The Mandala

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


 The man who understands a symbol not only 'opens himself to the objective world, but at the same time succeeds in emerging from his personal situation and reaching a comprehension of the universal. . . . Thanks to the symbol, the individual experience is 'awakened', and transmuted into a spiritual act.

Mircea Eliade  

 In the small hours of the morning the old abbot died and by dawn the ceremonial preparations for his passing into the great bardo had begun. He had been recognized as one of the significant 'reincarnations', one of those who remember their previous births and seem to come into this life with a sense of who they are and what they are here for. He had been a very gaunt, tall old man, and it had amused people in the small mountain settlement to see him followed about wherever he went by an especially small young orphan boy who had donned the maroon robe of the novice and attached himself to his mentor like an ornamental barnacle. The vast disparity in height between the two and the undaunted devotion so noticeable in the mien of the small disciple as he trudged in the wake of the old abbot's long stride were missed. Now in the morning hours the disciple seemed to have disappeared with his sorrow, curled up somewhere to mourn while all the lamas and others chanted and circumambulated the shrine where the great mandala would be constructed to assist the departed soul in its journey through the many stages of the afterlife and reaffirm a primal order affecting the living and the dead, necessarily disturbed by the passing of such a spiritually advanced individual.

 Circling clockwise, the groups of lamas and laymen fingered their beads and chanted, their deep booming voices resonating across the thin, fresh air rising between steep flanks of the Himalayan hills. Each time they returned to the doorway of the shrine, many of them fell to the ground in effortless prostration, touching their foreheads to the stone floor over and over again. Inside, older lamas chanted steadily and younger men prepared the coloured powders and the threads they would use to lay out the fundamental lines of the mandala on the freshly cleaned floor. They were intently concentrated, testing the quality of the fine thread which would be dipped into the appropriate powder and stretched out precisely to the right length and angle on the floor. Two of them held either end of a thread across the emerging design and plucked it lightly, permitting the powdered line to strike the smoothed surface and leave behind a clean, straight, coloured mark. Every movement was accompanied by deep chanting, with a blast upon the long horn and a clash of cymbals marking particular junctures in the emerging creation. The little disciple of the abbot showed himself only hesitantly in the later hours of the afternoon and did not seem to notice in his dejected state the splendour of the fully drawn design gracing the centre of the shrine's square floor. Perhaps, even in his few years, he had seen this sort of thing before or, more likely, his sorrow had blinded his eye to the outer world. But others saw and they silently exulted in the harmony thus created. They knew that order had been restored and that all was well with the departed soul.

 The word 'mandala' is a Sanskrit term meaning, simply, 'circle'. Brought from India in the eighth century by Padmasambhava, the mandala reached its highest form of development in Tibetan Buddhist practices. But where, one might ask, did it come from originally? Were the earliest mandalas the products of dreams or visions, as some have suggested? Modern thinkers who have taken them seriously have tended to discuss them as maps of consciousness, or the projected images of the psychic condition of their author. This sort of language encourages one to imagine a sort of psychic thrust of potential patterns and images into manifestation by those who then bounce themselves off the derived reality they extract from what thus seems to be an idiosyncratically inspired design. In his work with people suffering from various forms of mental disturbances, Carl Jung was led to 'rediscover' the mandala. This unusually intuitive psychologist took his cues from his patients, who, without outside knowledge or coaching, created mandalas as self-devised aids to their own search for individuation and integration.

 Jung pursued a study of mandalas which led him back through European alchemical and religious practices and symbols to the traditions of the ancient East, paving the way for a synthesis of traditional visual structures and occult symbolism with the individualistic interpretations of modern eclectic schools of psychotherapy. If one embraces this synthesis in some readily packaged or superficial way, one may easily conclude that there is very little difference between notions of psychically projected mandalas and images of the deities and all their various visual attributes. Perhaps all are merely figments of man's individual and collective consciousness. Or one may probe further and wonder if they are images 'projected' out of the cosmic unconscious in which human beings as individual minds participate. The danger of gross reductionism lies in asserting (as some contemporary thinkers do) that the powers and designs of the macrocosm are merely psychic projections, for this threatens to shrink the potentials of humanity and the cosmos to fit the dimensions of the small, separative self. It is just this loss of dimension in modern materialistic thought which has so impoverished our understanding of the human potential. It is, therefore, therapeutically fitting that we (as cultural descendants of those who viewed man as the microcosm of the macrocosm) should rediscover the broader interconnecting meaning and power of the mandala in the traditions of tribal societies as well as those of the ancient East, wherein anthropocentric psychic projections would be seen as fragmented and useless.

