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The Sanskrit word mandala means “circle.”

This month’s journey is into the sacred geometry of the Mandala. 

A Mandala is represented on several levels, from the literal to the symbolic.

They represent a journey to wholeness, the sacred journey within, and the flow and harmony in the universe. 

Mandalas may be seen physically in architecture, nature, or food. A dandelion puff, slicing open a cabbage, or breaking an orange in half are perfect mandalas. Though many shapes may be included in the form and pattern, they have a circular element. 

As we progress through the series, you will learn the different layers of the Mandala and how to work with sacred geometry in your meditation and movement practices.

History of the Mandala 

Mandalas are potent symbols used in many religions and cultures to focus energy, connect to the divine, and enhance awareness. 

Some of the earliest mandala iconography comes from Japan, China, Nepal, Tibet, and India. 

The first mandalas appeared in the fifth and sixth centuries in India. 

In An Illustrated History of the Mandala, Kimiaki Tanaka writes: 
“The maṇḍalas of late tantric Buddhism, which rapidly developed from the ninth century, were transmitted to Nepal—the only country on the Indian subcontinent where traditional Mahāyāna Buddhism still survives—and to Tibet, the faithful successor to Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism, in particular, still preserves more than one hundred representative maṇḍalas of Indian Buddhism, ranging from those of its early stages to those of late tantric Buddhism.”

The shape and interpretation of the mandala vary depending on the country of origin. 

The traditional (and most widely recognized) shape of a mandala is a square encompassed by a circle, with layers moving from the outer rim to the inner eye. 

The earliest mandalas in esoteric Buddhism and the Sino-Japanese mandalas did not have an outer circle and had a different layout.

Tibet and Nepal do not recognize symbols without the outer circle as a mandala. The circle is said to be the protective layer of all that is housed on the inside of the mandala. 

Some of the earliest mandalas were depicted as deities arranged around a Buddha. From a birds-eye view, the mandala appeared as an arrangement of figures with or without the protective outer circle. 

In An  Illustrated History of the Mandala, Kimiaki  Tanaka writes: 
“An important characteristic of the maṇḍala is that it represents Buddhist cosmology or philosophy by assigning categories of Buddhist doctrine to the deities depicted in the maṇḍala or to parts of the maṇḍala’s pavilion. Maṇḍalas arranged in specific geometric patterns did not come into existence all at once. “

Like many sacred practices, symbols, and scriptures, the mandala has evolved as it has spread worldwide. 

The Mandala Comes to the West 

The mandala made its way from the east to the west thanks to the help of Carl Jung. 

The Tibetan Book of the Dead, published in 1927, contains the peaceful and wrathful deities represented in mandalas. The authors asked Carl Jung to write the introduction

At this point, Carl Jung was already familiar with mandalas, though he did not know the traditional Buddhist iconography. 

From An  Illustrated History of the Mandala by Kimiaki  Tanaka:

“After his break with Freud, Jung suffered from a mental disorder, seeing visions and hearing voices. In 1916, when his mental crisis was heading toward recovery, he drew his first maṇḍala. During World War I, he made it a daily habit to draw a cosmogram similar to a maṇḍala in his notebook. Later he discovered that similar figures were depicted by his patients, and so he came to use the maṇḍala in his psychoanalysis.”

Jung initially drew a mandala – a circle with four unique quadrants – to protect himself and preserve his sanity during the war. 

At the time, he was working with inmates at a prisoner-of-war camp in Switzerland. 

Jung notes that the mandala gave him a sense of stability and peace in his life. 

Through his work with the mandala, Jung began to understand the role of the psyche and the Self in a new way – he had a revelation that transformed our understanding of the conscious and unconscious mind.

In Buddhism, the self is generally referred to as the ego.

In Jungian terms, the Self is the individuated person.

Jung believed that each person has four archetypes:
  • The Persona
  • The Shadow
  • The Anima/Animus
  • The Self 

The mandala, to Jung, was a way to heal the split between the ego and sacred; it could be used to unite the four aspects of the individual.

It could be used as a tool to aid integration and reintegration. 

