Mandala: Visualizing the Spiritual Dimension

Mandala means circle in Sanskrit. The flat drawings that we normally see are meant as maps of the three-dimensional universe, or even multiverse, in Buddhist and Hindu cosmology.

Mandalas have arisen in the world’s spiritual traditions, from the calendars of the Mayans to the Persian symbol of the sun, or the Celtic cross. In Christianity, they appear in walkable labyrinths, or stained glass windows of ancient cathedrals. Mandalas are found in nature: think of flowers, or the cross-section of a tree trunk, a conch shell, the iris of an eye, or a snowflake.

The earliest Buddhist mandalas appeared in India around 200 CE, and spread to other Asian countries, including Tibet. In Tibetan Buddhism the Mandala represents the sacred essence of the universe, or the enlightened mind. It is an outward manifestation of inner spiritual dimensions, using color, form and sacred geometry. The Mandala is a tool through which philosophical and religious principles are passed from teacher to student over generations.

The Tibetan mandala is an exquisite form of ritual art. Every intricate detail carries deep symbolic meaning. The form often appears as concentric circles around a perfect square, representing a four-sided temple containing the essence of the Buddha or other deities. Each deity has a corresponding mandala constructed of specific shapes and colors. The Buddha of Compassion, Avalokiteshvara’s mandala, for example, appears differently from one for Manjushri, Buddha of Wisdom.

Medicine Buddha Sand Mandala, Bellingham, Washington, 2019

Each mandala detail represents precise parts of a palace, including cornices, columns, lintels, etc. The mandala is inhabited. At the center resides the main deity, and around the circular perimeter is a row of protector deities. The four sides have entranceways through which the deity is approached. The mandala is divided into four sections that correspond to the four directions, indicated by its characteristic color. The center makes a fifth direction. Blue in the east; yellow south; red west; green north; and white at the center. (Sometimes blue and white are switched.)

In contemplative meditation, the Mandala can serve to focus and calm the mind. At other times, practitioners may visualize the symbolic representation of the pure land of that deity, or pure essence of the enlightened mind. This is meant to cultivate one’s inner spiritual qualities and the potential to achieve an enlightened state.

Mandalas are created as offerings to bless and heal the world and all its inhabitants. They are also a profound teaching on impermanence—a central principle of Buddhist philosophy. Although some Mandala art is preserved in sacred paintings, practitioners create mandalas of sand and other materials that are then dissolved and returned to nature. From creation through dissolution, the Sand Mandala is a beautiful dance illustrating the impermanence of all things.

Thanks to Marcia Meyers for contributing to this piece, and to Brian Hodel for the title. Copies were handed out at the Kilung Foundation’s 2019 “Prayer for the Earth: Tibetan Sand Mandala Exhibit.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s