 Students of world culture could argue that this knowledge never really disappeared, except among those who quite deliberately blinded themselves to the evidence that existed all around them. Thus, the Mexican calendar stone represented a mandala linking man with the greater forces operating through immense cycles, and the monoliths of Stonehenge could have told a similar story through centuries of ignorance. As kinds of yantras (means, emblems or instruments of integration and self-discovery), the zodiac, the labyrinth, plans for sacred buildings, clocks, rose windows, lotus designs, horoscopes, planned gardens and even whole cities were all mandalas to those with the intelligence to perceive their inner meaning. They and countless other examples from cultures around the world share certain fundamental characteristics without which they could not properly be called mandalas. They are geometric, made up of counterbalanced concentric parts which describe a basic symmetry, a beauty resulting from right proportions between the parts of any whole. These geometrical proportions involve equal ratios in their parts, or a geometrical progression expressed with constant ratios between successive quantities. A mandala is made up of concentric parts, with the centre itself not depicted. It usually recognizes in some way the cardinal points, introducing the square into the pattern of concentricity.

 A mandala can be seen as an image and synthesis of the dualistic aspects of differentiation and union. It combines the qualities of externality and internality, diffusion and concentration, variety and sameness, circles and squares, curves and angles, thick and thin boundaries, borders and lines. Though never actually depicted, the centre is suggested by concentric figures incorporating these dualistic features while taking upon themselves the dual role of acting both as gateways and obstacles in relation to movement towards the centre. In the traditional Buddhist mandala there are three concentric areas or courts containing these elements. The outer court is that of the initial gatekeepers, the offering bearers, the elements of the physical universe and the realm of the perfection and purification of worldly actions and vestures. The middle court is the arena of the eight syllables, protected by fierce deities, where the perfection of speech must take place. In Mahayana mandalas Manjushri or another of the Buddhas may be seated in the lunar disc which lies at the inner court. It is here that the mind is purified to become a perfect reflector of the highest divine will. In this final goal lies the purpose of the mandala, which is thus used as a means to concentration and the attainment of higher mental states. It moves the individual contemplating it in any depth from a basically biological self-identification to an abstract geometrical identification.

 In its series of enclosures of sacred spaces, the symmetry of the mandala has the power to achieve order through diversity and bring about a reunion with the unchanging non-spatial centre of being. This ordering involves, as it were, a regrouping of all that is dispersed around an axis. This may be imagined on a macrocosmic scale, but it is clearly applicable to the individual microcosm attempting to achieve a better balance within or, as we often say, a 'centring' of oneself. If one examines thoughtfully the way in which human beings attempt to order their worlds, one may notice that the concern to order a certain area may be motivated by a deep and perhaps unconscious longing for integration and harmony with the one central Source of all. It may be, however, that the motivation is aesthetic or utilitarian and reflects itself in mere ornamentation. There is often a very fine line between these motives, but the former leads to a pursuit of truth without fearful regard for temporary confusions or external aesthetic standards. The deeply internalized longing for order is not an obsession with superficial tidiness or systematization, though it will ultimately reflect itself in a superior ordering of priorities, actions and objects in life. Individuals motivated by an aesthetic desire for order may be involved in a lifetime of wallpapering, covering over deeper crevasses of confusion and potential chaos. They may also be creating forms of such enchanting character that they influence others as well as themselves to address the deeper question of alignment to a larger macrocosmic pattern of order. In creating a true order, it is critical that one identify the centre and find the axis around which the disparate parts of one's being, of the world around one, may be regrouped. The mandala is composed around a metaphysical, irradiating central point of primordial energy, and it is the analogue to this centre that the individual must attempt to locate within himself.

 The idea that the cosmogonic process involves all phenomena evolving in a symmetrically radiating manner must be taken as a given for the mandala to have meaning. This must be assumed to be the basis of the primal order that can be found throughout manifested existence. It is the expression of a sort of structural law by which forms differentiate and are sustained and transformed. The basic forces involved create and uphold each other through the mystical power of the centre as it eternally supports the process of dissolution and rebirth, which destroys and initiates evolving forms.

  Therefore they called the closing of the gates the Receptive and the opening of the gates the Creative. The alternation between opening and closing they called change. The going forward and backward without ceasing they called penetration. What manifests visibly they called an image. What has bodily form they called a tool. What is established in usage they called a pattern. That which furthers on going out and coming in, that which all men live by, they called the Divine.

