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Living in the Mandala


Rob Preece

Having taken the exploration of tantra into rarefied and esoteric regions we will now shift direction and return to its relevance in daily life. To begin with we can look at our life as living within the mandala, but understanding the significance of this is not easy. The most familiar expression of the mandala is the highly decorative symbolic, symmetrical landscape, either painted or created in sand, in which the deity abides. (Figure 16) However, the psychological meaning of the mandala is somewhat disguised by these elaborate visual forms, and even the two dimensional images in Tangkhas remain obscure to the uninitiated. 

Jung recognised the mandala to be a universal image of wholeness and a fundamental image of the Self that appears in most cultures in many different forms. He became increasingly interested in the appearance of mandalas as expressions of psychological wholeness in the artwork and dreams of his patients. He felt that there was much to be discovered about their significance. Perhaps one of his gifts to the west was to introduce this important principle that has had a significant effect on the Western understanding of the psyche.

The tantric tradition has taken the mandala form to probably its most intricate level of complexity. Mandala, or in Tibetan Kylkor, means centre-surround, which implies a self contained environment with a focus or pivot which acts as its central axis. The realm within the circle has the nature of a whole or complete system without interference from outside. The circle defines a clear boundary between what is within and anything outside.

During an initiation into higher tantra a Vajra master, the presiding lama, leads the disciple into a mandala and opens the eye of insight into its details and meaning. This is performed ritually by removing a blindfold, which has been worn over the third eye, so to speak, until the disciple has been prepared for entry. On entering the mandala the Vajra master describes and explains the symbolic world like a tour guide leading a group around a palace. But to understand the principle of the mandala requires more than simply being told the meanings of the various aspects of the visualised form.

The mandala has important psychological implications as a symbol of transformation, and from a Buddhist viewpoint it encompasses the totality of an individual’s reality. This includes the entire phenomenal world experienced through the five senses and mental consciousness. Each of us lives within, or we could say as a mandala, which encompasses our entire world-view. From a tantric viewpoint this mandala of appearances arises or manifests from the causal mind or clear light mind. When we are unaware that our relative world arises in this way we believe it to be solid and inherently existent, but when we recognise its momentary fleeting nature, its lack of inherent existence begins to be understood. This does not imply the relative world does not exist, merely that it is fluid, transitory and illusory, like a dream, a mirage or a rainbow. It is therefore crucial to recognise that the mandala is a process unfolding, not just a structure of the psyche. Quoting Geothe Jung wrote "Only gradually did I discover what the mandala really is: ‘Formation, Transformation, Eternal Mind’s eternal recreation.’" (Memories Dreams and Reflections, pp188) 

When we recognise the mandala represents our entire experience arising moment by moment we can develop the capacity to find a state of wholeness with each moment. We centre ourselves, yet are constantly in a process of transformation and recreation. In this sense the mandala is not static, but in constant flux. When we allow this flux and are in tune with it, whatever arises in our reality is experienced fully and allowed to take its natural course. If we experience trauma or pain we can live with the experience, constantly adjusting and re-centring. However, if we get caught in our conceptions about our experiences, grasping at them as inherently existent, we freeze our reality and create suffering. Psychologically the principle of homoeostasis is that our psyche/body whole always adjusts to find its most healthy state in any given situation. When the environment is unhealthy our psyche/body whole finds the healthiest state it can, which often requires the manifestation of illness as an expression of wholeness. For example, when we experience trauma the psyche's way of integrating the experience is often depression. Depression is not ill health unless it becomes stuck; rather it is a natural expression of the process of integration and transformation.

The nature of the mandala is fundamentally homoeostatic, as it also always finds the point of wholeness under each circumstance. However, our disposition to contract around or fight and reject our experiences blocks this innate potential and results in suffering and ill-health. This suffering is an indicator that we need to allow ourselves to shift and let go of what we are holding on to. From this perspective health is not about feeling wonderful and having no pain or problems. It is the capacity to allow what is unfolding, whether this is pleasurable or painful, to move and change into its natural condition. Essential to this process is the ability to maintain unconditional presence and clarity within our experience derived from the practice of Mahamudra.

When we are attuned to the significance of the mandala in our life it places us in a different relationship to the events which would otherwise cause us trouble. Above all the mandala implies allowing an unfolding process of our life to take its course with openness and trust. When we give space to what is arising without fear and clinging, all things settle into their natural condition, but if we block this we experience suffering. I was reminded of this when a woman friend, a devoted and determined Buddhist practitioner, became pregnant. How was she to come to terms with the radical changes this would lead to in her life? Would her fixed notions of spiritual practice block her capacity to open to this experience in a new and healthy way?


We are being changed by the innate homeostatic presence of the mandala, as an unconscious process beyond the control of the ego. It is as though the mandala is changing us and we can most usefully be open to it and trust it. When we do, we can re-centre and integrate most of the traumas of our life. We can see this process at work in how different people cope with a life threatening experience, such as being diagnosed with cancer. The immediate shock of such a diagnosis has an understandably dramatic effect on a person’s life that requires considerable time to digest. At first it seems unacceptable and unbelievable. There may be strong and natural feelings of anger, despair and terror in reaction to the devastating effect cancer will have on their lives. It throws a person totally off centre and out of relationship with the ability to re-centre. However, gradually other aspects of life need to re-adjust and be changed as the old life is let go of to let in a new one. This new life and new mandala needs to include the trauma, and integrate what it brings to awareness so that a new point of equilibrium can be reached.

