Making Mandalas

Table of Contents

Introduction
Definition
How to meditate with a mandala
Mandala magick
How to choose a pattern
Pattern suggestions
Colours
Framing
Some techniques
Bibliography
Copyright

Introduction

The purpose of this article is to help you make a visual focus for meditation. The article starts out by giving a rough sketch of how mandalas can be defined, talks about how mandalas can be used, suggest some patterns, and then goes into some detail about how to actually make a mandala. A bibliography appears at the end of this article.

This article assumes that you already know the basics of meditation. If you don't, it's easy to learn. Contrary to popular knowledge, you don't need a teacher to get started. Just get a good book, and do it.

Definition

Depending on whom you ask for a definition of mandalas, you get different answers. Some definitions are wide, others broad, and sometimes the intersection between them is empty. For some people mandalas, and the making of them, is a highly formalised art, for others they are a means of self-expression. In Eastern traditions mandalas are round or sometimes square and two-dimensional. Jungians usually see mandalas as round and two-dimensional. Visual objects to look at while meditating or praying have been used in other traditions too.

In this article I am going to use a functional definition of mandalas. In my opinion there are two basic uses for mandalas: they can be used as a focus for meditation or they can be used as a way of getting to know yourself better. In the first case the stress is on the use of the finished mandala, in the second the making of the mandala is the most important. Of course there's nothing that says that you can't use a mandala made for self-exploration as an object for meditation, and vice verca, a mandala meditation can be a kind of self-exploration.

This definition is a very broad one. It even includes some things which are generally not considered to be mandalas but in the context of this article I choose to disregard that.

How to meditate with a mandala

There are three basic approaches to meditating with a visual object. One is to try and recreate the image in your mind's eye. This means that you look at the picture for a few moments, then you close your eyes and try to visualise it. When you loose the visualisation, you open your eyes again, and look at the picture, and so on.

Another is to simply stare at the picture, without really noticing it. Some Zen students use the Ox Herding pictures in this way.

A third way to use a mandala is to look at it and let your thoughts wander around the subject of the mandala. This is a method popular in Western tradition. The Iron pentagram exercise in Starhawk's Spiral Dance is one example.

It has been my experience that the first and the last of these methods make the most use of the mandala.

Mandala magick

If you stare at a picture for, say, 15 minutes a day, the picture is obviously going to affect you in some way. You can consciously use that effect through carefully choosing your mandala. If you are involved in a project that you want to make absolutely sure that you succeed with or you have a hard task ahead of you (final exams for instance) or simply a personal problem you want to alleviate, you can paint a mandala that will help you with that.

Some examples

  • A person involved in martial arts can use the symbol of her style as a mandala a few weeks before gradation.
  • A person with a personal problem can paint a mandala that abstractly portrays herself without this problem or a mandala that represents the problem to allow her to focus on it.
Be sure not to choose a mandala that makes you feel guilty when you look at it, as that is likely to make it counter-productive. If you feel guilty when looking at a mandala, switch to another, preferrably one that has nothing at all to do with what you want to accomplish.

The mandala you use usually has a special significance for you. This makes it a potent tool. In times of stress, you can use your mandala as a reality anchor. Whenever you feel that you are loosing grip, you simply visualise your mandala and concentrate on it. Choose a soothing but well-defined mandala for this purpose.

How to choose a pattern

Whichever definition of mandalas you subscribe to, they're supposed to be good for you. Many people say that they feel better whether they use it for self-exploration or as an object for meditation. Many of these people imply that a circular design is particularly beneficial.

There is great variety of patterns to explore. For someone new to mandalas, it is probably best to choose something simple, and increase the complexity later on. Start out with a pattern that appeals to you. If you are new to mandala meditation, pick one picture, and stick with it for at least a week, or preferrably a month before giving up. It may take some time before you find a mandala that gives the effect you desire, but constantly switching won't speed up the process. Of course, there are probably people for whom mandala meditation just isn't the right thing.

Pattern suggestions

Suggestions for newbies

  • Three concentric circles
  • A symmetric cross in a circle
  • A square or a triangle in a circle.