The Book of Changes  

 The gates mentioned here refer to the centre, and one can interpret their closing and opening on the level of cosmic manifestation and dissolution as well as on the level of more particularized births and deaths, or changes. The whole process hinges upon not merely a centre in time and space, but the principle of centre as the metaphysical beginning and origin of all forms and processes. Looked at from the perspective of time, the centre is NOW. It is the white tip of awareness, the white drop of the vajra in the womb of the centre place. In attempting to merge with the timeless Reality of the centre, man is trying to live totally in the present, which alone is capable of making a symmetry of the past and future. Living in the now, one's existence unfolds in symmetry with the beauty resulting from the right proportions existing in and between all the parts. Past and future become no more than gates to the centre, enabling one to live, as the Navajo say, in beauty.

May it be beautiful before me.
May it be beautiful behind me.
May it be beautiful below me.
May it be beautiful above me.
May it be beautiful all around me.
In beauty it is finished.
        Navajo Night Chant

 It has been eloquently said that symbols are created through a condensation and focalization of energies which, through a reciprocal process involving the symbol itself, can be objectively released. Man as the microcosm is at the centre of all spiritual and material forces. He stands at the juncture of heaven and earth and in him the cosmic forces are, as in the greater universe, focalized. He is a transforming agent in whose nature higher and lower energies are converted and alchemized into loftier spiritual expressions or brought down to baser forms. In this sense, it could be said that man is a symbol in and through which an ongoing transmutation is taking place. In its psycho-physical processes the human organism is continually transforming sense data into psychic perception and vice versa. Just as with the mandala, all this takes place within an interrelated whole or, if one likes, a symbol of the whole. In many schools of Buddhism the correspondence between macrocosm and microcosm is brought to life in the mandala through a transformation involving a fundamental and totally absorbing identification with the macrocosm. The five Buddhas do not remain distant divine forms but become immediately accessible. This occurs because the individual striving to reach them clearly sees himself or herself as the cosmos - containing all these Buddhas, each one corresponding with the five constituents of the human personality, which in turn correspond with the five cosmic aspects (colours, vibrations, etc.) of the One Life. It is not a question of the Buddhas or other deities bending down to the particularized level of ordinary human existence, but rather one of the individual using the mandala as a means of reaching up to the cosmic realm in which they abide.

 Thus it is that through concept and structure man may be projected into the universe. On entering the mandala, he confronts specific symbols. If number or geometry is the key to the correct interpretation of stages, then one can expect to find the superior elements closer to the centre. Thus a circle within a square is a more developed structure than a square within a circle. The same logic follows with triangles and circles, the inverted triangles conveying a meaning of descent either alone or in conjunction with those which are upward-tending. Outer circles unify by overriding the contradictions and irregularities of sides and angles by implicit movement, and a series of such may denote an aureole of subtle, intermediate and more concrete worlds around a spiritual centre. The often used eighteen-petalled lotus, like that of the Sri Yantra, connotes regeneration, while the serrated square resolves an orientation in space to the influences of the four cardinal points. Demonic deities symbolize the menacing aspect of the psychic and passional forces. Standing at the outer and inner gates, they are both guards and inviters to those who are spiritually qualified. Often surrounded by flames, as in the Tibetan tradition, and expressing a fearful ferocity, they nonetheless represent both devotion and the development of the protective quality of discrimination. They must be met by one who enters oneself as by one who enters the mandala. They will not tolerate impurity of motive, but will compel the individual to examine his heart deeply and repeatedly, thus pruning away the dead branches of delusion which cloud the minds of so many would-be spiritual aspirants and preclude discrimination. One who passes them by unhalted must know intimately what their ferocity is aimed at and must weed out by the roots such elements from within his own nature. In so doing, he comes to know these guardians well. He becomes them in relation to himself and thus gradually puts an end to the impediment that would prevent him from moving into a deeper inner court.

 It is first of all necessary to make the organ of vision analogous and similar to the object to be contemplated.


 The eye itself is like a mandala. Looking at the mandala, one can, in the biblical sense, make the eye single. If the mandala expresses the whole in its parts symmetrically arrayed around the centre, so the eye can see holistically, its foveal opening to the brain connecting it with the instrument capable of immediate communication with the entire microcosm. Thus the eye sees the whole of the macrocosmic mandala, which is then experienced by the whole of the microcosm. Seeing leads to becoming, becoming one with that which is seen, and alchemizes its energies within oneself. Because seeing in this sense can have such potent results, it is necessary that a mandala be drawn, painted, built or imagined by a trained devotee. Its construction must (in order to yield meaningful results) relate to the individual's mental and intellectual order, incorporating the right colours, interrelations, symbols and overall pattern. A Tibetan mandala may be aesthetically attractive to those unfamiliar with the complex ideas and training it relates to, but it will not likely provide the means of profound self-realization for them. A Navajo can be mentally or physically healed by being seated in the centre of a sandpainting because of the cultural training he or she has received which renders the individual psychically and physically responsive to certain audio-visual combinations. The shaman or lama or yogi who constructs the mandala must know exactly how to do it, when it should be done, why and for whom.

