Manda means “essence” and “la” means container so a Mandala contains the essence of the Buddha. The Mandala is used in Tibetan Buddhism. A meditator can use the Mandala as an aid in meditation (by memorizing all the various components). It can also be used to help establish a sacred space. I’ve always been intrigued by them so I decided to find out more about them. Before beginning a Mandala, a monk undergoes artistic training and study. This can take a couple of years. I saw a TV program once where monks spent months constructing one out of sand and then they destroyed it.
Mandalas by their very nature create merit so by destroying a Mandala (sand ones are poured into moving water), merit is shared with the Cosmos. I like that idea. I plan to destroy this one eventually. The destruction for me will represent several things – obviously “impermanence” but then also clinging or attachment to a material object and destroying something which I created (which I consider to be a work of “art”), will be good for my ego!
In 2005 I wanted to give a gift to sister Gi Nghiem for letting us use her meditation hall. I decided that although a Mandala wasn’t part of our practice, it could become a nice gift. I started working on it and immediately ran into problems – I wanted to use only materials I had on hand. The main circle was originally mounted on blue fabric which was from a pair of pants. The decorative cord and ribbons were mostly from Christmas decorations. Some of the ribbon was from a sari that belonged to our Sangha friend Miriam who passed away. The metal embellishments were from a dog collar I made for one of my favourite dogs. I used fabric from a skirt and some fabric I had to purchase. The final mounting fabric is from my OI robe. The leftover piece was almost the perfect size – very fitting!
I got the circle done and the three outer rings and work ground to a halt. The next part of the project (creating the inner square or “palace”) was very intimidating so I was unsure of how to proceed. In 2009 we moved to a new house and I decided to put the uncompleted Mandala on my altar and there it sat for four years. I had given up on it. Then my husband Rick’s boss went to Sarnath and brought me a shawl which I decided to use as an altar cloth instead of the Mandala so I started working on it again. This time I was determined to overcome all obstacles.
I tried to work slowly. After completing one section, I would stop and contemplate how to do the next section. I stopped myself from rushing ahead as I wanted to make it with 100% mindful attention. Then, just when I was nearing completion, I noticed that the centre was crooked! I had placed the circle on an angle on the backing. I removed it from the blue fabric and tried to used another fabric. I made the side seams only to discover the fabric I chose was too flimsy and the seams puckered! That’s when I decided to use the piece of fabric from my brown jacket.
The Meaning and Symbolism
Every Mandala contains the same basic elements. The centre is the “essence” and the circumference is “grasping” so for the meditator we are grasping (or trying to grasp) the essence of the Buddha. I constructed the Mandala opposite to the usual way – I worked from the outside in; I had to.
At the centre of the Mandala resides the resident deity. This can be any number of Bodhisattvas. I chose my favourite: Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion. When I envision this Bodhisattva, I see a beautiful woman (like Quan Yin). This Bodhisattvas can be represented by a vase of water. Water is purifying.
I think to be compassionate towards others is a wonderful thing; I wish I could be more compassionate. I try to look at others with compassion especially those who are visibly suffering – and I think “there but for the grace of God, go I.” I would like to be more compassionate and be more kind. It’s so simple but sometimes so difficult!
The Bodhisattva resides in the centre of a palace. The palace is divided into four color quadrants. Each colour has meaning:
- White – represents the delusion of ignorance. When overcome there is the wisdom of reality. Seeing things as they really are is called Nirvana.
- Yellow – represents the delusion of pride. When transformed there is the wisdom of sameness. I like to think of non-discrimination.
- Green – represents the delusion of jealousy. When transformed there is the wisdom of accomplishment. I like to think it means appreciation for someone else’s accomplishments: Selfless happiness for another.
- Blue – represents the delusion of anger. When transformed there is mirror-like wisdom. I like to think of it as overcoming my wrong perceptions so that I see what has caused my anger.
There are four gates representing the four immeasurable minds: loving kindness, (in Pali its called “Metta”) compassion (“Karuna”) joy (“Mudita”) and equanimity (“Upeksha”). They are called “immeasurable” because they are boundless, the more you practice them, the more they grow in you and affect those around you –
- Loving kindness: Thay says that in order to love someone you first have to understand them.
- Compassion: To be compassionate is to try to relieve the suffering of another person.
- Joy: To feel joy is to be in the present moment, this is the easiest route to joy. By looking at everything you have (such as your good health) you can realize you already have all the conditions you need to be happy.
- Equanimity: means non-attachment, non-discrimination but it doesn’t mean indifference. The Buddha said if you practice the four immeasurable minds along with the four noble truths and the noble eightfold path, you will never again descend into the realm of suffering.
Each gate faces the four directions of earth. Each gate has a bell and is guarded by four angry guards.
There are four outer rings that the person must pass through in order to reach the centre. We see:
- The Ring of Fire – this represents the transformation that a person undergoes when they embark upon the Path.
- The Ring of Vajra – diamond sceptres representing the teachings themselves, the diamond-like indestructibility of the Dharma. The teachings cut through illusion like a diamond. In the Diamond Sutra the Buddha says that we have the tendency to cling to the illusion of a separate self or ego. All forms are illusive and unreal. Once you realize this, you will realize your true Buddha nature. The same is true of the teachings themselves; they should be used as a raft to cross a river. Once you reach the other side, you have to let go of the raft. The Sutra is hard and sharp, like a diamond that will cut away all arbitrary perceptions and bring us to the other shore – the shore of Enlightenment.
- The Ring of Eight Tombs – representing death and our fear of death. Death is a notion like being and non-being. It is not reality. Reality is more like a wave and water. A wave thinks it’s separate from water but it’s not, it’s part of water. We think we are separate from the rest of the universe but we are not. If you look inside a person, you won’t find a separate self. We are made of non-self elements like water and air. We can’t exist without the earth, the rain and the sun. When we die, we no longer manifest, this doesn’t mean we no longer exist; you can’t go from something to nothing: you are transformed – you may become a flower or a cloud. If you have children, you continue to exist in them.
- The inner most ring is called The Lotus Circle – this represents the meditator’s devotion which is necessary in order to pass through the gates and into the palace. In my case, I reflect on the Noble Eightfold Path – Right View. I have faith in the fact that the Path can transform suffering.
Perceptions, Shame and Ego
When I was working on it, I felt myself rushing ahead so I tried to slow down. It is not my nature to be so fastidious! Being slow and mindful paid off: I did a really good job – I was so proud of myself when I was able to make perfect triangles – or so I thought. Rick pointed out to me that they did not make a perfect square and I freaked out! I kept saying “I did my best! I did my best!” but when I looked closely at my “perfect” work all I saw was imperfection – this was my best? It was so imperfect and flawed that I was ashamed; my best was mediocre. I was tempted to throw the whole thing in the garbage.
I decided to sleep on it and the next day I re-examined my thought process. Yes – I did do my best but my best wasn’t as good as I thought it was and yes – I was embarrassed when Rick pointed out the flaws (hello, Ego!), but I needed to get beyond my shame and embarrassment and look at the good intentions behind it – I really did my best and so what if its not perfect? It’s as perfect as I can make it. Can I honestly say I made it with mindfulness? – with my imperfect ability to be mindful 100% of the time? – yes I did make it mindfully. The important thing is I’m no longer proud of it but at the same time I’m no longer ashamed of it – I’m OK with it – it is what it is, a symbol of my practice at this point in my life.
True Beautiful Truth