AN INTRODUCTION TO THE CONCEPT OF THE MANDALA
(Guest speaker/lecture at the Creative Living Arts Festival,
Port Elizabeth, 1994, Title: An Overview of the Archetype of the Mandala)
Dr Louisa Punt-Fouche
Introduction: An Overview
In North India, a woman draws circular patterns with chalk in front of her home for good luck. She creates new mandalic designs every morning as a daily routine. It serves as a blessing for the household. It is referred to as Rangoli ground art. Some designs are hundreds of years old and include objects of nature such as fish and flowers, interwoven into a circular pattern, organised around a unifying centre.
A two-year-old child in Africa selects a crayon and joyfully scribbles on a piece of paper, repeatedly moving her hand in a circular fashion. She points to the closed circle and says: ‘That is me’.
A woman is in labour. Her baby/fetus is encircled by her womb. She gives birth through a circular opening. The baby is born on Earth, a perfectly round sphere that occupies the third position in the planetary orbits that radiate out from the sun, creating the mandalic pattern of the solar system.
In England, a physicist (e.g. Ernest Rutherford -1871-1937) is performing an experiment that results in the understanding of the structure of the atom, as particles revolving around a centre or nucleus. This pattern is replicated on a grand scale throughout the universe in biological forms, meteorological forms, waveforms, animal forms and human forms.
A Western scientist passes sound through water and observes a perfect symmetrical circular pattern.
A child is looking at raindrops falling on the surface of a pond, creating concentric mandalic ripples that radiate outward until they vanish.
A pilgrim is circumambulating the Buddhist Temple, Borobudur as if climbing the sacred Mount Meru, the mythical centre of the universe in Buddhism.
This temple is a magnificent architectural expression of the mandala.
A Tibetan monk takes brush in hand to begin his morning meditation: painting a traditional circular design.
A German tourist is walking around in the Blue Mosque in Turkey, a perfect mandala of light and colour, a place of worship of the perfection of Allah, perceived as an embodiment of divine unity.
An archaeologist is looking at the circles in prehistoric rock art, which appear to be a ritual object of a shamanic journey.
A Native American healer in Arizona is creating a circle in the sand. It is a medicine wheel, which he uses as a huge cosmic diagram and solar calendar to help his patient orientate herself.
A Benedictine nun is an awakening experience of enlightening visions that she draws as mandalas to express her visions of the unity of God’s mind. ((Hildegard von Bingen)
A Hopi Indian is building a circular structure in South Africa, a Medicine Wheel, to share the teachings of World Health and Peace and the idea of Unity in Diversity.
What do these quite different human beings have in common?
They are all participating in the compelling human fascination with the circle or mandala (In Sanskrit मण्डल, it literally means “circle”), which has been an incredibly significant phenomenon in humankind since pre-historic times. Although almost immediately associated with the religions of Tibet and India, it is timeless, all-embracing and is one of the great symbols of the immediate human experience.
In general terms, “mandala” refers to an arrangement of patterns around a centre point, which operates as an ordering principle, from the cyclical movement in the natural world to the most abstract or transpersonal insights of ‘being’ and ‘becoming’.
Cycles are circles, which are mandalas. We are all aware of the cycles of the seasons, the plant cycle, and the rings of growth in trees and animals (like the horns of the Mountain ram, the hoofs of horses, the turtle shells, and fish scales). We all know and have experienced that cycles have a beginning and an end, although every cycle is connected to other cycles, larger cycles. Everywhere on earth, there are the life cycles of grandmother, mother, and child as part of the family tree, the cycle of life.
Our lives are lived in cycles and circles, demonstrating the dynamic mandala pattern as an integral part of our immediate experience of the world. The word ‘cycle’ comes from the Latin ‘cyclus’, meaning circle. Regardless of lifestyles, values, belief systems, culture and time period we live in - we have all witnessed the circular beauty and poetry of our solar system in motion, the polar movements between birth and death, day and night, light and dark, man and woman, ebb and flow.
We have also experienced the symbol of the mandala to be as manifold as the life from which it grew, retaining its character, its organic unity within the diversity of its aspects.
The mandala is a container of life, figurative and conceptual, with an origin that cannot be traced to any place, tribe, race, or ideology. It is not bound to any period of human civilisation or religion. It is a blueprint or map of evolution as an image, symbol, archetype, and metaphor of an underlying natural law, which is the common property of humanity.
The Mandala as Living Experience
The mandala is the primordial form of timeless reality, which we experience within us from the beginningless past and reverberates within us, if we have developed our inner sense of sensing through a still(innocent)mind. It is the transcendental form (image, symbol, archetype, metaphor, rhythm) of a natural law of all things – where this law becomes the expression of evolution in nature, cultures, and individuals.
