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Tibetan monk constructing a sand mandala.

If ever you’ve studied spiritual Asian art, you’ve likely encountered a mandala. A mandala, which is Sanskrit for “circle” or “discoid object,” is a geometric design that holds a great deal of symbolism in Hindu and Buddhist cultures. Mandalas are believed to represent different aspects of the universe and are used as instruments of meditation and symbols of prayer most notably in China, Japan, and Tibet.

In their most basic form, mandalas are circles contained within a square and arranged into sections that are all organized around a single, central point. They’re typically produced on paper or cloth, drawn on a surface with threads, fashioned in bronze, or built in stone. While extraordinary as a standalone work of art, mandalas hold symbolic and meditative meaning beyond their vibrant appearance.

What is a Mandala?

A mandala is a spiritual and ritual symbol in Asian cultures. It can be understood in two different ways: externally as a visual representation of the universe or internally as a guide for several practices that take place in many Asian traditions, including meditation. In Hinduism and Buddhism, the belief is that by entering the mandala and proceeding towards its center, you are guided through the cosmic process of transforming the universe from one of suffering into one of joy and happiness.

A Brief History of Mandalas

Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, was born in the region now known as Nepal. Though there is no confirmed date of his birth, historians believe it to be around 560 B.C. It is understood that Gautama left his kingdom after becoming aware of human suffering, where he sought to attain enlightenment through meditation and thoughtful action. He began to preach his philosophy across parts of India, where he gained devout followers and eventually established the first sangha, Buddhist community of monks.

As these Buddhist monks travelled the Silk Road, an ancient network of trade routes that connected the East and West, they brought Buddhism to other lands. They carried mandalas with them and brought the practice of painting these spiritual compositions to other parts of Asia, appearing in regions such as Tibet, China, and Japan by the 4th century. Though rooted in Buddhism, mandalas soon became present in Hinduism and other religious practices. Painters of the spiritual craft were often pious laymen, who were commissioned by a patron. They worked seated on the floor with a painting propped in their laps or in front of their crossed legs.

Types of Mandalas

There are various types of mandalas found in different cultures and used for a multitude of purposes, both artistically and spiritually. Below are three main types of mandalas and how they are used.

1. Teaching Mandala
Teaching mandalas are symbolic, and each shape, line, and color represents a different aspect of a philosophical or religious system. The student creates his or her own mandala based on principles of design and construction, projecting a visual symbolization of everything they have learned. Teaching mandalas serve as colorful, mental maps for their creators.

2. Healing Mandala
Healing mandalas are more intuitive than teaching mandalas, and they are made for the purpose of meditation. Healing mandalas are intended to deliver wisdom, evoke feelings of calm, and channel focus and concentration.

3. Sand Mandala
Buddhist monks and Navajo cultures have long used sand mandalas as a traditional, religious element. These intricate designs use a variety of symbols made from colored sand that represent the impermanence of human life.

Symbolism in Mandalas

Within their intricate circular patterns, you can find common symbols throughout mandalas. Traditionally, they include the presence of Buddha’s mind in an abstract form, most commonly represented as a wheel, tree, flower, or jewel. The center is a dot, which is a symbol considered free of dimensions. It is interpreted as the starting point, the beginning of contemplation, and devotion to the divine. From there, the dot is surrounded by lines and geometrical patterns that symbolize the universe, encompassed by the outer circle which represents the cyclical nature of life. Some common symbols within the mandala include:

  • Wheel with eight spokes: The circular nature of a wheel works as an artistic representation of a perfect universe. The eight spokes represent the Eightfold Path of Buddhism, a summary of practices that lead to liberation and rebirth.
  • Bell: Bells represent an openness and emptying of the mind to allow the entrance of wisdom and clarity.
  • Triangle: When facing upward, triangles represent action and energy, and when facing downward, they represent creativity and the pursuit of knowledge.
  • Lotus flower: A sacred symbol in Buddhism, the symmetry of a lotus depicts balance. As a lotus reaches up from underwater into the light, so too does a human reaching for spiritual awakening and enlightenment.
  • Sun: A popular basis for modern mandala patterns, suns tend to represent the universe, often carrying meanings related to life and energy.

How Mandalas Are Used

Mandalas are used for a variety of religious traditions, meditation, and modern contexts. The traditional Tibetan mandala, found in Buddhism, depicts the enlightened state of Buddha through sand art. Patterns are formed on the ground using metal and a small tube to create the exact texture and organization of the grains. Creating this can take weeks, and shortly after it’s complete, it is destroyed to align with the Buddhist belief that nothing is permanent.

Buddhist monk making a sand mandala.

As it relates to modern context, mandalas are used in a variety of ways. In yoga, mandalas represent the same ancient ideals; signifying a sacred space to shut away external influences. Often, mandalas are positioned around the studio and sometimes even drawn during meditation periods. Similarly, mandala art is used in healing circles, a practice that derives from Native Americans. The circles are often associated with the restoration of the body, mind, and heart.

Mandalas have also been found in dream catchers as a means to protect the individual sleeping. A popular item in Western cultures, you can easily identify the shape and patterns of a mandala within most dream catchers.

A spiritual symbol in Asian art, mandalas have since become a popular, meditative element for a variety of different cultures. In Hindu and Buddhist cultures in particular, mandalas and thangkas serve as a representation of the universe and a guide on the path to enlightenment. We’ve since seen the geometric design appear in yoga studios, dream catchers, healing circles, and other meditative practices. The habit of creating and collecting mandalas is a transformative practice that is intended to restore inner peace and wisdom within.

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