The Philosophy and Psychology of the Oriental Mandala,
By Grace E. Cairns

Philosophy East & West
V. 11  No. 4 (1962)
pp. 219-229

Copyright 1962 by University of Hawaii Press






    THERE ARE many symptoms which show that the dominant mood in twentieth-century man's feeling toward the universe in both its cosmic and human aspects is one of alienation. This is shown in such studies as William Barrett's Irrational Man, in which "The Present Age" is described as one of spiritual meaninglessness.[1] Existentialism in philosophy--modern art, literature, and science--show man either in a state of groping in agony for some spiritual center of meaning for his life, or trying to live a horizontal existence, one in which all values are of equal significance--what Barrett calls the "flattening out of values." The urgent psychological and philosophical need of Western man today is a return to the vertical, to some central spiritual ideal principle about which he can orient his life and overcome his feelings of alienation and meaninglessness. Zen Buddhism is popular in the Western world because it provides an answer to this need, and the interest in this exotic philosophy attests to the fact of the spiritual vacuum which needs to be filled. Zen and other Buddhist schools have significant philosophies and wise techniques which can meet man's spiritual needs, overcome. his feelings of alienation, and enable him to feel at home in the cosmos. Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity, especially in their philosophical mystical forms, are also adequate for this task; and there are important "secular" philosophies which attempt the same kind of "centering" of man's life. The theme that permeates all such modes of thought as they relate to man's spiritual problems and needs can be said to be one of alienation-and-return.

    The most compact symbolism in which this theme is expressed is the ma.n.dala diagram of Tibetan Buddhism. Contrary to the opinion of many




Westerners, the ma.n.dala is not a mere "magic circle." This misconception of its nature has been corrected by recent scholarship. Professor Snellgrove, of the London School of Oriental and African Studies, informs us that the ma.n.dala is a circle of symbolic forms which follow one basic pattern: "one symbol at the center, which represents absolute truth itself, and other symbols arranged at the various points of the compass, which represent manifested aspects of this same truth."[2] The function of this symbolic form is always the same, the reintegration of the aspirant, his unification with the total cosmic reality.[3]

    It is well known that the ma.n.dala plays a major role in the Tantric form of Mahaayaana Buddhism prevalent in Tibet. That a truly spiritual life can be attained by following a Tantric form of Buddhism is demonstrated in the thought and practice of Tibet's greatest yogi, Milarepa.[4] Milarepa, a devotee of Tantric yoga, achieved by its means a spirituality unsurpassed in any of the other religious philosophies. The ma.n.dala is a graphic representation of this Tantric yogic philosophy by means of which man's alienation from himself, from Nature, and from God is overcome.

    In the Tantric Buddhism of Tibet, as in Tantric Hinduism, the general significance of the ma.n.dala is the interpenetration of the material and spiritual worlds, i.e., of sa^msaara and The philosophical basis for the representation of this interpenetration of the two worlds has three sources: (1) the teaching of the Yogaacaara school that all things are manifestations of Absolute Mind; (2) the Maadhyamika concept that the Absolute Mind in its transcendental form is `Suunyataa (Void); and (3) the central idea of the Buddhaavata^msaka Suutra, the interpenetration of the transcendental Void and the sa^msaara world. It is this idea of the Buddhaavata^msaka Suutra which is central in ma.n.dala symbolism.[5]

    To make clearer for Western readers unfamiliar with ma.n.dala symbolism how the interpenetration of the eternal and the phenomenal worlds is manifested in this symbolic form, we shall describe a typical ma.n.dala. This will be the Demchog Ma.n.dala, of particular interest because it played a large part in the reintegration of the great Milarepa. The aspirant begins by imagining the ma.n.dala or by drawing it on the ground. The Demchog Ma.n.dala employs stuupa symbolism, a common symbolism in ma.n.dalas, to show the




interpenetration of the material and spiritual worlds, i.e., of sa^Msaara and[6] At the center of the ma.n.dala circle (which would be the spiritual core of the stuupa symbolized by the Beyond beyond the tip of the central shaft) is symbolized the ultimate spiritual reality-`Suunyataa-attained by the union of praaj~na and upaaya. Praaj~naa is wisdom, passive and inert, represented as a female deity; upaaya is compassion, active and male. The union of the two, `Suunyataa, is the eternal noumenal reality whence proceeds the phenomenal world of space and time, the sa^msaara world. `Suunyataa signifies "that the universe and are not two but one or `Suunyataa, just as mind and body in any individual are aspects of one unity."[7] This is the significant and central idea of this and of the ma.ndala in general. The rest of the content of the ma.n.dala form symbolizes the phenomenal world emanating from, and interpenetrated by, the spiritual eternal noumenal reality.

