Copyright © 1993 by Barbara Clare Goodwin. All rights reserved.
Mandala is Sanskrit for whole world or healing circle. It is a representation of the universe and everything in it. Khyil-khor is the Tibetan word for mandala and means "center of the Universe in which a fully awakened being abides." Circles suggest wholeness, unity, the womb, completion and eternity.
Tibetan Buddhist Mandalas
In Tibet, the process of creating a mandala is as important as the finished product. It takes years of preparation and training to gain the skill and knowledge required to paint. Even when one is able to begin, meditation for three days must occur before brush can be put to canvas. So much for instant gratification!
There are many types of mandalas in Tibet, such as "transmutation of demonic forces" and "cosmic fortress" (Arguelles, Mandala). The first type is recognized by its sinister images of fire, dragons and warriors. The overall impression is one of dynamic energy. In contrast, the "cosmic fortress" creates a visual safe place, filled with gods, goddesses, lotus and angelic beings. They are there to protect and bless us as we tune into that center within ourselves.
Sand mandalas are another type developed by Tibetan Buddhist monks. Intricate patterns reflect many levels of understanding. The design is ritually prepared over a period of days, then blown away to represent the impermanence of life. The sand, which has been blessed throughout the process, is seen to benefit the land and rivers it comes in contact with. Tibetans believe that a sand mandala contains the knowledge to achieve enlightenment in this lifetime.
Mandalas in the West
There is also a tradition of healing circles in the west. Powerful symbolism is seen in Native American sand paintings, medicine wheels and shields. Medicine wheels represent the universe, change, life, death, birth and learning. The great circle is the lodge of our bodies, our minds and our hearts. Although there are many parallels to the Tibetan mandala, Native Americans never used the word mandala to describe their sacred circles.
In Europe, Hermetic mandalas, though usually linear, may also be circular. Alchemy, the Kabbalah, geometry and numerology play an important part of their design and creation. In his book The Western Mandala, Adam McClean writes "(Mandalas)...can be seen to be keys that unlock the mysteries of our soul's architecture. If we choose to use them in this way, they can lead us deep into the mysteries of our inner world."
The architecture of Gothic cathedrals shows another way towards illumination. The stained glass rose windows were built during times of plague and war. Like mandalas, they were meant to be a symbol of the enlightenment of the human spirit. Sitting in the earthly darkness, contemplating the light pouring through the inspired designs prompts a powerful experience.
Carl Jung and Mandalas
Our culture is familiar with mandalas primarily because of the work of Carl Jung who became interested in them while studying Eastern religion. Jung saw the circular images his clients experienced as "movement towards psychological growth, expressing the idea of a safe refuge, inner reconciliation and wholeness." For Jung, mandalas are "vessels" into which we project our psyche. It is then returned to us as a way of restoration. He recognized that archetypes from many cultures were seen in this spontaneous expression of the unconscious. Circles are universally associated with meditation, healing and prayer.
My Interest in Mandalas
My own interest in mandalas developed out of an art class assignment at Worcester State College in 1979. Carl Jung and mandalas were mentioned in relation to our project of circular/geometric paintings. From manhole covers to ceiling tiles, suddenly I was seeing mandalas everywhere. I even saw them take form in salads, quiches and pies! Looking through my daughters' kaleidoscope became a favorite pastime, and I embarked on a lifetime journey of getting to know mandalas.
To further my knowledge, I arranged an independent study on mandalas. Seeking information for my paper, I contacted Michael Brown who had given a workshop at Omega Institute. He wrote back, "The only way to truly understand mandalas is to draw them." Happily, I took his advice.
My Personal Mandalas
A part of the assignment was to paint a series of mandalas. It was Christmas time and I decided to make them as gifts. Instinctively, I put the person's picture beside the canvas and meditated a while (although I must admit my meditation time was considerably shorter than the three days required for the Tibetans!). When painting, I listened to their favorite style of music. The results were amazing and the idea of personal mandala portraits was born.
There are many ways to connect with mandalas. Numerous cultures have developed specific methods and added meaning to the process. There is no absolute correct way. We must each find our own path to the center. Meditating with and creating mandalas is a wonderful way to enhance the journey. As the Tibetan monk Lobsang Samtem states: "Each individual person who sees and meets the mandala has a different experience." May your encounters with mandalas be filled with deep understanding and peace.
Mandala by Jose and Miriam Arguelles. Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1972.
Mystery of Mandalas by Heita Copony. Theosophical Publishing House, 1989.
Mandala Symbolism by Carl G. Jung. Translated by R.F.C. Hull, Bollingen Series,Princeton University Press. 1959.
(This article originally appeared in the Summer/1993 issue of Spirit of Change magazine.)