It was a method to heal and reveal.

From Wisdom Rising by Lama Tsultrim Allione:
“This Self was the unification of the conscious and unconscious mind, and this state of integration was symbolized by the circle divided into four quadrants, which he called the mandala. The Self, he believed, was whole at birth, but it was lost in the development of the ego differentiation necessary to establish oneself in the external world, usually occurring in the first half of life.”

The mandala became more popular in the West thanks to his research, work, and therapy with his patients. 

Parts of the Mandala

There are three parts to the mandala, according to Tibetan Buddhism:

  • Inner mandala
  • Outer mandala 
  • Secret mandala

The Inner Mandala

The inner mandala refers to your relationship with your thoughts, feelings, and emotions. It is the space where you work with your meditation, objects, and themes. 

In Lama Tsultrim Allione’s text, she works with the Five Buddha Families from Tibetan Buddhism, which anchor the inner mandala.  

The Five Buddha Families

  • Buddha Family
  • Vajra Family
  • Ratna Family
  • Padma Family
  • Karma Family

Invoking the Buddha Families provides a way to embrace their unique energies and clear the toxins associated with the negative energy pattern.

The Outer Mandala

The outer mandala is the physical world.

The aspects of the outer mandala would include your home space, workspace, family, friends, country, and anything else you interact with daily. 

These elements are constantly changing, so the nexus of the outer mandala is constantly transforming. 

The Secret Mandala

The secret mandala is your private inner world.

It is your relationship with your mind, thoughts, emotions, feelings, and behaviors as they develop with the mandala principle. 

The Five Buddha Families

Mandala yoga, meditation, and energy work can bring us to a place of wholeness and understanding. 

We can return to this place anytime by working with the inner and secret mandalas. 

The Buddha Families represent our energetic efficiencies. We can create balance and work with our shadows by tapping into these energies. 

The Buddha Families have mudras, mantras, colors, directions, seasons, elements, and shadows. 

Chögyam Trungpa believed that mandala work helped to keep us steady and sane as individuals. 

The Buddha Families represent five unique styles of emotional suffering that have the power to transform into enlightened energy. 

There is a way to incorporate the Five Families and their wisdom into your everyday life by observing your actions and the energy associated with them.

The Five Buddha Families are Buddha, Ratna, Padma, Karma, and Vajra. 

We will examine each of the five Buddha Families more closely to learn how to work with them in the mandala and in our daily lives. 

 

ABOUT THE BUDDHA FAMILY 

  • Direction: Center (in the middle of the mandala) 
  • Color: White 
  • Element: Space
  • Balanced: Wisdom
  • Shadow: Ignorance 


ABOUT THE PADMA FAMILY 

  • Direction: West
  • Color: Red 
  • Element: Fire
  • Balanced: Discernment
  • Shadow: Craving

 

ABOUT THE KARMA FAMILY 

  • Direction: North
  • Color: Green 
  • Element: Air
  • Balanced: All-Accomplishing
  • Shadow: Envy 

 

ABOUT THE VAJRA FAMILY 

  • Direction: South
  • Color: Blue 
  • Element: Water
  • Balanced: Mirror-like Wisdom
  • Shadow: Anger 

 

ABOUT THE RATNA FAMILY 

  • Direction: South
  • Color: Yellow 
  • Element: Earth
  • Balanced: Equanimity
  • Shadow: Pride 

 

By developing your understanding of Self through the Five Families, you can deepen your appreciation and understanding of why you do what you do to locate patterns.

This knowledge may empower you to make conscious changes in how you speak, think, act, feel, and interact with the world. 

Through the mandala, we accept and see the obstructed patterns (and our shadows) as the path to a more profound, more integrated wisdom. 

Seraphina Dawn

Seraphina has a BA in Literature from Simone Fraser University and participated in the Creative Writing Program at UC Berkeley. She is a Kundalini teacher, writer, and poet. She admires Clarice Lispector’s prose, Octavia Butler’s fiction, and Simone Weil's philosophy. Seraphina currently lives in Istanbul.