Suggestions for intermediate students

  • A more complex geometric figure, maybe inside a circle or a square.
  • A simple symbol of particular importance to your path, like a star of David, the monad, or a pentragram.
  • A single letter from a special alphabet, like ogham or runes or hebrew.
  • The mandalas on the Major Arcana cards in the Jungian Tarot deck.

Suggestions for advanced students

  • A complex design of geometric figures.
  • A complex picture of particular importance to your path, like a crucifiction scene, a tarot card or a Godess.
  • A word or sentence of particular importance to your path, maybe in a particularly meaningful alphabet. This can be combined with a geometric design.
  • Three-dimensional objects. If you like to keep the circular nature of the mandala, a Japanese tea bowl may be appropriate, or a terrestrial globe. If not, candle flames and burning joss sticks are a fine tradition.

Suggestions for experimental students

  • A picture that moves, for instance a fractal computer program.
  • A round mirror.
  • Three-dimensional objects that move. A model of how the earth and the moon revolve around themselves, each other and the sun, a lava lamp or one of those battery driven "perpetuum mobile" toys that were so popular in the seventies.

Colours

The colours you use in your mandala will affect you in different ways. The only way to find out exactly how, is to experiment. If you follow a specific tradition, there is often a colour system within it that you can experiment with.

You can also try making monochrome mandalas, or maybe black and white mandalas. There's no rule that says that you have to use only primal and secondary colours (red, blue, yellow and green, orange, purple) straight out of the tube. You can use pastell colours if you prefer, or maybe use a very dark colour scheme.

Another question is the background colour. Some say that the background should be white, but I find that a sensibly chosen background colour will often enhance the effect of the mandala. Try using a dark, dull tone of the complimentary colour to the main field. The complimentary colours are green-red, blue-orange and purple-yellow.

Framing

You will probably need a frame to keep your mandala in. A frame protects the picture, and lets it stand up against something or hang on a wall. There are some things to think of when buying a frame. It shouldn't be too small. About 1'x1' is adequate. If you want to hang it on a wall, remember that you will take it down every time you change the mandala, so make sure the loop can take it. Don't buy a frame with a simple cut-out cardboard loop. For the same reason a frame that opens and closes easily will make life easier for you.

The frame shouldn't be too elaborate, as it shouldn't detract from your attention. Something gilt with little putti in the corners is out, sorry. One kind of frame that works well for me is the modern clip frame. It consists of a masonite board, a glass and an appropriate (4-6 for this size) number of oddly shaped metal clips which keep the frame together and act as loops at the same time. A 1'x1' frame of this kind shouldn't cost more than 5 USD.

An alternative is to laminate your pictures. The handy person can buy transparent self-adhesive plastic film at the stationer's. Take care when applying it to your pictures. Make sure the worksurface is free from hair and dirt particles, as the static electricity build-up in the plastic film will draw these to it. Start removing some of the protecting paper from one end, and gently firm the film to the mandala. Work from side to side, taking care not to create any air bubbles. An alternative is to get a printer to laminate the mandala for you in a lamination machine. This isn't very expensive, the crux is to find someone who does it on a professional basis.

Some techniques

Water-Colours

Water-colours is a medium that many have tried. You can get very many different tones, and they are generally light resistant enough, even if you buy a cheap box for children. If you have a Chinese shop in your neighbourhood, often they have cheap water-colours in tubes (Flying Eagle brand or Mary for instance) which are easy to blend on a water-colour palette or a white plate. Art masking fluid can be very helpful, too.

If you are using transparent water-colours (which I recommend) the depth of colour you can achieve depends to a large extent on the quality of the paper. The less glue there is on the surface, the more paint it can absorb. Unfortunately, this quality doesn't come cheap. A good quality water-colour paper sheet costs 2 USD or more. Buying them in pads is usually even more expensive. Some good-quality brands to look out for are Hahnemuehle, Schoellershammer and Lessebo.

Many people have a problem waiting long enough to let the paint dry, something that is essential when painting with water-colours. I find that if I walk out of the room and do something else a short while the paint has often dried when I come back, and it didn't take half as long, subjectively, as if I had stared at it while it was drying.

