A mandala is an ancient focus for meditation and serves to concentrate the mind on spiritual matters. Sometimes mandalas are used to aid the process of healing, particularly mental healing. Mandalas are usually circular, and comprise complex colorful patterns that embody a depiction of the universe. In fact, the term ‘mandala’ is the Sanskrit word for ‘circle’. Mandala designs do vary and differ between religions.
Mandalas first appeared in the 4th century as part of the Buddhist religion. They are also used in the Hindu religion, and so can be found across the south-eastern part of Asia, including China, Japan, India and Burma.
Buddhist mandalas tend to have a central square which is surrounded by a circle. There are several schools of Buddhist teaching, and the meaning of mandalas vary between them and so the mandalas used by each will differ.
In Vajrayana Buddism, the mandala serves to represent the Enlightened Mind. In other schools of teaching the mandala can be a representation of the entire universe. These often show Mount Meru at the center, with the continents around it.
The center point of a mandala is the most important, as it is the focus from which the whole mandala spreads. For the user, the center point should be the start of their meditative journey. The aim is for the believer to memorize a chosen mandala, and then learn the significance of each element of the design. This makes it possible for them to recall the mandala and its message at any time.
These elements will include wisdom – usually in the fires found in the outermost circle of the mandala. Also included will be the charnel grounds, which Buddhists use as reminders of death. One aspect of Buddhism that the mandala is meant to reinforce is the sense of life’s impermanence.
Anyone meditating and using a mandala will be expected to appreciate this message, as Buddhists acknowledge reincarnation, and must not fear death.
A well-known version of a mandala is the Five Buddhas mandala. Depending on which school of Buddhism is using the mandala and why it is being used, will determine which Buddhas are represented. The five wise Buddhas – named Vairocana, Ratnasambhava, Amoghasiddhi, Aksobhya and Amithabha – will be depicted on the mandala. A second mandala featuring the Five Wise Kings when combined with the first mandala, creates the Mandala of the Two Realms.
This brings together representation of the spiritual realm and the material realm.
Tibetan Buddhism, as distinct from the other styles of Buddhism, also uses a type of mandala called a sand mandala. This is created from colored sands on a special wooden board. The designs are carefully constructed by monks, and can take several days or even weeks, depending on the complexity of the pattern. Every element of the pattern will have a specific, special meaning. This, of course, is the case with every mandala, but sand mandalas are created specifically to enhance the worshippers sense of the impermanence of life. After use, the sand mandala is ceremonially destroyed. The colored sands are swept up, often using a paintbrush, and in a particular order. They are then committed to the nearest flowing water to emphasize the transience of life and of our universe.
Mandalas are also found in Hinduism, and are sometimes called a yantra. A Hindu mandala takes the form of a circle surrounded by a square, They tend to be smaller than Buddhist mandalas, and use a more limited palette of colors. A deity will be represented in the centre of the mandala, and as such the mandala is considered to be the deity’s home.
When the mandala is used, the user will endeavor to commune with the deity as part of their meditation. Mandalas, or yantras, form a central part of Hindu tantric practices.
The Mandala, in the sense of circular representations of the universe, of unity or of human life, can be found in a number of civilizations. The Mayan people created circular mandala style calendars. It would seem they had an advanced understanding of time and of cosmology.
The Aztecs also created stone mandala-like edifices. Once thought to be calendars, it is now suggested they had a wider purpose, and represented the universe. These mandalas were used in religious ceremonies where the Sun God was worshipped. It may also be that these stones were stylized maps, showing how power and authority emanated from the center, from Tenochtitan, the capital of the Aztec Empire.
Christianity, too, has its mandala-like features. Early stained glass windows can be found that show the figure of Christ in the centre of a circular window with symbols representing aspects of Christian belief around him. In Islam, particularly in Persia, the Shamsheh motif resembles a mandala in its circular nature and symbolic art.
Carl Jung discovered that often when patients were asked to draw spontaneously, the circle was the form that appeared frequently. Jung was familiar with Eastern spirituality, and felt that the creation of circular patterns was a way that patients tried to order their thoughts and make sense of their world. Creating a mandala brought stability to the patient’s inner life. Psychologists took up Jung’s approach, and encouraged their patients to create mandalas as part of the therapy they needed to recover. The healing power of the circle has been reinforced by the frequency that it appears in art and architecture throughout human history.
The interest in Eastern mysticism and spirituality that developed in the late twentieth century, and which was encouraged by celebrities such as The Beatles becoming advocates, renewed interest in mandalas. Mandalas have been included in both art and design projects in many European and North American cities. Fabrics have been printed with versions of mandalas and even wallcoverings are available bearing them.