A Buddhist monk creating a mandala

Intricacy and Reflection: Transforming Mandalas from Sacred Designs to Art Therapy

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Although the word ‘Mandala’ simply means “circle” or “discoid object” in Sanskrit, the significance is far more complex. Traditionally, mandalas represented the intricacy of the universe and served as a guide for reflective practices such as meditation.

Mandalas have been present in Tantric Hinduism, Tantric Buddhism, and Jainism for hundreds of years. But it may be that other cultures have been creating similar images for even longer while using other names and perhaps including some variation to meaning.

Jain cosmological diagrams and text.

Jain cosmological diagrams and text. ( Public Domain )

A Traditional Mandala Design

There has always been some variation in Mandala design. They have been painted on wood, walls, paper, stone, and cloth. Mandalas are immortalized in sacred architecture and also show their impermanent nature in materials like butter. However, there is a key feature found in most traditional mandala designs – geometry. Originally, mandalas consisted of concentric circles within squares, squares within circles, six-pronged stars, or inverted crossed triangles.

A mandala-yantra design.

A mandala-yantra design. ( Public Domain )

 The traditional way to create a mandala is to start at the center and expand outward on the design. The most basic form of a mandala has four “T-shaped gates” and includes the colors yellow, red, green, and blue. Depending on how open you are with the definition of ‘mandala’, you may even see this type of design in 40,000-year-old concentric circle rock art from Kimberley, Australia.

More than Just Drawings

Often, we imagine intricate drawings when we think of the word mandala. The Tantra Buddhist Kalachakra, known in English as the “Wheel of Time”, is probably the most famous example of a visual mandala. This mandala is said to represent the pure nature of all things. If you meditate on this mandala, it is believed you will be able to transform impure perceptions and experiences and gain access to the deepest reality.

Kalachakra thangka painted in Sera Monastery, Tibet.

Kalachakra thangka painted in Sera Monastery, Tibet. ( Public Domain )

But another well-known example is found on one of the earliest large-scale paintings from Nepal. This is a cloth mandala depicting the wrathful Chakrasamvara and his consort Vajravarahi. Six goddesses surround the pair, each shown on a stylized lotus petal that form a vajra. That characteristic suggests a date of 1100 AD. Eight great burial grounds of India frame the central image – a nod to the fact that people often meditate on Chakrasamvara at those sites.

The Chakrasamvara mandala. 

The Chakrasamvara mandala. (The Met )

Tibetan Buddhist sand paintings provide the second most popular form of mandala creation. Before they can participate in the making of this type of mandala, monks need several years of training. The sand mandalas are made by placing colored powder over a white chalk geometric blueprint. Often four monks work on one sand mandala – in each of the four traditional quadrants. They do not work on the design at the same moment, each monk takes his turn after another has completed his task. This form of a mandala is thought to be both a tool of personal enlightenment and a way to bring about peace, wisdom, and liberation for all beings. One of the most intriguing aspects of the sand mandala is that it is ritually destroyed following the days or weeks of hard work in its creation. This act is meant to symbolize the Buddhist idea of impermanence.

Five Monks, Five Days, One Sand Mandala from Tahiat Mahboob on Vimeo.

The pictorial form of a mandala is undoubtedly the most famous of its incarnations, however it isn’t the only way a mandala can be represented. Mandalas have been incorporated in architectural designs as well. For example, the Borobudur temple on Java was built as an interactive mandala-yantra. A person is supposed to walk this structure in a particular pattern while seeking enlightenment. The Borobudur temple comprises nine stacked platforms, six square and three circular, and is topped by a central dome. There are 2,672 relief panels and 504 Buddha statues decorating the building to provide inspiration and incite reflection.

Borobudur temple.

Borobudur temple. (22Kartika/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

 A Global Design?

As hinted at above, mandalas may not be restricted to Buddhist design. For example, beautiful representations of mandala-like artwork can be found in sacred geometry covering Islamic mosque ceilings and the Middle-eastern influenced rose windows of Christian churches too. These designs not only enhance the appearance of the religious sites, but also the may be an inspiration for prayer.

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