    In the Demchog Ma.n.dala, which is typical, the phenomenal bodies of the Buddha--the sambhogakaaya (the heavenly body) and the nirmaa.nakaaya (earthly body)--are shown emanating from the Center, from `Suunyataa, the dharmakaaya (law-body). The sambhogakaaya and nirma.anakaaya are represented as concentric graduated circles with an identical Center (`Suunyataa or the dharmakaaya). There is a circle for each of the following: bliss, mind, speech--all these belong to the heavenly body, the sambhogakaaya. The last and outside circle represents the physical body, the nirmaa.nakaaya, which is the material concretion of the sambhogakaaya whence it the (nirmaa.nakaaya) emanates. Appropriate deities fill each of the circles. The intention is to symbolize the entire macrocosmic universal reality, both spiritual and material, and to show the interpenetration of the two.

    Since the purpose of the ma.n.dala is its functional use in the reintegration of the yogi, the next step is identification of the internal microcosmic ma.n.dala with the external macrocosmic one. This takes place in a process called internal reintegration.[8] The yogi proceeds to recognize within himself an internal ma.n.dala perceived as the cakras of the body. These Cakras, each called a lotus of a certain number of petals, are located at the head, throat, heart, and navel, and each is identified with a corresponding circle representing the sambhogakaaya and nirmaa.nakaaya of the macrocosmic ma.n.dala. Then through a psychic circulatory process, which proceeds through the Cakras, the aspirant




eventually experiences `Suunyataa, the non-dual state. In this state the yogi is himself the dharmakaaya; the microcosm is the macrocosm. The reintegration of the yogi has been accomplished.


    It is apparent that the ma.n.dala symbolizes total reality in both its phenomenal and its noumenal aspects. It functions, therefore, as a potent psychological aid in the reintegration process of the aspirant who, in concentrated meditation upon this symbolic device, grasps vividly the unity of the cosmos in all its hierarchic levels of truth and reality; then, in the concentration process of the internal microcosmic ma.n.dala, he perceives himself as identical with the external macrocosmic ma.n.dala. The endless process of the cycles of the creation and destruction of universes-meaningless to the unenlightened ego under bondage to karmic processes--thus takes on an entirely new character. The things that were perceived before the experience as separate entities, each in its own time and space location, are now seen as organic parts of one unified Being, the one buddha-essence which is their eternal unifying substratum. All men, of whatever level of vice or virtue, animals, insects, the very rocks and stones are the being of the yogi himself, since all, like him, have their reality in the Unconditioned, the Absolute buddha-essence. This realization of unity with eternal Being overcomes forever ideas of alienation and meaninglessness, and a new and boundless freedom is experienced. The yogi knows that he is no longer bound to the vicissitudes of a transmigrating ego; his enlightenment experience has forever removed the ego-illusion, the source of human vice, and feelings of separateness, of alienation. He has discovered by direct experience that the real is the identity of sa^msaara and, the pure unity without distinctions. Now, freed from egocentricity and its endless cravings in his intense awareness of identity with the Absolute, the yogi becomes master of his fate instead of the slave of an unreal ego. No longer ego-centered but centered in the eternal One, his ethical behavior is henceforth characterized by its spontaneity and all his conduct will be altruistic. His dominant remaining goal is now that of the bodhisattva, viz., to save all beings from the ego-illusion, to help them reintegrate themselves and attain buddhahood.

    The psychological value of this kind of reintegration, when fully accomplished, is enormous. Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Taoist, and Christian saints bear witness to the power of such an experience to revolutionize moral and social attitudes. Contemporary man needs desperately a similar reintegration




experience. The alienation, the disunity, from the smallest to the largest human societies has made popular the existentialist philosophies, which are centered upon these feelings of alienation, of abandonment in a meaningless flux of events in a vacuous space-time continuum which has no concern for human values.

