Mandala: Buddhist Romanticism

To the right is a beautiful sand mandala being constructed by Tibetan Vajrayāna Buddhist monks.  After long, careful construction lasting days, the gorgeous art is then swept away as a symbol of impermanence – the inherent transient nature of reality which is a central principal in Buddhism.

Many Western Buddhists idealize art as coming from the non-discursive mind–art which is free, immediate and creative.  “True Art”, they feel, comes from the original mind, the true self, the inner unhindered creativity in all of us.  Yet this Mandala is far from that.  The monks spend years memorizing meticulous patterns and color rules, practicing precise, defined layouts and intricate symbols.  Their “art” is more a highly practiced science.  The mandala is not spontaneous in any way.

To most by-passers on an American or European street the mandala most likely appears as merely a quaint Asian art but to the Tibetans and Western Buddhist enthusiasts, it is much more.  The mandala is used for magic and is not just an abstract mystical symbol.  After destroying the Mandala, the sands are swept up and half is distributed to the on-lookers (as if containing some essentialist magic) and the rest is poured in a nearby body of water where it is envisioned as “spreading throughout the world for planetary healing” (see here).

The romanticizing of “the East” is common in Buddhist and New Age circles. This idealized view of the Orient is a vessel to hold the Utopian hopes, blistering critiques and many strivings of those who embrace it.  It can also serve as an identity security blanket.  This Eastern-mystical-mind romanticism has permeated modern culture, partly as a joke (in movies and TV shows) and partly seriously.  But for anyone who has lived in Asia for any length of time, the naive simplicity of a romanticized Eastern-mind is blatantly clear.

Post’s Take-Home Message:

What I am NOT saying:

  • I am not criticizing this art form — I love it.
  • I am not criticizing the emotions of hope and healing.
  • I do not believe “True Art” comes from some original mind or true self.

What I AM saying:

  • I am criticizing the idealization of the ‘intuitive’ or ‘mystical’ or ‘spiritual’ human mind while disparaging of the rational, careful, practiced mind.
  • I am pointing at a rightful use of all sides of mind.
  • I am also criticizing the simple view that idealizes and generalizes about an entire continent.

This post was inspired while reading McMahan’s excellent book, “The Making of Buddhist Modernism” — but the opinions are my own.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

12 responses to “Mandala: Buddhist Romanticism

  1. I’m actually doing a small project of painting a science-themed mandala over the next month or so in an attempt to use this non-rationalist medium in a way that undermines is. Which I think is slightly in the spirit of your conclusion! Of course in a more western way, it will be a painting that’s to be kept not destroyed, which also partly undermines the whole notion of a mandala.

    Are there any other parts of Buddhism that you feel are particularly misrepresented by newageism?

  2. @ Michael,
    That sounds like a fantastic project — I did not know you were an artist — do you have pics up on a blog?
    Concerning “misrepresenting Buddhism”:
    I don’t care about what original or true Buddhism was — I care about the useful techniques of mind that have been passed on. There is much contradiction between the various Buddhisms. I have my favorites of course but none of my preferences have anything to do with what Buddhism really is, should be or really was.

    I hope that is as fuzzy as can be. I hope further posts of mine inspired by McMahan’s book answers your question.

  3. I had a chance to see Buddhist Monks from Tibet make a mandala in a matter of days (about a week I think). Unbelievable work they did. Big fan of the form of expression and creativity – and maybe that’s an aspect of what we might call ‘spirituality’?

