What is a 'mandala' ?
This seemingly simple question bears a rather broad scoping answer, which varies dependent upon which lens we attempt to answer it through.
Firstly, it is the Sanskrit word for circle. But this particular circle refers to something more than just a flat, 2-D geometric shape. There is imbued in its nature, something sacred, eternal, or simply something magic.
Mandalas appear as phenomenon in more ways than you may recognise. Consider the sun, the moon and the Earth; what cosmic architecture they create in movement through time and space.
The eye through which we might see, aided by the circular lens of microscope, telescope and camera, the intrinsic geometries of flowers, snowflakes, atoms and stars.
When we observe nature, it does not take long to witness the undeniable value and role that the circle plays,
Cross-culturally, circles have been celebrated through art and ceremony for thousands of years, while not all of these cultures call their works 'mandalas' directly, they act as a significant contribution in understanding the symbol as a tree-branching network of sacred circles, and our attempt to commune with the sublime - in whatever form it may take.
In no particular order - Tibetan Sand Paintings, Yantras, Thangka Paintings, Native American Medicine Wheels and Dreamcatchers, Christian Rose Stained Glass Windows, Labyrinths and Halos, Hindu Kolams and Rangoli, Mexican Ojos De Dios and Barriletes Gigantes Kites, Jain Gahuli Rice Drawings, Islamic Whirling Dervish, Celtic Knots, Mayan and Aztec Calendars, Zen Enso Circles, Sacred Geometry, Stone Circles, Cathedrals, Mosques, Temples and sites of religious significance, the list goes on...
With so many variations on sacred circular art, mandalas appear to transcend the rising and falling of trends, cultures and barriers. It is a universal. Existing as an intrinsic form within our consciousness of both the internal, microcosmic, and the external, macrocosmic experience.
Carl Jung, a famous Swiss psychoanalysist was an important ambassador of mandalas, helping to de-mystify and translate them from the East to the West. He described the basic motif of a square enclosing a circle to be an "archetypal symbol of wholeness". Furthermore, over a number of years of his career he would create a mandala everyday as a form of mental health check-up - he would also encourage his patients and students to do the same.
Looking at Naïve Art, most notably of children, we see expressions of people; loved ones, friends & family, drawn as circles with faces, with arms and legs added as branches of this circle.
Ancient cave art often identifies the sun as a circle with a dot enclosed in its center, perhaps some of the earliest examples of man-made mandalas.
We may also consider the non-visual, perhaps implicit mandalas created on an everyday level - your circle of friends, of trust, the spheres of influence of individuals and collectives. The waking unto each new day, a significant cyclical marker which bringing us more opportunities and challenges.
To return to the original question; "What is a mandala?", and our original consideration about the many lenses, angles and sub-definitions, we have begun to develop an overview, an overview which exists on a purely intellectual landscape. The ground covered: nature, man-made art, spirituality and psychology, can of course be considered to be a bit of everything. But there is a point to this everything-ness. To truly develop a deeper understanding of what a mandala is then we must create one. In creating one we become resonant with this everything, the sum total of the universe, our worlds within, subjective and temporal, our worlds without, objective and spatial.
This is why mandalas are a process-focused practice - a meditation. Bridging the gaps between the worlds, enhancing our capability of visualising, actualising, experiencing and expressing, we may feel more connected on a practical everyday level, more fulfilled within our creative capacity, more receptive to, and more grateful for the moments which surround us.