    Man in our era must destroy the ego-illusion which is the basic cause of alienation and disunity at all levels. It is significant that Jung as a psychologist and psychiatrist believes this must be done and by means of the kind of reintegration experience we have been describing. Jung believes that only through this kind of experience will man be able to solve the spiritual, social, ethical, and political conflicts of our time. Social health depends upon the health of individuals, and reintegration is essential for this. It is highly significant that Jung as a practicing psychiatrist found that the basic problem of all his patients over thirty-five years of age was the philosophico-religious one of trying to reintegrate themselves with some wider spiritual reality to give their lives value and meaning.[9] Jung thinks that this demonstrates that the human psyche is of such a nature that integration is basic to its integrity. Jung also found in his study of his patients that merely theoretical approaches to the problem of reintegration are not adequate. A vivid liberating experience-an "enlightenment" experience--is essential. This kind of experience, most intense in the great yogis and saints of East and West, gives man a new spiritual freedom, Jung says, which shows itself in four spiritual "gifts of grace."[10] These are (1) love in place of sexuality; (2) faith in place of fear; (3) hope in place of cynicism and disillusionment with the world; and (4) understanding in place of feelings of meaninglessness and confusion about the meaning of life and the cosmos.

    The general form followed by his patients who successfully solved the reintegration problem, Jung discovered, is the same as that followed by all great yogis and saints of East and West; it is the ma.n.dala motif of centering, i.e., the reintegration of the aspirant with man and the cosmos in one organic unity. Jung concludes from this that the ma.n.dala motif is an archetypal idea at the spiritual pole of the unconscious. This is evident, he thinks, because the various ma.n.dalas he examined, both the ma.n.dalas of his patients and Oriental ma.n.dalas, are apparently variations on a ground theme with the meaning "central."[11] The effects of this archetypal idea on the conscious




psyche are "spiritual," Jung affirms on the basis of his study of his patients. The centering process was a potent aid and the crucial factor in their recovery. Another factor which played its part was the other pole of the unconscious, instinct (the biological element), the bridge to inanimate matter. Between the spiritual pole and instinct is the conscious psyche, characterized chiefly by will. Jung writes that the two poles, spirit and matter

in archetypal conceptions and instinctual perceptions ... confront one another on the psychic plane. Matter as well as spirit appear in the psychic realm as distinctive qualities of conscious contents. The ultimate nature of both is transcendent, that is, noumenal, since the psyche and its contents are the only reality which is given to us without a medium.[12]

    Jung's analytical psychology has for its purpose the attainment of the "self" through abrogation of the sovereignty of the "subjective ego and of collective consciousness." The "self" is to be realized through an "individuation process." This is a reintegration of the instinctual and spiritual poles with the conscious psyche. The process of individuation is similar to the re- integration process of Oriental yogic philosophies symbolized in ma.n.dala diagrams. The individual must first realize the existence of the "shadow," which is the collective unconscious at the biological or instinctual level. Vivid awareness of this level has "the meaning of a suffering and a passion that implicate the whole man."[13] It is the "dark night of the soul" familiar to the Western world in the writings of such mystics as St. John of the Cross; it is the recognition of the roots of egocentricity in Eastern philosophies such as the Tantric Mahaayaana school described above. This aspect of the unconscious belongs to the biosphere, the sphere emphasized by Freud. It is in recognizing this aspect of the unconscious in oneself, Jung finds, that one loses egoistic self-righteousness. This causes the individual to feel a broad sympathy with the vices of others even though he cannot sanction them. Jung makes clear that the individuation process is basically a transformation process[14] in which the recognition of "sin" is an essential feature. In Oriental philosophies, both Hindu and Mahaayaana Buddhist, the cardinal human vices are recognized as aspects of the phenomenal cosmic consciousness (these




