The Meaning of Mandala

Mexican cuisine mandala; note how the background is part of the foreground subject and how every element contributes to the lager whole.

Article 31 The Meaning of Mandala

“A circular figure representing the universe in Hindu and Buddhist symbolism.”

I imagine the above definition is pretty much what most people think of when the word ‘mandala’ is used. Allow me to take you behind the curtain to what is a most interesting and useful notion yet rarely explained – let alone understood. The circular mandalas in the definition above are stylized, two-dimensional representations of something which is actually more an experience than a thing, and so the word is closer categorically to things like ‘hunger’ or ‘courage’ than ‘painting’ or ‘food.’

What those mandala paintings usually – though not always – depict is the mandala of a deity used in visualisation practice; there is a central deity with whom the practitioner identifies or emulates and that deity usually has a retinue of subsidiary deities or attendants along with a locale such as a certain type of terrain or situation. All together – deity, retinue and terrain – makes the mandala. The Tibetan Buddhist scholars translated the original Sanskrit mandala into khyil-kor which simply means centre-fringe. As an object, our equivalent word in two dimensions is ‘circle’ and in three dimensions it is ‘sphere.’ (And in the context of our bodies we might also think of it as the combination of inside and outside.)

However, a mandala is not an object per se, albeit the notion of sphere isn’t a bad metaphor. Rather, a mandala is a whole setup that creates a particular something, be it a person, place or situation. Giving examples is easier than getting bogged down in complex definitions, so here are some:

kitchen mandala, body mandala, governmental mandala, garden mandala, bedroom mandala, relationship mandala, family mandala, sacred mandala, profane mandala, confusion mandala, wisdom mandala… and so forth. Perhaps now you have read these examples little more need be said except to point out a few additional aspects.

For example, although the center may be different in certain regards from the fringe – just as the central deity is different from his or her accoutrements, retinue and surroundings – nevertheless they are all part of the same overall situational dynamic which in short hand is called a mandala. So mandala is a collection of qualities, aspects or things which together are part of a larger whole making that whole the overall mandala in which all such elements are found.

For example, though millions of us live in different countries and time zones speaking no end of different languages wearing different clothes we are all part of this Earth’s same planetary mandala; and we are all part of a current Covid Pandemic mandala in that we are sharing various logistics and messages about an invisible enemy surrounding us and because of which our societies are being gradually restructured without the usual political checks and balances – perhaps a new kind of war without conventional armies and weapons; but this new international ‘Covid mandala’ is a dynamic in which we all share participation.

Practically speaking, the word can be helpful in tying together various seemingly disparate elements into one whole, thus providing insight into the nature both of those particular elements and the overall context in which they are playing a part.

More experientially speaking, we can think of it as a way to describe atmospheres, as in the example of kitchen vs bedroom mandala. Both in the same house yet when we walk into each room instantly we experience a different atmosphere: in the kitchen we have so many associations of cooking smells, maybe there is a kitchen table there we have sat around together so many times, all the spices in racks, the pots gleaming, the dish-washing area, the fridge area, the cutting board area, the light coming in from the window just so at different times of day. Each area is unique but also contributes to the overall kitchen mandala atmosphere which accumulates over time even over many generations, everything echoing in the present moment and contributing to the current atmosphere and how everything in this kitchen feels and looks. If there is a lot of mess and the parents always fight, the kitchen mandala will feel different from a household with a loving parental couple who keep a clean, much appreciated kitchen turning out great food which the family enjoys every day. So each kitchen mandala will feel quite different which means the same object will feel different in each different mandala since such atmospheric qualities perfume every mental and physical element therein. As such, there is no objective kitchen mandala per se, it is not a thing but rather something experienced.

And then you walk into the bedroom (or bathroom, or study, or garden, or basement or attic etc.) and in each case an entirely different matrix of objects, memories and atmospheres arises, which together comprise different mandalas. And all such different mandalas are part of the same overall house or family mandala, which are part of the neighbourhood mandala, or the town, country or civilisational mandala. There are mandalas within mandalas within mandalas.

So mandala is a very ordinary thing we experience all the time, but for some reason don’t have a word for in English; hence this Article!

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