When someone in this position describes the effect cancer has on his or her life, it is often evident that they have awoken to a new depth of awareness and meaning. Many such people genuinely come to a place of acceptance and peace with what they are experiencing. They are allowing themselves to be re-shaped and re-centred in a remarkable way. The mandala, therefore, is the extraordinary power of homoeostasis within each of us as. It enables us to remain sane and relatively healthy in the most intolerable circumstances. As an expression of wholeness we could see the mandala reflected in our ordinary human condition and also in the state of Buddhahood. These two levels differ by virtue of the insight into the nature of reality present in the latter and not in the former. Both the ordinary person and a Buddha live in a world that arises as the momentary play of emptiness. However, the normal person is barely aware of this illusory flux and will tend to solidify its natural evolution into a fixed reality. 

For a Buddha the mandala is a process of constant creative manifestation, symbolised in its most refined aspect in the complex deity practices. We all create our reality moment by moment, but the mind bound by confusion and ignorance creates a chaotic and disturbed mandala. For someone whose mind is clear and free of confusion about the nature of reality the mandala is an expression of that clarity. We can see this in people’s lives, so for example when we have a mess inside we create a mess outside. Each of us must take personal responsibility for the reality we create.

Our life will change as clarity into our nature deepens, and we become increasingly aware of the process of the mandala as it unfolds. Rather than staying caught in our narrow, limited reactions to life we open up and allow life to unfold. This brings an increasing trust, not based on a divine intervention, or a caring God who keeps us safe, but on a profound understanding of the homoeostatic principle of the mandala. We are personally responsible for our individual awareness and openness to whatever happens.

In tantric practice the deity is considered central to the symbolic and sacred nature of the mandala. When a meditator shifts the focus of identification to the deity it re-centres awareness in the very heart of the mandala’s creative vitality. Lama Thubten Yeshe once said about this identification; "If we identify with a low quality confused sense of self, that is the mandala we create". When we identify with our essential nature, the mandala we then emanate is altogether different.

The heart of generation stage practice is the cultivation of a visualised mandala in which the meditator’s consciousness arises in the aspect of the central deity. This repeated self-generation, as it is called, activates the seed of the mandala within the psyche of the meditator. As a symbol of our innate potential for complete transformation this mandala acts as a seed or catalyst of wholeness that begins to awaken and purify the practitioner’s psyche into a more mature state. This is similar to a constitutional remedy in Homoeopathy where the remedy activates the inner move towards health and wholeness.

I experienced this process in a very ordinary way when I was at university. I went through a period of a breakdown, an identity crisis, which caused me to feel confused and disoriented. I found myself drawn to objects and images that were symmetrical and mandala-like. Objects such as flower heads, seed cases, pine cones and anything circular with concentric patterns became fascinating for me. I spent many hours exploring and painting these forms. This had a gradual healing effect, which I only later recognised was like having the seed of a mandala activated from within. In time this gave me a stronger more cohesive sense of self which brought me through the crisis.

The images we normally associate with the mandala are significant psychological symbols of what Jung called the Self, the centre of our psychic totality. In the tantric mandala these symbols represent a complete re-creation of the totality of the psyche on a symbolic level. Attributes of the mind are symbolised as deities, as are the elements in the body. The body itself is symbolised by a celestial mansion within which the deity stands. The mandala thus represents a psychic whole that gradually awakens and matures.

The tantric teachings say that all relative phenomenon are the "mandala of pure appearance". When I was first taught this I was under the misapprehension that I had to see the world differently, and that appearances would change and I would begin to see an exotic mandala superimposed on the world around. The implication of this phrase, however, is not that the world appears differently, but that we recognise that all appearances are the play of emptiness, the play of Dharmakaya.

The world each of us inhabits is a reflection of individual karma, and while we may share similar karma and therefore similar worlds, they are nevertheless individually determined. Furthermore in tantra it is considered that our reality is the creation of our own mind, in contrast to the materialistic view that sees mind as an emergent characteristic of the brain. When we recognise that phenomenon arise from the mind and lack inherent substantiality, we will begin to see the world as a creative play of illusion. The nature of this causal mind, is clear luminous and empty and becomes the basis of our individual experience of Dharmakaya, the ground of being from which all appearances emerge and dissolve moment by moment. Geothe’s "Eternal Mind’s eternal re-creation."

The phenomenal world and our body/mind continuum is the play of Dharmakaya as the mandala of pure appearance. Living in this mandala means being constantly aware of a threshold between form and emptiness, a dynamic place in which creation is constant as form comes into being as a fleeting expression of emptiness. The world then becomes vibrant and vital, filled with magical numinous, and meaning. When we are open to this awareness there is no distinction between samsara and nirvana. Those who see the material outer world as samsara and the nature of suffering are still caught in a duality that is confused about its ultimate nature. When we understand the outer material world as the play of emptiness, the mandala of appearances is nirvana. This understanding also affects how we experience the natural world as an expression of the mandala of pure appearance, where inner and outer realities are not distinct and separate. This important consideration, often overlooked by Westerners practicing tantra, is that our relationship to and awareness of nature is also the mandala.




Living in the mandala is taken from The Psychology of Buddhist Tantra published by Shambala Publications. For further information or comments contact:


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