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The Theory and Practice of the Mandala

By Frank Simons

In this lecture, we will discuss a system of Tantric symbolism that is based not on the number two, as was discussed last week in Tantra, but on the number five. As before, the goal will be to overcome duality by integrating the complexity of human experience into a single, unified whole. This system is expressed by the visual form of a mandala, which means “circle.” A mandala consists of five major points: north, south, east, west, and center. A separate “meditation” Buddha is located at each point. Different Buddhas are associated with different mandalas. The Buddha most often occupying the center is Akshobhya, the unshakable Buddha who symbolizes consciousness and the element of space. The most elementary practice connected with the mandala is to circle around it, then proceed to the center. In this way, a person draws a circle around the ritual world, and then unifies it by moving into the place at the center.

Video Presentation
Buddhism, Part 15,
“The Theory and Practice of the Mandala”
Thu, Mar 24, 5:30pm
Meditation Center
Callejón Blanco 4
Free, donations accepted

The five Buddhas of the mandala are connected symbolically with other lists of five: five “aggregates” or constituents of the personality, five forms of consciousness, five fundamental evils, five colors, the five directions of the cosmos, five female Buddhas or yoginis, five bodhisattvas, five watches of the day, five seasons of the year, five different mantras, and five components of the alphabet.

Mandalas are used in many different aspects of Tantric practice. They are tools of worship, tools of meditation via visualization. In some rituals, Tantric practitioners visualize the deities in the mandala. After visualizing the deities, they unite with it as a way of experiencing the non-duality that unites the Buddha and themselves.

According to The Tibetan Book of the Dead, the journey into the next life follows the form of a mandala. When a person dies, the person’s consciousness dissolves into the Buddha at the center of the mandala. Unless a person recognizes this Buddha as a manifestation of his or her own mind, the consciousness slips away from the center of the mandala and circles around the periphery, experiencing a different Buddha each day. At first, the Buddhas are peaceful, but eventually, they manifest their wrathful aspect. If the person still fails to recognize these Buddhas as aspects of his or her own mind, there is nothing left but to fall back into rebirth in this world.

How do mandalas, as maps of the cosmos, express themselves in religious traditions familiar to you? How do these maps affect behavior? Are you aware of people who go on pilgrimages to visit and contemplate sacred places? How do these places help situate people within the cosmos?

The course of 24 lectures is presented by Professor Malcolm David Eckel, professor of Religion and Director of the Core Curriculum at Boston University, who holds graduate degrees from Oxford and Harvard. An expert on Buddhism, comparative religion, and Asian faiths, Eckel has written insightful books on Buddhist philosophy, including Buddhism: Origins, Beliefs, Practices, Holy Texts, Sacred Places. There will be an opportunity for discussion following the video. Presentations of the Center are offered without charge. Donations are gratefully accepted.


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