Some people also find it hard to paint even fields of colour with water-colours, particularly so with transparent paint. This is how to do it:

Hold the paper at a slight angle towards you. 15 degrees or so is appropriate. Blend all the paint you will need for the area to be painted. Start at the uppermost edge and make one horisontal stroke across the entire field. The paint will flow towards the downside of the stroke, forming a long drop. Make the next stroke with the upper half of the brush covering the long drop, and the other half on the unpainted surface below.
Proceed like this all the time making even horisontal strokes along the long drop line and starting alternatly from the left and the right. After the last stroke, hold the brush to a piece of paper tissue to suck up any excess paint, then lightly make one last stroke along the long drop preferrably without touching the surface of the paper. This way the brush will suck up the excess paint in the last long drop.
Let the paper dry in the same position. Never, ever go back with the brush on the wet or damp paint.
If you think this sounds complicated, practice a few times on some scrap paper. If you want to make a graded field, you follow the same procedure but dilute the paint with more and more water all the time.

When I make a mandala for which I have already decided on the design, I like to use water-colours like this:

I draw the basic design on good quality water-colour paper using a ruler and compass for geometric shapes. Then I mask the lines with art masking fluid, and let it dry. Next I paint the background, and let it dry. Then I go on painting each field in turn, all the while making sure that the adjacent fields are thoroughly dry before I start. When I've painted all fields once, I decide if any field needs more colour, and add that. After that I blend a slighly darker hue which I paint along the edges of each field. I grade it down towards the middle.
When every last stroke is dry, usually the next day, I remove the masking fluid with an eraser. Then I paint the lines with a dark-grey colour. This will produce a stained glass effect that I am very fond of. Being very short-sighted, and always meditating without glasses, it's also an advantage that the design stands out so clearly.
If you are making mandalas for self-exploration, water-colours may be a medium that requires too much training before you get the results you intended. The tricky part is usually to judge exactly how much moisture the paper holds. However, if you are prepared to use a lot of paper, you can make a series of quick and spontaneous wet-in-wet water-colours for this purpose. Just don't expect to get any recognizable shapes. The beginner tends to use less than enough paint to get a strong tone once the painting has dried.

Paper

Paper can be had in many colours from the stationer's. There are glossy and unglossy kinds, and many kinds of textures. It's quite easy to make simple geometric shapes. Just draw the design on the back of one paper, clip out, glue onto a sheet of another colour, and voilá. There's generally no problem with light-resistance, unless you buy very cheap paper and keep it in a sunlit window.

Using paper for self-exploring purposes requires some ingenuity. One way is to tear paper of many different shades into smaller pieces and then arrange them like a mosaic on a piece of cardboard. Paint the cardboard with a thick layer of wallpaper paste just before you start. If you want to use paper of thin stock for the background, you need to stretch it onto something, or it will bulge.

Ink

Ink is available in many colours nowadays, but most of them are quite fugitive. India ink (black) is always light-resistant, but fluid ink in fancy colours isn't recommendable. If in doubt, make a simple light-resistance test:
Paint the ink on a scrap paper. Cover one half of it tightly, and put it in a sunlit window for a couple of weeks. Then check if there is any difference between the half that was covered and the uncovered half.
India ink can be used together with common water-colours and even art masking fluid. The coloured Chinese ink sticks are quite appealing, but I've found it to be a chore to grind enough to cover an area of more than a few square inches.

For self-exploration purposes you can experiment with various means to get the ink from the well to the paper, such as

  • different kinds of brushes
  • different steel pens
  • fountain pens
  • droppers
  • technical drawing pens
  • quills from different birds, reed or wood.
The famous Rorschach test was originally made with ink. You can make your own Rorschach test like this:
Prepare a number of sheets with varying amounts of water. While some papers are still wet or moist, drop some ink onto them and fold them in half. Let them rest for a few minutes, before you unfold them and let them dry flat. Some will come out beautiful, others will look menacing and still others will give your imagination hours of entertainment. If you use a non-watersoluble ink, you can make make more complicated pictures in more than one colour.

Felt pens

Simple felt pens in bright colours can be had for very little money in any supermarket. The light-resistance of these is often surprisingly good, but the colours tend to be less than tasteful. There are also more expensive felt pens of the kind that advertising firms use. These tend to be very fugitive, particularly the lighter colours. Highlight pens are even worse. Felt pens give a striped effect to pictures that I don't care very much for. Some people learn to control the stripiness, and use it to an advantage, others don't mind it.

