The meaning of the dream symbol: Mandala

Used in Hindu and Buddhist traditions to represent the foundation of universality, the mandala embodies the form (see Circle) of its own all-encompassing meaning. Appropriately, in the dream sense, we may be referring to the limitless potential of our own Unconscious; the infinite mind, within the finite body. We are also referring to the connection and superimposition of our infinite, immaterial soul and the immeasurable parameters of an unimaginable existence. We must ascertain if our belief in self is as strong as the promise of our existence? If so, is there a meaningful place for us within the boundaries of a soulful world?

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Mandalas are symmetrical figures, usually square or circular and with a central point. Some are purely geometrical, others are not - for example, a flower (as in rose windows in Christian churches or the lotus in Indian tradition). Psychologically they may function as symbols of the self - that is, the complete, whole self; human fullness; the fundamental order of the psyche; the union of opposite psychic qualities or forces.

A mandala in a dream is a reminder that order is possible - because already latent - in the psyche. ’Remove’ the disturbing elements - that is, bring them into harmony with the other parts of the psyche - and order will be restored.

If a disarranged mandala appears in a dream, this will indicate that the healing - whole-making - power of the (unconscious) psyche is temporarily out of action.

The mandala is the spatial symbol of the presence of the godhead at the centre of all things - purusha (Vastu-Purusha mandala). It is depicted as a square subdivided into smaller squares, the simplest (dedicated to Shiva and to PrithivI) comprising four or nine compartments, the more common sixty-four or eighty-one compartments. The square (or squares) at the centre are the Brahmasthana, the Place of Brahma, and contain the Garbhagriha, or womb-chamber, the cella of the temple. The outer framework of squares is related to the solar and lunar cycles. If this arrangement is to be found in the ground-plan of temples, such as that at Khajuraho, in India itself, it is also true of places such as Angkor, in particular, to which Hinduism was exported.

The Tantric mandala comes from the same symbolic source. It is painted or drawn as an aid to meditation or marked out on the ground for rites of initiation. Basically it is a square with gateways at the four points of the compass. These gateways are filled with circles, lotuses, images and symbols of the godhead, those on the outer perimeter being provided with guards. Passing through them in succession corresponds to similar stages in spiritual development or grades of initiation, until the centre is attained, the undifferentiated state of Buddha-chakravarti. The mandala may also be internalized and formed in the cavern of the heart. Temples like that at Borobudur in Java display precisely what is meant by the internal development of the mandala.

Far Eastern Shingon Buddhism depicts the mandala as a lotus, on whose centre and individual petals there is an image of the Buddha or of a Bodhisattva. An especial feature is the double mandala, again with Vairocana in its centre, comprising that of the non-manifest vajradhatu, or Diamond Cycle, and that of the garbhadhatu, or Womb Cycle, which although universally manifest bears the fruit of liberation.

Japanese Buddhists of the Shingon sect regard the concentric designs of these mandalas as images of the two complementary and ultimately identical aspects of supreme reality.

Henry Corbin has observed Ismaili circular diagrams strikingly akin in concept and meaning to the mandala.

In Tibetan tradition, the mandala provides a temporary guide to the imagination during meditation. In its varying combinations of circles and squares it displays the spiritual and material universe as well as the dynamic which links them on the triple cosmic, human and divine planes. ‘The ritual use of the mandala is as an adjunct to the divinity of which it is the cosmic symbol. As a visible projection of a divine world at the centre of which sits enthroned the divinity in question, there can be no mistake about its meaning. The Master’s voice is able to bring it to life’. In one example, five large concentric circles might encompass an eight-petalled lotus in the centre of which there is a structure comprising a number of squares one inside the other, each with four gates opening to the four points of the compass. Within, twelve Buddhas in meditation would surround another square in which a circle is drawn. Once again, in the centre of this circle would be another eight-petalled lotus in the middle of which the deity would be seated. In the blank spaces would be seen symbols of flame, thunderbolt and cloud. Around and outside the large circles, deities and protective or destructive creatures would be depicted against a background of cloud and flame.

Jung uses the image of the mandala to express a symbolic representation of the ‘nuclear atom’ of the human psyche - whose essence we do not know... Similar pictures are used to consolidate the inner being, or to plunge one into deep meditation. The mandala also conveys this feeling when it appears spontaneously in the dreams of modem men who are not influenced by any religious tradition of this sort... In the dream the square disk and the round table meet, and thus a conscious realization of the centre is at hand.

The mandala incorporates a twofold efficacy: it preserves psychic order if it already exists and restores it if it has vanished. In the latter case it has a stimulant and creative function.