A mandala is a form of art, a drawing, an archetype, a tool for working on oneself. It is a mirror of ourselves and of the world. When you look at mandalas in books, art or nature (and you will find many of them) you may be fascinated by their wonderful expression and radiance. From practising with mandalas myself, I can tell you that they represent the diagram, the schema, of every being and every object, and are the symbols of every destiny.
In Sanskrit 'mandala' means circle. This circle is organised around a centre which is known as the bindu - the seed. The essence of the mandala resides in this original central point and the rest of the mandala emanates from it. This enables us to define the mandala as a representation of every form organised by beginning from a central axis. This axis is the place where the energy is concentrated. A mandala is symmetrical and although it is usually a circle, it can also be oval, triangular, square or spiral. Combinations of these shapes are found in all the mandalas which most of the world's ancient cultures offer to those who are able to recognise them.
The Tibetans, who are masters of this art, say that mandalas act as 'liberators of the sight'. They are a means of meditation directly related to the eyes. This sort of practice - visualising an outside object, is a form of raja yoga called trataka.
How can we find our way through the jungle of meanings which each gate, compartment and colour of the mandala offers to us? Tibetan tantrism has made a science of mandalas, and it has made a sadhana of them as well, in the same way as icons were used in the traditions of Orthodox Christianity. There is also a very precise ritual attached to these images, in which numerous divinities are waiting for a sign of recognition from the meditator in order to awaken their specific vibrations.
Mandalas are complex and their proper use requires extensive knowledge. The simpler, more purified forms of mandalas are known as yantras, which means 'instrument' or 'tool'. Yantras are not pictorial representations of gods and goddesses. They are simplified reflections of our perceptions. They give us the immediate visual opportunity of returning to the centre. Giving ourselves over to the contemplation of these coloured geometrical patterns with complete abandon, we could say they are the rose windows of the cathedral of our own being. They awaken in us the intuition we all have of our innate unity.
The omnipresence of mandalas and yantras shows the deep love that all people have had for them under all their different names. People are children, and children spontaneously love symmetrical designs. Give a child the opportunity to draw 'beautiful circles', and immediately there will spring from deep within him a memory of angles and lines emanating from the centre.
Nature speaks the language of mandalas all the time. Look at the wings of a butterfly, the concentric ripples formed by water, the whirlwinds formed in cyclones, the dome of the sky studded with stars, and the circles indicating the age of a tree. Look at flowers; the rose and the lotus are the emblems of the mandala. We can appreciate the truth transmitted by the American Indians who made their tepees round, and who camped in a circle. They said: 'The Power of the world manifests in a circle and everything tries to be round. The wind at its highest point of power whirls around, and when the sun and moon rise and set they describe a circle in the sky. Even the seasons make a circle, going back to where they came from. The life of man itself is a circle from the time of his birth to the time of his death. This is the same for everything where Power acts.'
Is it not this same Power also at work in our everyday gestures? Look at the housewife perfecting a dish and placing a piece of parsley or an almond in the centre of it.
Rumi, the famous Sufi poet, says that if we could open a grain of sand we would find a sun and planets revolving there. Physicists today say exactly the same thing: electrons revolve around a nucleus, and describe circles which turn our life into an inner and everlasting dance of yantras. The grains of sand that we are, carry within them the structure of the universe. Our centre of gravity is the navel, and our axis of symmetry is the spinal column. Our bodies are organised on the principle of the yantra.
The modern science of cymaties, created by Swiss doctor H. Jenny, studies the effects of bombarding matter with vibratory waves. Rene Huygue, in his book 'Forms and Forces' suggests that many forms in nature and art correspond to an original rhythm of energy pulsation. Thus, geometrical forms are the visible representations of the invisible waves which constantly traverse our physical space.
From this, we can conjecture that each sound and form we are able to perceive has its archetypal form projected in the brain and it is through such an archetypal process that knowledge occurs. Things as well as ideas are not represented in the brain in the same way as we perceive them. If we see a chair, produce a sound, listen to someone or store away knowledge, then the chair, the sound, the talk and the ideas are registered inside us according to geometrical patterns. Probably because of the nature of the human visual system alone, reality is written into our grey matter in ways which are quite different from the ways we perceive this reality externally through our senses. Thus, science invites us to consider the possibility that every cognitive phenomenon is stored in the brain in geometrical patterns similar to yantras and mandalas.
