Introduction to The Mandala and Visions of Wholeness
The term mandala first came into my awareness when I was at university, around the age of twenty. I became fascinated by natural forms in the environment with a concentric circular structure. I was a keen artist, and strongly influenced by the surrealists at the time. I found myself repeatedly painting these circular patterns drawn from flower heads, seed cases, pine cones and other natural forms. At the time I lived in a city where many major buildings were highly decorated with carvings in stone; their designs also seemed to repeatedly reflect mandala images. I began to see the mandala form repeating itself in so many different ways, from the formal designs of rose gardens, through architecture, to the patterns on cloth, on carpets and even in the construction of wedding cakes. It was no surprise to me, when I began to study the work of C.G. Jung while at university, to discover that he had given this form a very significant place in our psychological make-up.
It was Jung who first brought the term mandala to my attention – and indeed we could say that he is probably responsible for the term becoming so familiar to us in the West over the past century. It was significant for me personally that at this time I also first encountered photographs of Tibetan tantric mandalas and was completely in awe of their beauty and complexity. They conveyed something that was so mysterious, that seemed to touch me so deeply, and yet I could not understand what they meant. It was only through going more deeply into Jung’s explanation of their meaning that something began to dawn on me.
Jung saw the mandala as a significant archetype within the human psyche, one that expressed itself time and again in different cultures. The consistency of these forms was unmistakable, and he saw them as one of the most important collective expressions of our inner reality. The need within us to bring this archetype of wholeness into material expression is a testament to the importance of its repeated presence across so many different cultures.
In my years as a Tibetan Buddhist, the mandala principle has always been an inspirational presence that conveyed the nature of the tantric deity in its most complex manifestation. As I studied and practiced within this tradition, the significance and meaning of this form was gradually revealed in a way that Jung probably could not have experienced. In his day he was unlikely to have been able to access this information without being initiated into a deity practice. As a result, he looked from the outside, so to speak, at the extraordinary nature of the tantric mandala, and admitted in his writing that he was aware of the limitation in his understanding and that there was so much more to discover.
Today many Tibetan teachers have come to the West and, over the past fifty years or more, gradually introduced Westerners to their world. They have generously opened up access to the extraordinary nature of tantric deity practice and the mandalas within which many of these deities abide. Now, with the right initiations, many teachings on this subject are accessible and much that was once only available in Tibetan is now translated into English. Even so, for many of us the mandala is still something of a mystery, and its psychological implications are not entirely clear without deeper exploration.
It is with all of this in mind that I have found myself wanting to explore more deeply the way in which the mandala informs and shapes us on many different levels in our life. Increasingly, contemporary teachers and writers bridge our psychological understanding of the mandala and how it is an expression of our inner reality. An early example of this was the work of Lama Anagarika Govinda, a German-born Indian, who began to map the meaning of the facets of the mandala[ii]. Later Chögyam Trungpa spoke in a more Western and psychological language of the nature of what are called the five buddha families. More recently, writers such as Francesca Fremantle[iii] and Tsultrim Allione have expanded on the nature of the five elements and their relationship to the psychological meaning of the mandala.
Here I am going to bring together much of the material that has helped me in my own exploration of the mandala, its meaning and how it influences us. This enables me to do what I have enjoyed most in my journey, namely to embrace both my Jungian and tantric backgrounds. I wish to describe some of the significant features of Jung’s work that relate to the psychological nature of the mandala: as a vision of wholeness and as an organising principle that unites disparate elements in our nature. I will introduce the Axiom of Maria Prophetissima which gives a profound insight into the way the fivefold form of the mandala evolved. I will also look at Jung’s theory of the four functions and how they contribute to our understanding of the unification of opposites. I will introduce the elemental structure that is contained within the tantric mandala, exploring the psychological nature of the five elements: earth, water, fire, air and space. Many people have explored these in the context of the five buddha families but almost all of these explorations have been from the perspective of the Kagyu tradition. Although I do not consider myself to be bound to a Tibetan school, I will introduce the five families and their elements as expressed in the Gelugpa tradition, where they are subtly different. In this exploration we begin to see the depth and complexity of the mandala within the tantric tradition.
In this process I do not want to become lost in complexity through an emphasis on the form and structure of the mandala. Instead I wish to give the reader an accessible understanding of the nature of this phenomenon and how it lives in our life. In Tibetan the term kylkhor (Sanskrit: Mandala) means a surrounding circle which gives a sense of its holding and containing form. But kylkhor also has associated terms, like khorlo, a wheel, which implies the sense of movement around a central axis. Further the term khorwa means to encircle or circumambulate around a central point. The mandala in its root implies an encircled environment or context that has a metaphorical centre with a surrounding boundary or border. In its derivations we begin to see mandala less as a static form and more as an underlying movement. It is this sense of the mandala as something that is moving and changing that becomes important as we go deeper into its psychological nature. We will begin to see the way in which the mandala is a process that runs through our life, not just a structuring and ordering principle as can be seen in mandala images. Our most familiar expression of the mandala, its forms and images, can actually mislead us into thinking the mandala is something static, only a form. When we look more deeply we can begin to see that the mandala is a living process that is evolving and unfolding in how it shapes and integrates our experience from moment to moment.
Although the mandala could be seen as the vision or presence of our potential wholeness, that wholeness is not an end state. Rather it is a moving, changing, unfolding process that is happening in our individual and collective reality, whether we are conscious of it or not. It is an archetypal instinct in our nature on an almost cellular level that optimises our being in each moment to live in the healthiest and most integrated way possible. The more we are able to respond and be aware of the presence of this homeostatic core of our being, the greater our potential for a healthier life. Our suffering in life is due, in part, to our blocking and freezing the natural unfolding of our being rather than allowing its centring and integrating capacity.
The mandala is one of the universal, ever-present aspects of our life that we see expressed time and again in our art, architecture and religions. When we recognise the depth of meaning present in this archetypal expression, it will be there as a constant reminder of our innate potential for health and wholeness.