 The Buddha said: "Now I will further delineate the method for constructing the mandala-altar of the eight syllables of most sublime virtue."

 Those who construct a mandala should select a pure site, a monastic dwelling, an auspicious place deep in the mountains or a place that has been blest by a spiritually significant event. Such a one should be a monk or a nun of profound practice, able to recite mantras, hold to them and be dedicated to vows of compassion. They should be clean of body and wear freshly cleaned clothes. If one is in a dangerous situation, the mandala should be constructed on fresh soil, sprayed with scented water, and the coloured powders to be used should be mixed with incense. If the mandala is painted, glue from animal hides or hoofs should not be used as a binder, but fragrant tree sap should be mixed with the pigments instead. If the mandala is drawn on the ground or floor, it should be freshly purified and consecrated. The whole act of drawing it is a rite of palingenesis requiring precise attention to detail. An error or oversight or omission renders the whole work useless because such things result from momentary inattention. The thread used for tracing out the various parts is to be carefully examined. It should be composed of five twisted threads, each of a different colour, corresponding to the main colours of powder to be used.

 The Tibetan mandala generally contains an outer enclosure, one or more concentric circles which enclose a square cut by transversal lines. These stretch from the centre to the four corners so that the design is divided into four triangles and one central space, in the middle of which five circles contain emblems or figures of divinities. These and all the many variations and details of the particular mandala must be executed with persistent mental alertness and precision so that the completed 'rebirth' of cosmic forces and elements can take place. This is why, when the mandala is completed and those involved have been fully initiated into it and raised up or cured by it, it is usually destroyed. It is said that, before building anew, the previous creation should be destroyed. This implies a detachment from the construction and the aesthetic results, as well as a willingness to let the universe which is created return to its original undifferentiated state. Thus the spirits are released and the forces called forth in form are permitted to diffuse. If the content of the mandala has been absorbed, it is within the individual. A mandala painting may not be destroyed, for it will be treated only as an object to remind. Preserving one is a tricky business, for the powers sparked within it may not necessarily disperse merely because it is no longer in use. Thus the Navajo have very strong taboos against committing sand paintings to surfaces where they will remain permanently. They have a healthy fear of the possible mischief that can emanate from 'captured' spirits, and any such pattern woven into a rug or used in a wall painting is always and deliberately made with inaccuracies which render it powerless.

 The actual ritual of the mandala applies to those junctures where the order of things needs to be very clearly seen. They cast light upon the "purified passage of being" and often play an important role in initiation. Upon entering the mandala the disciple attempts to approach the centre. As soon as he has entered, he is in a relatively sacred place. The Buddhist monk looks at the sacred plan of the Borobudur Temple in terms of concentric circles of increasing sacredness in this same way. He enters as if into his own inner being, moving gradually across successive thresholds after having learnt the mystery of each area or court. As he enters, the gods have already descended. He prepares himself at each stage to encounter the fierce guardians, to subdue them by alchemizing within himself that which they guard against, and he finds the gods, one by one, in the chambers of his heart. It could be said that this ritual, therefore, is not just one of doing but one of sub-doing, where knowledge is born out of purification and the embodiments of that knowledge are encountered one by one, face to face. These embodiments are encountered by the whole being of the disciple. Focalizing completely upon them, he sees them all emerge and spring from his heart; they fill cosmic space, then are reabsorbed in him. In this way he realizes the eternal process of the periodic creation and destruction of worlds. He can enter into a transcendent rhythm beyond sequential events to the timeless centre of the macrocosm and of his own being.

 In the great Kalachakra mandala initiation, the disciple is purified, pledged and shown in turn the four faces of the vajra body, speech, mind and wisdom. If properly prepared, such a one will generate the corresponding aspects in his own nature. One who attains the seven parts of this initiation and takes the practice of the generation stages to their fulfillment shall become a master of those seven stages in this very life. The aim is to transform the aspirant into a vessel suitable for practice of the yogas of the generation stages, and to ensure meditative stability as well as control over the energies flowing through the chakras. The mandala of Kalachakra issues forth from the wisdom of emptiness. Tibetan teaching says that "inside of this" is the air mandala, related to the area between the crown and the forehead. Above this is the fire mandala, associated with the area from the forehead to the throat. Above this the water mandala resides, representing the space from the throat to the heart. The earth mandala, related to the area from the heart to the navel, is above this, and Mount Meru, associated with the generative area, surmounts this. The moon, sun and fire of time above this correspond with the three energy channels leading to the womb. Overall, the vajra tent symbolizes the act whereby the diamond sceptre enters the womb of space and the generation of the universe commences.