Mixing colours with felt pens is pretty hard. The only way that works with all colours is to go for a pointillistic or striped optical blend. Personally, I find that pretty tiring to look at for longer periods of time.

Crayons

These can also be bought very cheaply in supermarkets. Both their permanence and their better colour range set them apart from felt pens. They don't give the stripy effect that is so typical for felt pens, either. Another advantage is that they can be blended.

I quite like using crayons for self-exploration. When I do, I usually use a pretty large drawing pad and my 12 Crayola crayons box that I got in 6th grade. I sit down with the pad and the crayons and just paint what comes when I put crayon to paper. What I like about it, is that this medium is so unpretentious. It's also virtually impossible to get any clear detail, so I'm not tempted to prettify the paintings. When I'm finished, I date the painting and give it a title. It's a rare occurence when I can say right away what a particular painting is about, but a few months later, I always know exactly what it was about. This way it is as if the me from a few months back in time validates my current feelings. That's a good feeling.

Pastells

There are two kinds of pastells, dry pastells and oil pastells. Neither of them are easy to handle, but they have a flexibility and a luminous quality that sets them apart from wax crayons. Dry pastells feel almost like chalk when you touch them, and they give off paint very easily. You need to use some kind of fixative to fix the paint to the paper, but even then the surface will still give off paint when you touch it. Buy fixative in a spray can unless you are used to a fixative mouth sprayer, because they're very hard to handle the first few times.

Paper for dry pastells should have a texture that resembles velvet to collect as much paint as possible. A dry brush can be used to blend strokes of different colours and give a smoother appearance.

Oil pastells are somewhat easier to handle, but they also stain very easily. Both kinds of pastell crayons are available from artist material shops. Neither is cheap.

Readymades

There is a host of readymade mandalas to be had from books, tarot decks and computer programs. They're often too complex to be used by complete beginners, but once you've used mandalas in your meditation for, say, 6 months, you should be able to find appealing pictures in many places. Many pictures practically beg to be xeroxed or colour copied and enlarged.

Some more or less obvious suggestions

  • totem animal pictures in popular scientific books
  • a picture of a page in the Book of Kells from a history book,
  • Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper from any art history book
  • calender pictures
  • the output from Fractint
  • pictures taken by the Hubble telescope
  • illustrations or covers from books, for instance the illustrations in Robert Anton Wilson's Cosmic Trigger etc.
  • And, of course, your favourite bonsai tree.

Bibliography

Susanne F Fincher: Creating Mandalas -- For Insight, Healing and Self-expression. Shambahla 1991. ISBN 0-87773-646-4.

Roshi Philip Kapleau: The Three Pillars of Zen -- 25th Anniversary Edition. Anchor Books, Doubleday 1989. ISBN 0-385-26093-8. (A practical book about Zen meditation. It includes the ten Ox-Herding pictures in black-and-white.)

Starhawk: Spiral Dance -- A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Godess. HarperSanFransisco 1989 (10th anniversary edition). ISBN 0-06-250814-8. (Introduction to NeoPaganism including exercises, politics, thealogy and much more.)

Robert Wang: The Jungian Tarot. Urania Verlags AG 1988. ISBN 3-921960-76-2. (This is a boxed set of deck plus paperback book. I find the pictures ugly to indifferent, but there are mandalas on each of the Major Arcana cards.)

Robert Anton Wilson: Cosmic Trigger -- Final Secret of the Illuminati. New Falcon Publishing 1977. ISBN 0-941404-46-3. (The book for anyone interested in psychology, sex, occultism, drugs, the illuminati and everything.)

There are scores of books about meditation techniques, so I'm not naming any. Try to pick one whose author doesn't claim to have the One True Path To Wisdom(tm). If you can find one that describes many different methods, you can try them all before deciding which feels right for you at this stage.

Fractint is a computer program that paints incredibly beautiful fractals on your screen. It's available from major ftp-sites. Experiment with different parameters and palettes to get interesting effects.

Copyright

Copyright Ceci Huster 1994-1999. This article may be freely distributed and redistributed as long as it is not altered in any way and this copyright notice is kept attached to it.

Ceci Huster: ceci@lysator.liu.se
http://www.lysator.liu.se/~ceci/index.html