming part of the
Navajo Sand Painting in a
What Should I Notice?
The Symmetry
The balance represents the mythic
topography of the Navajo Nation.
Each cardinal point associated with a
So, like Tibetan mandalas, Navajo
Sand Painting represents a sacred
cosmology, uses color associations,
and possesses an outer (universal)
and inner (human body) perspective.

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