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ALTHOUGH THE MANDALA FORM (and the term ‘mandala’) is most often associated with Tibetan Buddhist art, there are innumerable instances of it in every culture. The rose windows and labyrinths of medieval Christianity, the domed mosques and Sufi whirling dervishes of Islam, Hindu temples, the sand paintings of the North American Indians, as well as the pyramids of Ancient Egypt and Central and South America, are all based on the same form with its multiple symmetries radiating from a central point.


This is far from surprising, given the prevalence of the circle – and of radial symmetry – at every level of the natural world, from galaxies and solar systems, down through trees, flowers and fruits, jellyfish, spider’s webs and shells, rock crystals and snowflakes to micro-organisms, cells and subatomic particles. The recurring cycles of day and night, the seasons and the months of the year, as well as organic life cycles, reflect a similar pattern.  

In essence, then, the mandala form is a visual expression of this universal ordering principle of nature, one of the ways in which humanity has sought to relate to and sum up the awesome universe of which we are a part. Mandalas are – sometimes literally – cosmic diagrams, attempts to represent the essential elements of the macrocosm in an ordered, coherent manner. (Derived from the Sanskrit words for ‘essence’ and ‘container’, the word mandala clearly reflects this vocation.)

Traditional belief systems have viewed the macrocosm beyond us as a reflection of the microcosm within us, so, by the same logic, the mandala has also been understood as a means of presenting the apparent chaos within our minds in an orderly way. On one level, Tibetan Buddhist mandalas are intended as symbolic depictions of the various emotions and energies inside the human being.

This microcosmic interpretation of the mandala was first introduced into western thought by CG Jung. He adapted it to fit the more individualistic trends in western psychology, using the many mandalas created by his psychiatric patients as an aid to understanding their mental states. Today, the creation of mandalas is widely used in psychotherapy and personal development work. Such mandalas are viewed as a concise and innately ordering form in which to express personal beliefs and feelings, and thus to reach a deeper understanding and harmony of the self.


The fact that all the components of a mandala must be organised around a central point means that it provides a clear diagrammatic representation of the self, and inevitably brings some sense of unity to its various components, however disparate. This harmonising, centring quality is the key to the function of the mandala in Tibetan Buddhism. The process of creating mandalas and the subsequent contemplation of them are first and foremost two equally valid forms of meditation – and both work through centring.


On the one hand, the concentric design, which is always created by working outwards from the centre, reminds the intellect that the universe, in all its diversity, is ultimately one, joined at the source. It also symbolises the fact that the spiritual quest is a journey back from the circumference that is the outside world, to the centre that is the space within ourselves. On the other hand, allowing the eyes to become lost in such a compelling and satisfying visual form, in which they are drawn back again and again towards the centre, the still point where all movement ceases, helps the meditator to calm the mind and fall into a silent and peaceful space.


Herein lies the powerful appeal of the mandala form – the pleasure the eye (and the mind) derives from gazing at such a perfectly resolved and centred structure. It intimates a sense of underlying order and harmony in an often chaotic world, and the eye, enthralled by its intricacy, can dance endlessly around and across the rhythmical patterns of the surface, knowing that it will be held safely within the magic circle of the design.


Let us not get too comfortable, however. It is a humbling thought that some of the most beautiful and elaborate of all mandalas are those created out of coloured sand by Tibetan Buddhist monks – only to be destroyed afterwards, as a symbolic reminder of the impermanence of all specific life forms.

Lotus mandala
Christian ceiling mandala
Tibetan mandala
Ranakpur temple ceiling mandala, photo by Clashio Barbarani
Tibetan mandala
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