The ancients knew very well that certain sounds emitted through the voice, called mantras, when produced in perfect modulation, create effects like flowers upon the deep layers of our being. That is why lotus petals play such an important role in tantric yoga.
Sound vibrations and sensory information produce concentric waves in our microcosm, and as well, our inner structures tune in with the cosmic structures. Through a unifying contact with beneficial shapes and forms, we vibrate in concert with the entire universe. That is why initiates and sages have instructed people to draw and to look at these figures.
Indian temples and the palaces of ancient kings were not erected according to any ordinary design. They are mandalas, and whoever visits them should not roam around according to his own fancy. There is a precise direction to follow among the maze of alleys. The steps of the faithful lead to the centre. If one has followed the required way, he will have gone, little by little, through different levels of consciousness, and his being will have been modified by intimate contact with the form which guides him to the Holy of Holies. The people who built our cathedrals knew these laws of sacred architecture. Chartres and Notre Dame are built according to primordial forms, created by a harmonic vibration which is in tune with the energies of the site. They exemplify an art of construction that would be very useful to recover and learn again.
And formerly, towns used to be built around axes, with the 'quarters' thus created grouped around a central place which was itself orientated towards a pool or a fountain, the spring of water providing a visible and tangible rallying point. Today, in most cases, the only architectural 'bindu' left is a mere 'commercial centre' or a parking lot. That is why modern towns are so difficult to live in.
The mandala expresses the need we all have to return to an inner order. Listen to Solzhenitsyn: 'There is something more important and fundamental than the social order. There is nothing, but absolutely nothing, more precious for a man than his own inner order- not even the good of future generations.'
Even if everything around us collapses or seems to collapse, when we are aware of a centre from which springs the strength which dwells within us, we stay calm and full of hope. This centre gives value and cohesion to our life. It allows us to draw the energy we need to start and build again. Mandalas and yantras show us that life has a meaning. We all need that assurance to live life beautifully- as it should be lived.
Psychological confirmation has been given of this by C.G. Jung, who has spoken at length of mandalas in his works. In his autobiography, 'My Life', he tells how during a certain period in his life, he felt so threatened by the avalanches produced by his subconscious mind that he stopped teaching. He even resigned his chair at Zurich University. In distress he turned to the mandala, thinking it might help him out of his depression. This is not to suggest that anyone can reverse his psychological stagnation through the practice of mandala. Jung was an expert in symbolism, and his intuition was very highly developed. Not everyone has the gift of such deep understanding. This enabled him to trace through the workings of his mind through the moving forms of mandalas. He says that every morning he used to draw some mandalas in his notebook, trying to read in them the diagnosis of his trouble and his progress towards an inner order.
For Jung, the round shape of a mandala expressed the totality of the psyche. If everything was all right the 'ball' was harmonious. 'The drawings of the mandalas were cryptograms on the state of my being which were given to me every day.' Don't we say of a person who is angry or out of sorts that she is off-balance, that she has lost her centre? Jung infers that the mandala gives a microcosmic picture of the soul. It is not an arbitrary creation, but comes rather from a deep insight into human nature.
In conclusion let us consider some results of the use of yantra and mandala in practical life. If these geometric forms are so full of meaning, they deserve a prominent place in our daily lives and in our children's education.
We used to live close to nature where mandalas are abundant. Today, if I want my glance to bring me back to the centre, I must put these beautiful designs up on the wall. There is no need for any fuss or ritual. I think that the simple contemplation of a form recognised as being beneficial by a tradition that goes back for thousands of years may bring an element of balance into our lives in a way that very few shows or entertainments still know how to do.
This is one of the reasons why I include the construction of mandalas in my classes with children at Condorcet College in Paris. The attraction that these beautifully coloured symmetrical representations have for children is a sure sign that they find in them some kind of psychic food. I take advantage of that liking to use mandalas to introduce new knowledge, as they develop memory and increase attention. I do this through visual representations that the children design themselves with the help of compasses.
Instead of introducing ideas in a linear form, I prefer to make use of the circle which compels the eyes to come back to the basic principle and to move between the centre and the periphery. A small group of us is working in this area, and we notice that if a notion, story or idea is real, it starts from a central point and easily lends itself to a geometrical representation which invites us to return to our own centre.