  4. Sabio Lantz

    Yeah, I don’t see why “SPIRIT-uality” needs to be used when we have great words like art, creativity, fun, beauty and more. Spirituality is one of those “Weasel Words” and thus should be avoided whenever possible in my view so as to not trick ourselves or others. I am not saying it should not be used, but if used, used a little more judiciously. Why? Because that makes the word more meaningful and divides people less artificially. IMHO

  5. I also like to create mandala images, which for me serve as a static reminder of my own spiritual path. I recently was commenting on a Buddhist blog, wondering why a religion that understands the notion of impermanence and creates sand mandalas, also creates gold plated statues or stupas with reliquaries. He responded by saying that these icons are perhaps intersections of both the impermanence of temporal reality and the unchanging Buddha nature, which at the time I thought made some sense. Still, if a goal of Buddhism is to point out the emptiness of reality, I wonder if a gold plated statue is really the way to point that out. As far as your criticism of idealizing or using entirely the intuitive mind, I agree. I am an artist and consider myself intuitive, but that stuff also requires refinement to actually look good, even in abstract art.

  6. Well put, Sabio. I think this is beautiful as well, but we too easily exoticize “the other.” To exoticize rapidly leads us to marginalize.

  7. Karmakshanti

    Hi Sablo! I’m waiting for dinner to settle and my tea to brew so I thought I’d check out your site. Once again, I have to point out that you have never encountered an explanation of the real purpose of a mandala. Without this your criticism of them is rather like faulting the weather map for geographic failure because there really is no giant letter “H” over the middle of Nebraska.

    Very simply, a mandala is an architectural drawing of an imaginary palace, not too much different from the drawn rendering of a proposed building design in situ before anything has been built. The other things, the fact that it’s sometimes made with sand, or that the sand is used to bless after the sand painting has been destroyed, are secondary byproducts of its real function. This is to help a practicioner to train the mind. Many of the practices involve imagining colorful Buddha figures inside such palaces, sometimes from the vantage point of being outside one of the doors, sometimes from a vantage point inside the palace itself.

    It serves two basic functions. Trying to imagine all the precise details in the 3-d palace is training to achieve a controlled one-pointed focus of mind that you can slip into quickly, and completely at will. This is what the monks are actually doing mentally as they work. They are imagining the 3-d palace.

    After you imagine it as vividly as you can you systematically dissolve it until you can imagine that it is completely and tracelessly gone. No serious practicioner regards a mandala palace as something you can physically walk into like the Taj Mahal.

    In fact, the real reason for doing it is precisely the opposite, to teach that all sensory experience, no matter how vivid and detailed, or how cross-modally consistent is not, and can never be, ultimately real. Wolf Blitzer is no more “in the CNN studio in New York” than he is “in” the flat screen TV across the room.

    Both are mere mental images which are produced by prior causes and conditions and neither will exist when the causes and conditions vanish. So is your imaginary mandala palace. But with the mandala you are in complete control of the prior causes and conditions so you can see directly the illusoriness of the sensory image itself. Any sensory image.

    In fact, everything that you are calling “essentialist magic” and, therefore, irrational, is an incidental by-product of a completely different and quite rational purpose of refuting both “essence” and “existence” as ultimately real.

    It is still “rational” even if you don’t happen to believe the premises. “Rational” is not a synonym of “true”.

    Moreover if no sensory image has a real and permanent existence “on its own side”, then, in fact, even things like distributing the sand as a blessing are perfectly “rational”. Everything we do becomes part of the “causes and conditions” which create the illusory world, and anything we do has at least some minor impact on everything else.

    By the way I did post my personal Buddhist particulars in a quite detailed fashion over on The Reformed Buddhist, so if you haven’t yet read them, they are available for you now.

  8. Hello Karmakshanti:

    Your Nebraska analogy cracked me up — very nice ! 🙂

    (1) I think you describe wonderfully a way visualization practice could be used to train the mind to understand reality very differently for the mandala maker.

    (2) Whether your exact vision of the non-substantiality of Wolf Blitzer at the studio vs. on the TV is accurate, I can not debate that level though I have my doubts of some of our interpretation.

    (3) So, I agree with some of what you say in #1, doubt you but don’t care to get into details for some of your #2, but #3 is critically important to my point. I am curious of your opinion on the following:

    Do you see religious devotees collecting some of the sand after the mandala ceremony hoping for magical benefit for holding it? Have you seen this done in Tibet or India?