vices and their corresponding virtues, which release man from them, are represented in the sambhogakaaya circle of the ma.n.dala), because these are necessary aspects of egoity, of individual existences. Emancipation from the illusion of egoity and its concomitant evils is wrought through contact of the psyche with the spiritual pole, the meaning of which is "central." When this unconscious meaning floods the psyche in an intuitive enlightenment experience, the person is reintegrated with all humanity and the total cosmos. He then finds his former egocentric orientation a false one; he is enabled, therefore, to annihilate the desires both of the conscious ego and of the libidinous unconscious. The transformation process in its climactic experience has flooded the psyche with the light of the numinous spiritual pole (the archetypal idea of "central" or complete unity) so that it now sees itself in true perspective in relation to its phenomenal ego (its ego of the biosphere, the "libido") and to its transcendent spiritual ground, the ultimate meaning which integrates all phenomenal egos and the entire cosmos. When all this is realized and understood, Jung thinks, integration has been achieved. In support of this view Jung utilizes the autobiographical accounts of great mystics, Eastern and Western, who, in their realization of the unitive state, have achieved individuation on the grand scale, far beyond the more limited individuation attained by Jung's patients. Nevertheless, in Jung's view, all individuation processes take the same general form.

    Jung reminds us that the world's great religions are rich in transformation symbolisms the function of which is individuation. In the Catholic ritual of the Mass, for example, the communicant confesses his sins, yields himself (his ego) as a sacrificial offering, which means annihilation of egocentricity, and then, under the influence of the archetypal idea of unity (or "central"), he unites himself with Christ (the transcendent spiritual pole) in the bread and wine. Although not many communicants experience this rite as a complete transformation process and individuation experience as a St. Paul might experience it, the intention and symbolic meaning of the ritual is transformation of the ego into the self--an individuation process. This rite and similar' rites in the great religions, like the ma.n.dala rite, function as transformation symbolisms, the purpose of which is reintegration of the individual with man, life, and the cosmos, from which he has been alienated or is in danger of becoming alienated.

    Many well-known Western philosophies and classical philosophical works are permeated with transformation symbolism   represented most clearly in Oriental ma.n.dala forms. The Divine Comedy is the classic ma.n.dala of the spiritual journey of man from the Christian point of view. The individuation process begins with the descent into the infernal regions--the recognition of




sin, of egocentricity, or pride, as the source of alienation--and then the return from alienation begins with the transformation process worked out in the purging of sin in Purgatory. Here the libidinous ego recognized in the Inferno is annihilated through suffering; and then in Paradise complete individuation is attained through union with God, the spiritual pole that has the archetypal meaning "central," for God is the love and knowledge which bind together all things in the universe.[15]

    The ma.n.dala of Dante's spiritual journey, in its turn, was inspired by the "ascension ma.n.dala" of Muhammad's "night journey" through the planetary spheres to God's throne. The account of this journey was elaborated by Ibn 'Arabi the Spaniard (1165-1240) into an account of a spiritual journey through the total universe--the infernal region, the heavenly spheres, the Paradise of the vision of God with the saints and choirs of angels around God--with a beautiful woman as guide, probably the prototype of Dante's Beatrice in her spiritual aspect.[16] Among Muslim mystics, the Sufis, the soul's journey follows a similar ma.n.dala pattern.

    The source of both the Muslim and the Christian ma.n.dala patterns and of Muslim and Christian mysticism in general has been Neo-Platonism. In this philosophy, the universal ma.n.dala-form of alienation-and-return (or emanation-and-return ) is especially apparent. The alienation process (an alienation-process for souls) begins with the emanation from the One of the world of Ideas, then the world of souls, and finally of matter and non-being; then the return journey of souls is described as a transformation process in which the matter world is negated; and then, by means of the Ideas, all separation (egoity) is overcome and the spiritual pole is realized, absolute unity with the One.

    In classical orthodox Christian philosophy, as formulated by St. Augustine and his followers, there is a similar alienation-and-return through a transformation process. The alienation is the Fall caused by the "original sin" of egoity (pride) as in the Eastern philosophies; the pattern for the transformation process or return is represented by Christ, the New Being, who sheds pride (egoity) and participates in God, the unitive Ground and source of Being (see Paul Tillich's The New Being).

    In contemporary philosophies of history, Toynbee's withdrawal-and-return pattern for human creativity is like St. Augustine's fall-and-redemption or alienation-and-return formula. All are transformation symbolisms, processes whereby individuation is achieved.




