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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.

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 they may be an inspiration for prayer.

In Christianity, mandala-like designs are also found in the famous “illuminations” of nun and pre-Renaissance polymath Hildegard von Bingen. These images are said to provide a visual representation of Hildegard’s alleged prophetic visions. Her ‘fiery cosmic egg’ image in particular also echoes elements found in the Book of Revelation and highlights Hildegard’s archetypal knowledge.

Depiction of Hildegard von Bingen’s ‘fiery cosmic egg.’

Depiction of Hildegard von Bingen’s ‘fiery cosmic egg.’ (Public Domain)

Sacred images which look very much like mandalas have been noted in several cultures and contexts around the world. For example, Navajo healers create mandala-like designs in the sand. As with the ritual of Tibetan Buddhist monks, these images are believed to have healing properties.

However, the Navajo healers are often focused on aiding one person. A healer choses specific designs according to the situation and has the patient place him or herself at the center of the design. Helpful deities are invoked, and balance and health are believed to be restored. These ‘mandalas’ are sometimes compared to North American medicine wheels.

Further expansion on the idea of what a mandala is may lead to the inclusion of Aztec ‘mandalas’ that were used for keeping time, Celtic designs associated with spiritual growth, and perhaps the circular motifs seen across the globe in ancient rock art too.

 Aztec calendar. 

 Aztec calendar. (Manuel Vega Veláquez/CC BY SA 4.0)

Transforming a Traditional Art

Most scholars credit the psychologist Carl Gustav Jung with opening Western eyes to the Eastern concept of the mandala. Jung saw mandalas as a means to gain better access to the Self. He believed that envisioning a mandala in dream or its unexpected appearance in a person’s artwork showed that individual was gaining self-awareness. The sacred circular form was believed to be a way a person unified the opposite aspects of her/his personality – emphasizing psychological growth.

Nowadays, it’s common to find mandalas in an art therapy context. This is because the artform is believed to both provide insight on changes in a person’s life and increase relaxation. Circular drawing is seen as soothing and drawing, painting, or coloring mandalas helps people express their creativity too.

Psychologists can analyze a sequence on mandala drawings that are created over a period of weeks or months to gain insight on changing features of a person’s experiences, personality, and emotions. This is because the content of a mandala will change as time passes. Drawing mandalas can be used as a meditative tool as well.

A modern interpretation of a mandala.

A modern interpretation of a mandala. (CC0)

Mandalas may be prevalent in art therapy these days, but they are old and complex in their creation and meaning. Traditionally found in sacred Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain designs, they have evolved to include practically any geometric pattern, diagram, or chart – if the image provides a sacred representation of the universe or is a visual tool for self-introspection.

Top Image: A Buddhist monk creating a mandala (CC by SA)

By: Alicia McDermott

Updated on October 16, 2020.


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Alicia McDermott's picture


Alicia McDermott holds degrees in Anthropology, Psychology, and International Development Studies and has worked in various fields such as education, anthropology, and tourism. Traveling throughout Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador, Alicia has focused much of her research on Andean cultures... Read More

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