    It is fantastic to have such a knowledgeable practitioner here — thank you for stopping in. Do you have a web site?

    I will add your group’s link into my new, slowly growing site at Varja Notes. I am slowly trying to study the Vajrayāna tradition. Thank you for your time.

  9. Karmakshanti

    Oh yes, people do. One thing that’s important to understand is what I talked about as “intention” over on the other blog. My intention for something to happen is never very coordinated or strong. So if it gets done immediately it’s because I get off my duff and do it physically. But this is solely because I’ve not developed true one-pointed concentration of mind.

    If you achieve it, such one pointed concentration, is capable of truly amazing things, I’m told, some of which we would call paranormal and which Vajrayana teachings call siddhi. It’s almost impossible now to find someone with sufficient power of concentration to do such things. It usually takes decades of solitary and isolated retreat to develop that much power of concentration.

    Today, even a Tibetan over in India is lucky if he gets 9 years in 2 solo 3 year retreats after his group retreat, Six years is much more common and that’s simply not enough time in. Before the Tibetan Diaspora in 1959 there were many full-time yogis, both monastic and lay people, who would routinely do 20 years and more of solitary retreat, supported by food from local patrons. Most monasteries had some number of people in their retreat huts for life.

    Under these conditions, paranormal phenomena were really not all that uncommon. And when they have occurred, people weren’t all that surprised. I have talked to monks, now mostly over 80, who did their basic training in old Tibet and saw such things happen. Monks take vows not to lie and are serious about keeping them. I’m also a very good listener and usually can tell whether or not someone believes what they are saying. Those monks did believe it. They may have been mistaken about what they saw, but they most certainly saw things.

    There’s a wonderful title on Google Books called Blazing Splendor that is the memoirs of one of those old lamas–Tulku Urgyen. Unlike most publishers, who only put up snippets, this one allowed Google to load the first several chapters without cuts and it is the best description of these sorts of things I have ever read. Go check it out. You may be skeptical about what happened, but I don’t believe that all the people quoted in the book were lying, either, though, again, they may have been mistaken or deceived.

    Moreover, the lamas consistently point out that achieving siddhi is not real spiritual progress in the least. It’s like getting ripped enough to do a 500 pound clean and jerk, when the real problem is to have enough sense to come in out of the rain. The former is no guarantee of the latter. And craving to have or display paranormal phenomena actually brings your spiritual progress to a halt.

    More importantly, however, though my intention is not very powerful, it’s not different than that of a one-pointed yogi. Any firmly held intention starts a chain of cause and effect, but most such causal chains take several lifetimes to fully mature. A one-pointed yogi is simply speeding this process up.

    The monks making the sand mandala have far more capacity of concentration than I do, so it’s not unreasonable for me to ask for some of their sand to create a connection between myself and the good karma [the “blessings”] of the practice they have done. And while I wouldn’t expect it to make me fly through the air, I would not find it surprising if my garden grew more luxuriously after I scattered the sand in it.

    People who say such things are “impossible” are almost always guilty of some form of a priori circular reasoning. Negations of anything cannot be proven absolutely, for in order to do so one would need to examine every possible case and show that it supported the negation. In other words, you would have to be omniscient, and none of us are. The strongest terms you can legitimately use are “improbable”, “highly unlikely”, “incredible”, or “unbelievable” and not “impossible”.

    The wisest stance one can take in this matter is the Scotch verdict of Not Proven.

  10. @ Karmakshanti
    (1) You inspired me to write about the myth of Siddhis
    (2) I’ve already written on my disagreement with rebirth & karma doctrine
    (3) So, it is reasonable that we disagree that receiving sand gives you a “connection” and “good karma”.
    (4) I suspect that getting sand from a mandala would make your garden grow luscious is not only “impossible” but actually an undesirable belief. This sort of stone age magic belief is one we have worked hard to undo and replace with real tools. I do understand how it can be comforting, though.
    But you have already told us that anyone that doubts you is simply “guilty of some form of a priori circular reasoning.”