It is an expression of self-development and simultaneously of universal receptivity and actualisation. It is a flower that opens its petals to the light and the birds and to all who partake of its sweetness. It is taking and giving at the same time.
Let us consider our natural history:
Consider for a moment where we all originate. We grow from a tiny round egg supported in our mother's womb. We are encircled and firmly held within a spherical space in her womb. When it is time to be born, we are pushed by a series of circular muscles down through a tubular birth canal and out through a circular opening into the world.
Once born, we find ourselves on a planet that is itself circular, moving in a circular orbit around the sun. We are anchored to the earth by gravity so we are unaware of our spinning. Yet our bodies know. If we look even deeper to the level of the atoms that comprise our bodies, we find yet another universe where elements whirl in curving patterns. The subliminal experience of circular movements, like the memory of our mother’s womb, is encoded in our bodies. Thus, as embodied beings, we are predisposed to respond to the circular form, the mandala as the blueprint and map of our journey of being and becoming. We share these facts of human life with all ancient and modern human beings.
As the archetypal model of the earth, the cosmos and our living experiences, it is no wonder that the mandala form is present from the earliest images scratched into rocks to our expressions of harmony and beauty in art and architecture today. Together we dance in circles, we create rituals around fires to celebrate important transitions in our maturing, and we dream about mandalas to help us to restore balance to the fragmentation of the psyche when stressed. Our human constructions reaffirm this innate connection to this timeless and all-embracing pattern around a centre, a mandala as an alchemical vessel for change and individuation.
The mandala as a living experience, presents itself in numerous ways. There is a tantalising question about the genesis of a mandala. The definition of the concept ‘genesis’ refers to ‘the process of creation’.
Are constructed mandalas the result of a process of being born or created by an individual, culture, ideology…or
Is it the mandala's inherent blueprint (natural law) that gives birth to mandalic events, architecture, ritual dancing, and the construction of cultural, traditional and personal mandalas?
Or is it maybe rather a creative moment where the two actions of ‘giving birth’ and ‘being born’ happen simultaneously?
The making and using of mandalas or the mandalas making and using us or both processes. Here is a summary of relevant research.
Dreams: Carl Gustav Jung started drawing mandalas in 1916. He also became aware that fragmented patients dreamt of mandalas as an attempt to reunite the opposing forces in the psyche – his interpretation.
Contemplation/Meditation: Joseph Campbell refers to the contemplation of mandalas as a harmonizing force in the psyche. A mandala is also an object of contemplation in Buddhism.
Sacred art: Author, artist and art historian Jose Arguelles describes the art of creating mandalas as a process of consciously following a path to better understanding, insight and integration of that aspect where everything is connected and in harmony.
Recreation/Contemplation and Destruction of existing mandalas: Dr Robert Thurman, a Buddhist scholar and author, refers to the mandala as a matrix or model of a perfect universe in Tibet. This practice assists in the fulfilment of understanding the Buddhist path to gain wisdom in managing the suffering in the world through understanding the illusionary nature of reality.
Healing/Ritual: Navaho Indians create sand paintings as part of a sacred healing ritual. The patient sits in the centre of the sand painting. The shaman performs a ceremony that restores balance by orientating the patient in space, pointing out the four directions and positions of ‘above’ and ‘below’, using focusing and concentration techniques, as introduced by artist David Villasenor.
The ritual of the mandala in the in-between therapeutic space: The use of the mandala as a therapeutic intervention in the analytic space, when there is a deadlock has proven to open a door to image, symbol and metaphor and archetype as alchemical vehicles for transformation. This work should be done by trained analysts that understand and respect the paradoxical processes of the psyche on its path of individuation.
This research has illuminated this blueprint or underlying natural law of the mandala as an innate tendency of the psyche to want to individuate. The author did this research.
Personal mandalas: There seems to be a movement encouraging everybody to draw personal mandalas as a means of spiritual development, to conquer depression and anxiety, to get to know yourself and to bring happiness into your life. All these promises and expectations are like ripples on a pond, where the clarity of direct observation is disturbed.
Drawing mandalas or colouring in traditional mandalas with the right attention, no attachments, expectations, and superimposed interpretations, is an integral part of this practice.
That will be the intention and focus of this teaching that I feel honoured to share with you.
“Mandala -making is a sacred art form. It is a sacred archetypal mirror that reflects our history and future in the unfolding of the immediate experience of life which is timeless and inexpressible. It is both an innate external and internal manifestation of the process of rigorous self-inquiry and self-observation with a silent mind. A silent mind cultivates a deep sense of compassion, respect and reverence towards self, all sentient beings and nature. It is in that sense that we create order, which is silence that manifests as beauty, balance, and bliss”.