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Mandala bodies: Jung

I’ve wanted to get some thoughts hashed out on Mandalas for some time now, and following a post-xmas conversation with a friend that managed to encompass the acoustic experiments of Ernst Chladni, the philosophical speculations of David Hartley, Tibetan singing bowls, and the widely-repeated factoid that Dr. Hans Jenny produced an almost perfect Sri Yantra by having a test subject sing “Om” into his tonoscope, I thought that one way to approach mandalas would be to outline some of the ways in mandalas are represented – starting with Jung.

Jung’s work has been enormously influential to the “inward turn” – an Augustinian phrase increasingly being used by cultural theorists to denote a shift in orientation whereby spirituality is primarily associated with the personal, the interior, and the experiential, as opposed to religion, which is increasingly associated with externality, institutions, and dogmas. Paul Heelas calls this “self-spirituality” or “expressive spirituality”. According to Heelas, self-spirituality prioritises personal experience as the only valid source of truth, and treats prescriptions from institutions, traditions, texts etc., with suspicion.

Jung’s “discovery” of the mandala occurred during a turbulent period of his life – his “confrontation with the unconscious” which followed his parting of the ways with Freud. During this period he experienced a variety of troubling fantasies, and as a method of coping with them, began to express them through drawing and painting. He found himself creating regularised, symmetrical patterns and, over time, began to realise that these images led back to a central point – the centre or self. These images, which he later identified as mandalas, became for Jung primary symbols of the realisation of selfhood. In his Commentary on Richard Wilhelm’s The Secret of the Golden Flower Jung noted that mandala means a ‘circle’ (and particularly, a ritual or magical circle) and argued that mandala symbolism is found in many different cultures as an expression of growth towards psychic unity. Jung also discovered that mandala imagery also occurred in the dreams and fantasies of his patients – many of which are documented and explored in his Collected Works.

It became increasingly plain to me that the mandala is the centre. It is the exponent of all paths. It is the path to the centre, to individuation.
C.G. Jung, Mandalas, p.v

For Jung, the mandala is a universal symbol – an outward expression of the human need to integrate and understand the myriad aspects of experience in terms of the overall quest for wholeness. He was not so much interested in the apparent content of mandalas – which is to say, their contextual significance within Hindu, Buddhist or Tibetan religious practice, but with their overall psychological function: “A mandala spontaneously appears as a compensatory archetype during times of disorder. It appears, bringing order, showing the possibility of order and centredness.” (Jung on elementary Psychology: a Discussion between C.G. Jung and Richard I. Evans, Routledge, 1976, p86) Sometimes Jung seems to suggest that, in order to be efficacious, Mandalas need to appear spontaneously: “Nothing can be expected from an artificial repetition or a deliberate imitation of such images.” (The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious). After encountering the head monk of a Lamasery near Darjeeling in 1938, Jung reported that mandalas which appear in temples do not have any great significance, as they are merely the outward expression of an ‘inner image’ which is mentally formed by advanced practitioners – and that no mandala is like any other. Jung also asserts that mandalas originated in dreams and visions and were not primarily products of religious leaders, although all ‘Lamaic’ mandalas are based on a “quarternary system” and their contents derived from “Lamaic dogma” (see Collected Works, Volume 12, Princeton UP 1968, pp92-105).

Jung is ambivalent with regard to organised religion and dogma (some useful quotes here) – whilst recognising that religions may have a great deal of psychological value, he nonetheless distinguishes between religions and creeds; religion is an impulse or instinct, whereas creeds and dogmas are built up over centuries and provide a stable framework for religious experiences. Dogma, for Jung, has a protective function against direct, unmediated experiences – which explains both their power and temporality – as, over time, symbols lose their meaning and are unable to direct awareness towards the numinous experience from which they originally arose.

Jung’s theories have been highly influential in shaping contemporary discursive representations of mandalas. They are often invoked as instances of evidence that mandalas are both universal and trans-cultural phenomena, that the truth of the mandala is an ‘inner experience’ which is independent of culture or belief – along with other evidentary sources such as the work of Chladni and Jenny. I’ll take a look at these another time.