Traditional Meanings of Mandalas
Many of the mandalas we encounter come out of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, where the spiritual meaning of the work is to represent the pure and sacred realm of existence created by a Buddha. These are usually highly detailed paintings done in the “thangka” style, characterized by rich colors and extravagant depictions of Buddhist and Hindu cosmologies.
In the Indian Hindu tradition, mandalas are also used to depict the spiritual universe, but the word has an additional religious meaning, referring to the ten sections of the Rigveda, one of India’s oldest canonical Hindu scriptures. In Hinduism and many forms of Buddhism, this cycle is constantly occurring and reoccurring.
The Modern Western Mandala
In their first encounters with the idea of the mandala, many Western religious leaders, scholars, and, crucially, some psychoanalysts became fascinated by this concept. Much work was done by the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung to expand the definition of mandala to make it relevant to the spiritual and psychological life of the modern western person.
In 1973 Jung wrote that, “a mandala is the psychological expression of the totality of the self” (20). Jung was using this ancient Eastern art form to help him understand some ideas he was developing in his own thinking about the human psyche. For him, each of us has a dense nucleus of selfhood that is the “true self,” which cannot be known directly but, despite its obscurity, is the most important and generative part of our being. Because we can’t directly know this deep and mysterious part of ourselves, we develop an ego and mistakenly identify it as a “self.”
Jung’s idea was that through regularly painting mandalas, a person could create a dialogue between their “true self” and their “ego,” integrating the two over time.