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Tibetan Cosmos

The Tibetan Map of Humans & The Cosmos

How the Kalachakra mandala connects the macrocosm of the universe to the microcosm of the human body

Justin M. Park

Tibetan Mandalas are illustrations of Buddhist lessons and deities. However, they are much more than sacred snapshots or icons and chronologies from religious scripture. They are systematic, geometric representations of deity palaces. Still deeper in the symbolism of the mandala is the significance of the palaces as models of the universe and earth’s nature. In the five levels of the mandala, one also sees a representation of the human body and mind. This three-dimensional nature of the mandala is an interesting aspect of Tibetan psychocosmograms. In meditation, the human body, and the cosmic hierarchy/totem of Tibetan Buddhists. The symbolism in the Kalachakra mandala when evaluated and explained in both cosmological and anatomical terms uncovers the similarities between the human body and the Tibetan universe.

Visualizing the sand mandala elevated and detailed is difficult without some familiarity with the Buddhist symbolism found in it. Though the geometry of the image is captivating in itself, the underlying value of the mandala for meditation and cosmic symbolism is easily overlooked. Interpreting the mandala as a human body is an important way to visualize it as the Tibetan’s intend it to be seen.[1] This article defines the mandala, shows geometric connections between it and the body, and uses the three-dimensional image to show conceptual similarities between the cosmos, mandala, and anatomy. By considering the initiation ritual, fundamental structures, geometric proportions, directions, colors, and animals in the Kalachakra, the parallel between person and mandala emerges.

By definition, Tibetan Mandalas are “any balanced ideal system of ideas and energies,”[2] though the term is applicable to the entire construction, as well as each floor of the palace. More practically, mandalas can be scroll paintings, weavings, frescos, metal sculptures, ink drawings from caves, stupas in all sizes (from the stone markers throughout the Himalayas to cathedral sized stupa on the island of Java), and the more modern form of either colored rice or sand spread precisely on a flat surface. Such techniques of mandala construction have been mastered by the Nepalese, Tibetans, Native Americans, Chinese, Indonesians, and Mongols.[3] To these cultures, the religious value of mandalas is profound, an importance that shows why the work is done in great detail.

To these cultures, the religious value of mandalas is profound, an importance that shows why the work is done in great detail.

For example, the Tibetan mandala incorporates the idea of impermanence because it is demolished after its creation and poured into rivers. It is the focal point of a monk’s initiation, whereby the production of the mandala is its own form of meditation and a rite of passage in monastic life. At the core of all this meaning is the deity himself, about whom the entire mandala is designed. Deities in Buddhism differ significantly from the Christian and Jewish idea of “God”. Deities are the manifestations of thousands of aspects from Buddha mind who personify the states of mind that are “attained and mastered as one progresses on the path toward enlightenment.” This does not imply polytheism, but that they are each at the center of a tantras lesson taught by the Buddha. They are characterizations of the states of omniscience achieved at the state of bliss, or, “Buddha mind”.[4] Though they have no physical manifestations and are not “real” like biblical characters, their manifestation in the mind is a vital part of meditation and the path towards enlightenment.

Deities usually have many faces and proportionally more arms, holding the symbols of these mind states in their hands and facing towards significant directions in the mandala. The Kalachakra deity has four faces and twenty-four arms and personifies the union between feminine and masculine with his consort. He is crucial to Buddhists because the realization of Kalachakra means a totally awakened state. The name Kalachakra also applies to several different parts of the mandala. It is the name of the deity who lives in the palace, and whose state of enlightenment is mediated towards. It is the name of the tantra (Kalachakratantra) from which many Buddhist concepts and images come. This includes its’ own recitation mantras (prayers), dances, and, most significantly, the Kalachakra initiation process that monks undergo during the construction of the mandala.[5]

The purpose of the Kalachakra construction, meditation, and initiation is to “achieve the purified mind of the deity [which] requires harmonizing one’s inner being with the structure of the cosmos.”[6] The harmonization sought through Kalachakra is exemplified in the mandala layout which guides the body towards enlightenment, and the cosmos towards the deities. The first structure of this mandala was developed by the third Buddha who drafted the palace on top of the cosmic Mt. Meru with seats inside for the Sun, Moon, and Kalachakra deity. The present design has become far more detailed but has a definite blueprint legacy that is specific to this deity, and maintains the realm structure of mandalas from centuries ago. Beginning with the outer circles, then working inwards to the very center, equates with moving from toe to head on the body. This is possible geometrically as well as conceptually.

For a physical and geometric comparison, imagine a person standing on the center of the Kalachakra mandala. In the mandala, concentric circles or discs surround the square floors of the palace. Reviewing both Tibetan as well as Navajo meanings circles in all aspects of culture, psychologists, including Carl Jung, have concluded that they are a “fundamental expression of the seamless unity between the individual psyche and the mind of the cosmos at large.”[7]

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