    Hegel's philosophy of history is another clear example of the ma.n.dala symbolic pattern. In Hegel's philosophy, the Absolute objectifies itself in the world of concrete particulars, which at the human level are conscious egos. Such egos are alienated until the illumination of the return, the transformation process brought about by philosophical insight into reality. This insight is inspired by the archetypal idea, the idea that the cosmos is a spiritual unity; the separate ego as such is an illusion and the cause of alienation. Hegel, like the Oriental philosophers, emphasizes egoity as the basic source of man's suffering and "sin"; man's goal is the return from this ignorance, this alienation.

    In the Marxian type of philosophy, the spiritual pole as such is not recognized; yet, the archetypal idea of unity or "central" is dominant here, too. Although humanity is at the center of the ma.n.dala, alienation follows the common ma.n.dala form; alienation is again egoity. There is also the same ma.n.dala pattern in the transformation process of the return: the alienated ego must realize its unity with all other men in a classless society, a human brotherhood of voluntary sharing and co-operation.

    In the above examples we have tried to show that there are basic elements of agreement between Eastern and Western philosophies--as well as religions-in relation to the sources of man's alienation and the kind of transformation process that must be accomplished to facilitate the return. There are also characteristic disagreements between East and West in relation to man's place in the cosmos. The Eastern philosophies emphasize the Divine ineffable spiritual reality as the core and center of the universe (Jung's spiritual pole); most Western philosophies, especially since the eighteenth century, are humanistic and place man in the center of the ma.n.dala. Jung's comment on the historical origins and the significance of this difference shows much insight and what is needed for a meeting of East and West:

    The fact that all immediate experience is psychic and that immediate reality can only be psychic, explains why it is that primitive man puts the appearance of ghosts  and the effects of magic on a plane with physical events. ... When the primitive world disintegrated into spirit and nature, the West rescued nature for itself. It was prone to a belief in nature, and only became the more entangled in it with every painful effort to make itself spiritual. The East, on the contrary, took mind for its own, and by explaining away matter as mere illusion (maya), continued to dream in Asiatic filth and misery. But since there is only one earth and one mankind, East and West cannot rend humanity into two different halves. Psychic reality exists in its original oneness, and awaits man's advance to a level of consciousness where he no longer believes in the one part and denies the other, but recognizes both as constituent elements of one psyche.[17]




    Professor Northrop also gives an illuminating account of the characteristic differences between these cultures and the values each can give the other.[18] He lays emphasis upon the fact that the central characteristic of Eastern philosophy is the non-technical, non-mathematical approach to an understanding of the universe. For this reason the Eastern philosopher has never separated himself from Nature as an outsider, nor has he tried to exploit and control Nature, as Western man has. The Eastern philosopher sees all the particulars of the universe as aspects of a spiritual unity of which he, himself, is also a part. The Western philosopher, on the other hand, has--beginning with the Greeks--taken an objective, mathematical, technological approach to Nature. On the negative side, the Western approach has led to many egoistic evils and the resultant feelings of alienation from Nature and from other men; yet, on the positive side, this Western attitude has contributed much to the betterment of human life in this world through technology; and, in addition, on the theoretical side, has contributed significantly to self-conscious abstract law--ideas of human rights that must be guaranteed to everyone. These technological contributions of the West and the Western ideal of human rights--the right to an adequate material standard of living and the right to equality in human dignity-have already been felt in the East, which is undergoing rapid revolutionary changes. Western culture, however, needs to learn from the East the aesthetic approach to man and Nature--the intuition of the unity of all men, of all life, of the entire cosmos, which is the concept of good in the East.[19]

    At the beginning of this paper we noted the symptoms in the Western world which show the urgent need for a unitive cosmic philosophy. The ma.n.dala symbolism of the East is a graphic representation of such a unitive philosophy. Man's psychological need for it and the answers from the collective unconscious are grounded also in man's nature understood from the evolutionary point of view. Julian Huxley speaks for the scientific world of knowledge in pointing out that man's body is made of the same matter as that of the total physical cosmos; biologically, man is "linked by genetic continuity with all the other living inhabitants of his planet."[20] At the mental level he lives in the sphere of thought which "Teilhard de Chardin has christened the noosphere, in the same sort of way that fish exist and have




