Mandalas can be found in the artistic traditions of many world religions and philosophies. The word mandala comes from the Sanskrit word for circle, and traditionally refers to the the use of the circle in the sacred art of India, but today the word is used to refer to a much more universal piece of human symbolism. The symbolism of a mandala connects the themes of unity and growth, often representing the coming together of opposites to form a whole. The Yin-Yang or symbol of the Tao, diagrams of the I Ching, the Sri Yantra, and the Bhavachakra are all examples of mandalas in sacred art.
The most extensive use of mandalas can be found in the rituals and art of Tibetan Buddhism. Mandalas are most often depicted as two dimensional colored diagrams, often featuring a Buddha or seed-syllable in the center, with concentric rings of other deities and various symbols surrounding it. Tibetan monks are famous for their representations of these diagrams drawn in colored sands. These mandalas can take weeks to make and are constructed by monks as a ritual offering, destroyed after completion to represent the impermanence of all things. However, many people are not aware that these two dimensional mandalas are actually blueprints for the visualization of a three-dimensional palace, and play a very important role in almost every form of Tibetan ritual practice.
The palace and its surrounding environment are vividly visualized down to the smallest details in meditation and are used as a powerful transformative tool. The descriptions of these palaces not only describe the palace itself but the entire surrounding universe. The palace is located on Mount Meru, the Axis-Mundi in Indo-tibetian cosmology, which is surrounded by the various continents and visualized as being made entirely of jewels, resting on top of disks of fire, water, and earth. It rests on a thousand-petaled lotus, surrounded by eight charnel grounds (burial vaults or buildings) inhabited by spirits of all kinds, which in turn are surrounded by a ring of iron mountains forming a protective barrier.
In the center of the palace, which has five walls made of colored jewels representing the five elements, the central Buddha resides in a throne room, surrounded by his or her retinue. Advanced practitioners can visualize the mandala with such great detail and clarity, down to the individual hairs of the head of the deity, that it is perceived as being even more vivid than waking reality. Some are said to even be able to visualize entire sets of mandalas in full detail in a space the size of a small seed.
Every detail of the palace and surrounding environment has many layers of symbolism and meaning. The mandala as a whole represents the primordial non-dual nature of the mind as it exists naturally when freed of all conceptual projections of desire, aversion, hope, or fear, the open and infinitely expansive space before the first thought of self and other. Through the practice of creatively visualizing the mandala, a practitioner replaces their normal sense of self and environment, transforming it into the palace of the Buddha, and realizing his or her own identity as being that of the central Buddha.
At the end of the visualization the entire mandala is dissolved, step by step, into the practitioner, a process which is mirrored in the ritual destruction of sand mandalas. In later stages, after training extensively in visualizing the mandala, the practitioner utilizes the innate creative power of the mind and actually transforms their perceived environment into the mandala through practices involving the subtle body, the energetic system of chakras, channels, winds, and bindus, directly seeing into the open space the underlies all thought.
A similar use of mandalas is also found a number of Hindu Tantric schools. Often the princes or emperors who would sponsor Hindu Tantra in their court would also sponsor Vajrayana Buddhism, which would later develop into Tibetan Buddhism. Because yogis from both traditions would often be in close contact with each other, the traditions influenced each other’s development. Most of the mandalas used by these schools, usually referred to as yantras, are far less complex than their Tibetan counterparts, but they are still used to represent the ultimate non-dual nature of reality. One well known example is the Sri Yantra, representing the union of the divine feminine and masculine principles, the diagram itself showing how reality emanates from this union that contains the potential for all possible existence.
A less esoteric use of mandalas can be found in the psychological theories of Carl Jung. Jung saw the mandala as being an archetypal representation of the self. Jung spent a lot of time using art as a method for exploring the relationship between symbolism, the unconscious, and psychology, and often found himself drawing mandala-like diagrams. He found the drawings to be powerful expressions of his state of being, and in time he came to see these diagrams as representing his path to the unity of the self.
Jung said of his drawings of mandalas, “I knew that in finding the mandala as an expression of the self I had attained what was for me the ultimate.” Although mandalas are used in many different ways by many different traditions, the fundamental theme of the unity of reality or the self is common to them all. Whether they are used as a part of complex esoteric rituals and practices, or as an attempt to express the self artistically for the purposes of healing or psychological growth, the mandala is undoubtedly one of the most powerful examples of symbolism found in the spiritual traditions of the world.
Guest Author: Ben Karlsen
Ben is a philosophy major at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana focusing on Tibetan Buddhism. Ben has an ongoing interest in psychology, religion, neuroscience and consciousness research. He tutored his younger brother Christopher for several years in topics of mutual interest such as astronomy, Greek mythology, programming and science. Ben is my oldest son and I am also grateful for the many hours we have spent together in fascinating conversations!