A circle of life

By Kati Schardl, Tallahassee Democrat, Nov 13, 2005

Tallahassee, FL (USA) -- Start with a circle, that most basic of shapes. It's the essence of geometric simplicity, a seamless form with no beginning or end. It's a paradox - a boundary encompassing infinity.

Fill that circle with substance, color and shapes that square the arcs and subdivide the space into intricate patterns and symbols.

The empty orb becomes both a map of the cosmos and a chart of the soul's topography. It becomes a mandala, loosely translated from the Sanskrit as "world in harmony."

Mandalas are most closely associated with Buddhism, particularly the image-and-ritual-rich Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

Tibetan monks from Drepung Gomang Monastery in Kanartaka, India, visit Tallahassee this week to bring an exhibit of sacred art to the Mary Brogan Museum. While here, the monks will spend several days making a many-hued sand mandala in the museum's atrium.

They will essentially recreate the universe in millions of grains of colored sand that has been ground from stone. And when they're done, they'll sweep up the whole magnificent creation in a ritual symbolizing the impermanence of existence. The sand will be transported to Lake Ella and poured into the water so the mandala's healing energy can spread to benefit the world at large.

If you stop by the Brogan to watch the monks at work, you might find the concept of a mandala more familiar than you think.

You need look no further than the natural world to find plenty of examples. The galaxy orders itself in the shape of a mandala. Contemplate the cross-section of a tree - the concentric rings form a mandala. The exquisite pearlescent interior spirals of a nautilus shell - a mandala.

The unfurling bud of a rose, snowflakes glimpsed under a microscope, rock crystals, even crop circles - all can be considered mandalas.

Humans have created visual representations of the mandala since the ancestor of all artists picked up a piece of charcoal and sketched a spiral on the wall of a cave by the flickering, smoky light of a prehistoric fire.

From teepees to yurts to Buddhist stupas to the minarets of Muslim mosques to the domes and rose windows of magnificent cathedrals such as Paris' Notre Dame, the mandala has influenced architecture. Engineer, inventor and philosopher Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes utilize the geometric principles of mandalas.

Native American medicine wheels - particularly ritual Navajo sand paintings - are freighted with the same cosmological energy as Buddhist mandalas.

Labyrinths are mandalas you can experience with your body as well as with your spirit. Ask anyone who has paced the spiral path of the labyrinth at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church.

Mandalas have inspired artists, mystics, scholars and lay folk alike.

Benedictine nun, composer and theologian Hildegard of Bingen sprinkled mandalas throughout her manuscripts to punctuate and illustrate her visions. And modern mage of dreams Carl Jung experienced such a powerful epiphany while trying to decipher the mysteries of a mandala's construction that it changed the direction of his intellectual journey.

"I saw that everything, all paths I had been following, all steps I had taken, were leading back to a single point - namely, to the mid-point," he wrote. "It became increasingly plain to me that the mandala is the centre. It is the exponent of all paths. ... I knew that in finding the mandala as an expression of the self I had attained what was for me the ultimate."

Compassionate cosmos

In Tibetan Buddhist practice, mandalas can be extremely elaborate and loaded with symbols exotic and strange to the Western eye. Like the maps of inner and outer worlds they represent, they can require a legend to decipher meanings and pick out the paths. They're meant to be contemplated as three-dimensional forms representing imaginary palaces in which the rooms contain objects of spiritual significance.

That means a quick glance will yield only a superficial appreciation of form and color. You'll have to ponder longer and more thoughtfully if you want to begin to approximate the level of understanding achieved by Jung. In fact, you might just want to stage a little meditation session with the mandala as your focus point.

At the Brogan Museum, the visiting monks will make a mandala invoking Chenrezig, or Avalakiteshvara, the supreme embodiment of compassion. The deity is a bodhisattva - a being who has chosen to defer his own Buddha-hood to help others achieve enlightenment. Chenrezig is the patron saint of Tibet, and the 14th Dalai Lama is considered the current incarnation of the beloved saint. The mandala of Chenrezig is meant to disperse compassion and peace into the world.

On Monday, the monks will consecrate the spot where they'll work in the museum's atrium with an opening ceremony that features chanting, music and movement. Then they'll get down to business by drawing the mandala's line design. After that, it's time to get out the chak-pur, or traditional metal funnels used to pour the colored sand.

The monks don't mind being watched as they go about the painstaking art of making the mandala, although it's considered bad form to interrupt their focus by talking to them or commenting loudly on their work. With surgical masks over their mouths, they'll be concentrating on making the mandala come to life and silently chanting prayers as they work. If you want to contribute your own energy to the creative endeavor, mentally - and noiselessly - summon the syllables of the mandala's mantra. It's one of the most familiar chants in the Buddhist tradition - "Om mani padme hum."