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The Art of the Sacred
by Howes Graham



The Art of the Sacred explores the relationship between religion and the visual arts - and vice versa - within Christianity and other major religious traditions. It identifies and describes the main historical, theological, sociological and aesthetic dimensions of 'religious' art, with particular attention to 'popular' as well as 'high' culture, and within societies of the developing world.
                                   
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The Soul of the Universe
by Bob Brooke

 

As Buddhist monks traveled the Silk Road, a major trade route through Asia, they brought Buddhism to many other lands. They carried mandalas–-complex works of religious art—with them and brought the practice of creating these works of art to other parts of Asia. The earliest evidence of Buddhist mandala art dates to the first century B.C.E. but appears in other regions, such as Tibet, China, and Japan by the fourth century. Although rooted in Buddhism, mandalas later became present in Hinduism, New Age Spirituality, and other religious practices.

The earliest evidence of Buddhist mandala art dates to the first century B.C.E. but appears in other regions, such as Tibet, China, and Japan by the fourth century. Although rooted in Buddhism, mandalas later became present in Hinduism, New Age Spirituality, and other religious practices. Mandalas can be found in early Buddhist art as early as the 14th and 15th centuries.

What Is a Mandala?
As works of art, mandalas combine geometric patterns, religious symbolism, and layers of meaning to create a masterpiece that’s a symbol, a prayer, a meditation exercise, and a holy blessing all in one. The name, mandala, comes from the Sanskrit word for circle and refers to the sense of wholeness created by both circular forms. Tibetan monks call a mandala Khyil-khor, which refers to the center of all creation where a truly awakened being lives, taking the meaning further than the Sanskrit reference.

In Buddhism, mandalas represent the ideal form of the universe. The act of creating a mandala represents transformation of the universe from a reality of suffering to one of enlightenment. While Tibetan Buddhists see the center of the mandala as an awakened being at the center of the universe, the center also represents the beginning of each person's journey toward knowledge, wisdom, and enlightenment. Often, Buddhist monks use mandalas tools to focus the mind during meditation.

The basic form of most mandalas is a square with four gates containing a circle with a center point. Each gate is in the general shape of a T. Mandalas often have radial balance.

The mandala begins with the center of the design, radiating out with symbols and designs as the pattern grows larger. They can be painted, drawn, and even made from colorful sand. Those painted on scrolls are often carried by travelers and pilgrims for a blessing on the road and a focus for meditation as they travel.

Forms which are evocative of mandalas are prevalent in Christianity—the Celtic cross, the rosary, the halo, the aureole, oculi, the Crown of Thorns, rose windows, the Rosy Cross, and the dromenon on the floor of Chartres Cathedral. The dromenon represents a journey from the outer world to the inner sacred centre where the Divine is found.

History of Mandalas
Through meditation and following a path of thought and action, Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, attained enlightenment, freeing himself from the cycle of death and rebirth. He taught this path to his followers who still practice these principles today.

The Meaning of Mandalas
While a finished mandala is important as a focus for meditation, the creation process is equally important. A mandala has three layers of meaning. The outer meaning represents the divine form of the universe. The inner meaning creates a map to guide the mind to enlightenment. The secret meaning, however, remains between the artist and the creation as far as specific details. Overall it represents a balance of body and mind infused with clarity.

Often, mandalas include several key symbols of Buddhism. Among them is the Wheel of Eight Spokes, the lotus flower, and bell shapes.

The circular shape of the Wheel of Eight Spokes works well with the artistic representation of a perfect universe. The eight spokes represent the Eightfold Path of Buddhism which involves a series of righteous thoughts and actions meant to guide someone to enlightenment.

The lotus flower is one of the most sacred symbols in Buddhism. Its symmetry represents balance. More importantly, the lotus reaches up from its underwater, muddy bed to blossom in the light, much as a human who reaches enlightenment.

Bell shapes appear in mandalas as a representation of openness and the emptying of the mind to allow wisdom and clarity to enter.

While there are several kinds of mandalas, ones made of sand are unique in that their meaning lies in both their creation and destruction. As a meditation on impermanence (a central teaching of Buddhism), after days or weeks of creating the intricate pattern of a sand mandala, the sand is brushed together into a pile and spilled into a body of running water to spread the blessings of the mandala.

The mandala serves a conservative purpose—namely, to restore a previously existing order. But it also serves the creative purpose of giving expression and form to something that does not yet exist, something new and unique. The process is that of the ascending spiral, which grows upward while simultaneously returning again and again to the same point.

Sometimes mandalas are associated with a symbolic palace. In the centre of the mandala lies the palace, which has four gates oriented to the four quarters of the world and is located within several layers of circles that form a protective barrier around it.

Mount Meru
A mandala can also represent the entire universe, which is traditionally depicted with Mount Meru as the axis of the world in the center, surrounded by the continents. One example is the Cosmological Mandala with Mount Meru, a silk tapestry from the Yuan dynasty that serves as a diagram of the Tibetan cosmology, which was given to China from Nepal and Tibet.

Wisdom and impermanence
In the mandala, the outer circle of fire usually symbolizes wisdom. The ring of eight charnel grounds represents the Buddhist exhortation to be always mindful of death, and the impermanence with which samsara is suffused: "such locations were utilized in order to confront and to realize the transient nature of life." Described elsewhere, "within a flaming rainbow nimbus and encircled by a black ring of dorjes, the major outer ring depicts the eight great charnel grounds, to emphasize the dangerous nature of human life". Inside these rings lie the walls of the mandala palace itself, specifically a place populated by deities and Buddhas.

Five Buddhas
One well-known type of mandala is the mandala of the "Five Buddhas," archetypal Buddha forms embodying various aspects of enlightenment. Such Buddhas are depicted depending on the school of Buddhism, and even the specific purpose of the mandala. A common mandala of this type is that of the Five Wisdom Buddhas, the Buddhas Vairocana, Aksobhya, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha and Amoghasiddhi. When paired with another mandala depicting the Five Wisdom Kings, this forms the Mandala of the Two Realms.

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