Mandalas: Still A Relevant Meditation?
Mandalas are one of the most ancient art forms found across cultures. The colorful geometric deigns and symbols were created as metaphors to educate on an individual’s spiritual potential. Each color and shape represents specific meaning. This article will be comparing Tibetan Buddhist and Native American mandalas and how their basic lessons are still relevant to the modern world.
The concepts of enlightenment or “freedom from suffering” from Buddhism and harmony with nature, more directly a focus of Native American culture, are both common themes in mandalas from ancient cultures across the globe. In the modern world, we mostly think of “enlightenment” as impossible with the demands of modern life and nature as “outside.” Sadly, most everyone seems to be suffering from at best mild irritation to extremes of anxiety, depression, and even suicidal thoughts. However, with the rising interest in meditation and mindfulness it seems the collective is craving a release from our current societal limitations. Can the essential teachings of mandalas help us understand another way of being in the world?
First, lets take a closer look at how the mandalas were traditionally used and what they were meant to teach. In both cultures, circles represented the cycles of life and death. Death wasn’t feared. Instead both these cultures openly discussed and practiced rituals around the safe passage of death into the afterlife or rebirth. Squares represented the reference to time with a stop and start locations that insinuates beginnings, transitions, and endings. In Native American culture, so much of their tradition is based on oral history that the unique stories of the mandalas were rarely written down. A viewer can infer the symbolism based on the archetypes of the colors and shapes. However, unless the story of the mandala has been passed down through oral tradition, it is just speculation. In general, the quarters of Native American mandalas refer to the four directions with the east giving peace and light, the south warmth, the west rain for fertility, and the north cold endurance and strength. All the elements are essential for the necessary balance and harmony with earth and spirit. In fact, spiritual tradition is so deeply embedded into Native American culture that they don’t see their “religion” as separate from how to understand their place in the world. The most basic lesson modern culture can take from these mandalas is the prioritization of harmony particularly with nature and it’s cycles.
In Buddhism, mandalas were both discussed and used in visual silent meditation. The mandalas were teaching tools between students and teachers to aid in their conscious or even academic understanding of the process of liberation. The image in itself was also a visual initiation into the lessons the mandala represented. However, these studies were privileged mostly to monks. The student would explore the gross and subtle working of their conscious mind through learning and debate over the meaning of the image. These mandalas were intended to appeal to both the intellectual mind and abstract spiritual body.
All traditional mandalas in Tibetan Buddhism are broken up into four equal quadrants with a sacred center that connects the four quadrants to display the cosmos, the persona, and the path of realization. The specific symbols and Buddha forms differed depending on the specific teaching, but a consistency in the quadrants and colors is more noticeable than in Native American culture.
The Tibetans were much more detailed and intellectual with the information represented in their mandalas. Volumes of books on all the symbolism depicted in different mandalas can be found and read about today. For example, the blue quadrant in Tibetan Buddhism refers to the element of water and the emotion of anger when one is suffering. The disruptive waves of anger express the intense urgency of disharmony. Alternately, calm waters are when peace has been restored. Most of the symbols in these mandalas emphasize extreme polarities. The theme of nature is consistent with the addition of our emotional options. How is our emotional state creating our reality? How can we use our emotions to shift between perceptions of suffering into peace? This contemplation can still be found in today’s psychology and psychiatry offices. Unfortunately, something is usually seen as “wrong with you” if one is seeing a doctor to better manage these ancient concerns.