their being in the material sea of water which the geographers include in the term hydrosphere."[21] It was only a short time ago that man emerged into the psychosocial level of his evolution, the noosphere, and the general direction of evolutionary history, as well as man's psychology, shows the trend, if not the necessity, for emphasis upon the idea of unity, unity of man with man and of man with the cosmos. This does not exclude placing a high value upon the human individual as such. Some of the most dynamically-constructively --creative men in human history have been those saints who have lost selfish ego-consciousness. The responsibility for creative activity on behalf of others has been a corollary of the feeling of the unity of oneself with all men, all life, and the total cosmos, phenomenal and noumenal. The opposite feeling, that of alienation, of estrangement from other men and from the cosmos, leads too often to activity that is destructive of human and consequently also of cosmic values. For the salvation of contemporary man in a world torn by conflict, man needs to feel the spiritual unity of mankind which is the highest phenomenal reflection we know of the spiritual unity of the total cosmos. To feel such spiritual unity is the return to the center, the spiritual core of being, after the human spree of "sin," the alienation of personal and national egoism. This is the fundamental spiritual teaching and value of ma.n.dala symbolism.






1.    William Barrett, Irrational Man (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1958).

2.    David Snellgrove, "The Tantras," in Buddhist Texts Through the Ages, E. Conze, I. B. Horner, D. Snellgrove, and A. Waley, eds. (New York: Philosophical Library, 1954), p. 246.

3.    Ibid.

4.    W. Y. Evans-Wentz, Tibet's Great Yogi Milarepa (2d ed., London, New York, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1951).

5.    Bhikshu Sangharakshita, A Survey of Buddhism (Bangalore: The Indian Institute of World Culture, 1957); see pp. 406-431 for a description of the interrelationships between sa^msaara and

6.    Ibid., pp. 409-410.

7.    Arthur Avalon (Sir John Woodroffe), ed., Shriichakrasambhaara Tantra, Tantrik Texts, Vol. VII (The Buddhist Demchog Tantra), Kazi Dawa-Samdup, ed. (London: Luzac & Co.; Calcutta: Thacher, Spink & Co., 1919), p. xxxiii. Introduction by Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup.

8.    David Snellgrove, The Hevajra Tantra, 2 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1959); Vol. I, pp. 35-39, gives a lucid account of the internal process of reintegration, the "ma.n.dala within the yogin's body."

9.    Carl Gustav Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul. Harvest Books, W. S. Dell and Cary F. Baynes, eds., trans. (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1933),p. 229.

10.    Ibid., pp. 225 f.

11.    Carl Gustav Jung, "The Spirit of Psychology," in This Is My Philosophy, Whit Burnett, ed. (New York: Harper & Bros., 1957), pp. 156-157.

12.    Ibid., p. 158.

13.    Ibid., p. 151.

14.    Carl Gustav Jung, Psychology and Religion: West and East, R. F. C. Hull, trans., Bollingen Series XX (New York: Pantheon Books, 1958). Jung gives a full discussion of transformation processes and their symbolisms. In Part One, Chap. III, he treats "Transformation Symbolism in the Mass," a Western transformation symbolism; in Part II, Chap. VII, he treats transformation symbolisms in Tantric Tibetan Buddhism, a theme especially relevant to the topic of this paper.

15.    Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, the Carlyle-Wicksteed translation, Modern Library ed. (New York: Random House, 1932), Paradise, Canto XXXIII, the end of the entire work.

16.    Alfred Guillaume, Islam, (Baltimore: Penguin Books, Inc., 1954), p. 148.

17.    Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul, p. 191.

18.    F. S. C. Northrop, "Man's Relation to the Earth in its Bearing of His Aesthetic, Ethical, and Legal Values," in William L. Thomas, et al., eds., Man's Role in Changing the Face of the Earth (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956), pp. 1052-1065.

19.    Ibid., p. 1057.

20.    Julian Huxley, "The Evolutionary Vision," University of Chicago Magazine, LII, No. 4 (January, 1960), 18-23. See also Huxley's Introduction to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's The Phenomenon of Man (New York: Harper & Bros., 1959).

21.    Ibid. Teilhard de Chardin's argument, founded upon the evidence of the evolutionary history of life, is that man is destined to unify this globe--already at the level of the unifying noosphere--into a still higher and ultimate stage. This final stage will have love as the bond of unity.