 The ability to know the beginning of antiquity is called the thread running through the way.

Lao Tzu

 The disciple approaches the mandala prepared, but still essentially ignorant of the powerful forces that lie within him which correspond with those contained within a mandala like the Kalachakra. Though he may not fully grasp the implications of it, he will, in effect, be uncovering the accretions of the ages as layer by layer he moves back to a point of pristine beginning. It is more than merely emotionally dying and being reborn, and more than taking a fervent vow wherein one refuses ever to see things in the same (mundane) light again. The entrance into the mandala involves a direct, full-blown confrontation with passions, monsters of greed, hate and all the other deadly sins, as well as embodiments of the most alluring and bliss-filled side trips. There is no distance between the aspirant and these 'realities'. They are not academic or abstract. They loom with overwhelming force, toppling the unready or the inattentive. How could it be otherwise? If the mandala encompasses past, present and future, non-being and being, in all its ramifications, its awakened constituents must involve all possible entities and dualistic powers. Depending upon the unique history of the individual disciple, they will make their various appearances, finding their correspondences within him at all levels of his nature. He will either overcome them or be overwhelmed by them, lending an arresting significance to Socrates' admonition that "the unexamined life is not worth living".

 The mantras recited when entering the mandala are echoed in the chanting of the Dakota when the dancers enter into the sacred circle of the sun dance, or of the Navajo shaman when the patient enters the sandpainting to be cured. Sound is wedded to colour, line, shape, symmetry and geometry in the ritual and each syllable has its dwelling place in the design. True absorption into the mandala involves intense meditation upon its completed form, a meditation capable of being done even on behalf of another, as in the case of that which accompanied the abbot into the various stages of the bardo. During its construction, cosmic forces were necessarily projected out of the chaos of the individual's unconscious. The myriad forms of this having now been confronted, reabsorption consciously takes place. In the case of the Manjushri mandala, a full moon disc is situated at its centre. If the disciple is capable of eventually entering into its presence, he is instructed that he should visualize the moon in front of his body and draw it into his chest. Embracing thus the moon, he will expand to fill the universe and experience fully that which it contains - namely, the universal mind of compassion. After this, the aspirant contracts his chest until it has become, once again, of microcosmic size. Then he places the moon outside his body again.

 This reciprocal transference of being from the microcosm to the macrocosm and back to the microcosmical planes is a ritual of purification in which the process of dissolution and manifestation takes place, enabling one to perceive the deepest, untainted, radiant nature of one's higher mind. Having gone through this transformation process, one has transcended time and space and the endless pairs of opposites that garner their reality from separative consciousness. One cannot become one with the cosmos while experiencing oneself as separate from the past or future or from all other beings. The challenge lies in sustaining the truth absorbed from the mandala, to see order in chaos within and without, and shafts of light revealing symmetry, geometric movement, inner meaning and interconnectedness in what appears to be meaningless, dark, misdirected and fragmented.

 To keep the absorbed vision alive has been the work of the few great spiritual mentors of mankind, those who have completed the mandala initiation at its highest levels. Now, in the lengthening shadows of Kali Yuga, there are few indeed capable of sustaining its reality. When such a one comes, sacrificing all personal rewards for the sake of others, it is a great blessing indeed. There they stand, they who could have remained within the inner circle of bliss, and wait for those stumbling hopefuls whose hearts' longings have brought them to the outer gate of the mandala. They patiently wait, ignored by masses of unheeding people who pass them by as though they were beggars at the entrance to a shrine. They quietly watch the crowds jostle to and from the marketplace outside and never abandon their place. Never sleeping or dreaming apart, they are alert to the slightest deviation from the pattern of worldly activity going on before them. They recognize the smallest look of aspiration, the gesture of longing for a greater truth. They recognize and they extend out their compassionate thought like a hand offered to a drowning man. And if the potential disciple steps aside from the crowd and draws nigh, then they speak to him or her the very words needed and begin patiently and carefully the instructions required to enter through the mandala's gates.

Circle within circle of mind
Square the forces of being.
But gates from the great to the small
Open the pathway of the heart.