    One can “suspect” something is impossible without claiming to know it is impossible. There is a lot of hocus pocus out there. It is important to have an “strongly suspect that it is laughably impossible” category so as to navigate through life.

    Thanx for stating your beliefs so clearly. It helps us to see where we disagree.

  11. Karmakshanti

    Well, I don’t mind in the least if you disagree with me. I have been disagreed with by many and survived it. And, as a Buddhist, I have tried over the years not to be disagreeable about it. I haven’t always succeeded but I am still trying.

    Doubt is not assertion and suspicion is not certainty. The conventional stance about rational argument is that “he who asserts must prove”. Thus it is incumbent on anyone who asserts that something is “impossible” to prove that. As I pointed out, you cannot do it inductively, for you would need to examine all possible cases, and none of us have access to all possible cases.

    Thus if you are going to prove it, you must do so deductively by starting from premises which you believe to be indisputable. When I read someone trying to do prove that x is impossible from prior indisputable premises it has always turned out that the so-called indisputable premise, when you analyze it carefully, is simply a restatement that x is impossible in a different verbal form. This is circular reasoning.

    The classic deductive argument is All men are mortal~Socrates is a man~Therefore Socrates is mortal. The conclusion is not implicit in the first premise.

    But All men who are Socrates, and going to die, are mortal~Socrates is a man~Therefore Socrates is mortal, is not a deductive proof because the conclusion is implicit in the premise. This is the type of deductive “proof” that is usually used by professional “debunkers” of paranormal phenomena.

    Now as I said, I think the proper stance on siddhi is “not proven”. I have given the reasoning of why I think siddhi are possible, but this does not prove that they are. All I have demonstrated is that the reasoning is consistent with the conclusion, not that it is sufficient to establish the conclusion, because it isn’t.

    There is plenty of human testimony that siddhi have and do occur, but that is also not proof, because there is clearly reasonable doubt that the witnesses [no matter how many of them] might be mistaken.

    Almost all the key issues of the Buddhist view such as “karma, cause and effect” or “rebirth” are “not proven” in exactly the same sense. And it is no surprise when non-Buddhists tell me that they still have reasonable doubts about them. I don’t in the least believe I can dispel these. All I can do is present the reasoning that is consistent with the belief of them, which never, in any case, is proof of them.

    But I do find it curious when I encounter Buddhists who do not believe in rebirth or karma, cause, and effect. Unquestionably the Buddha taught the 4 Noble Truths: Life is Suffering, Suffering is caused, Anything having a cause can be concluded, There is a path to concluding Suffering. All traditions attest to this.

    If Life is not Suffering, what is the problem that Buddhist practice is supposed to solve? If there is no karma, cause, and effect, how can Suffering be caused? If Suffering is not caused how can it be proactively concluded by a Buddhist path of practice? And if there is no rebirth, why is there need for a path at all? All you have to do is wait to die.

  12. You are right, the proper place on siddhis is with the fairies, Loch Ness monster and walking on water — all the sort of stuff that many of us know is unproven and highly unlikely. There is plenty of human testimony to these things too. So much for human testimony — a small part of the weight of reality.

    Your questions in your last paragraph have been addressed by many Buddhist writers who don’t buy into the whole Buddhist package (and there are many different versions). I am told Steven Bachelor, a vajrayana practitioner, has done it well in his books. Have you read him? (not that you should, I am just curious)

    I am glad for your improved skills over the years at not being disagreeable when disagreed with. I too am very comfortable with disagreement. I’d much rather have disagreements clearly spelled out than to walk away pretending we all just said the same thing. At the same time, however, finding what we agree on amidst our disagreements is also cool.

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