Mandala Symbol and Meaning

14th century Tibetan thangka painting of the Mandala of Vajravarahi c.14th century. US Public Domain

A mandala is an image used in meditation. The word mandala comes from Sanskrit word manas, meaning mind. In Buddhism and Hinduism, the image represents the nature of the mind or the nature of consciousness.

Carl Jung used the term to describe a larger archetypal pattern that related to what he called the archetype of the Self. Jung says that the mandala is “the psychological expression of the totality of the self” (CW 9, para 542).

The mandala guides movement toward self-realization. Mandala and quaternity symbols emerge into dreams and visions as we begin to encounter the deeper aspects of the mind and the inner Self. The archetype of the Self guides the path toward wholeness, integration, and enlightenment.

Jung believes that the mandala’s “basic motif is the premonition of a center of personality, a kind of central point within the psyche, to which everything is related, by which everything is arranged, and which is itself a source of energy.” (CW 9i, para 634) This is certainly in enlightenment with the enlightenment teachings (see below, for example).

In the enlightenment teachings, the mandala represents this paradoxical relationship between the individual self and what is sometimes called the supreme Self or the unbound, eternal, infinite nature of the Self (as consciousness or mind).

The mandala motifs are varied across cultures, but all take on a similar pattern. Carl Jung says the mandala represented the “totality of the individual in his inner or outer experience.” Jung say,

“Individual mandalas make use of a well-nigh unlimited wealth of motifs and symbolic allusions, from which it can easily be seen that they are endeavoring to express either the totality of the individual in his inner or outer experience of the world, or its essential point of reference.” (ibid)

For Jung, the mandala is an image of the Self, and the totality of the Self, which is both conscious and unconscious.
“Their object is the self in contradistinction to the ego which is only the point of reference for consciousness, whereas the self comprises the totality of the psyche altogether, i.e., conscious and unconscious.” (ibid)

This is where it gets a bit confusing to compare Jung’s view with the perspective of enlightenment. The word unconscious is not typically used in the enlightenment teachings. In the enlightenment teachings, the aim of the mandala meditation is to make contact with the eternal, infinite, unbound, unmodified dimensions of the mind, sometimes called pure awareness, or the One mind, or Budda Nature.

I believe that Jung understood this to some degree. But that he was coming from a more materialist perspective. Jung does speak of the collective unconscious as “indefinitely large”. He says,

“This totality comprises consciousness first of all, then the personal unconscious, and finally an indefinitely large segment of the collective unconscious whose archetypes are common to all mankind” (ibid).

Jung also calls the unconscious the “field of experience of unlimited extent”. These ideas indicate Jung sees the unconscious as infinite and unlimited. Here is another such passage from Jung:

“The deeper “layers” of the psyche lose their individual uniqueness as they retreat farther and farther into darkness. “Lower down,” that is to say as they approach the autonomous functional systems, they become increasingly collective until they are universalized and extinguished in the body’s materiality… Hence “at bottom” the psyche is simply “world.”… in the symbol the world itself speaking. (Carl Jung, CW 9i, para 291)

I am not sure if Jung understood or encountered “pure consciousness” in its absolute form. In the passage just referenced, Jung says that the psyche loses its individuality in the “body’s materiality.” From the perspective of Enlightenment, pure consciousness transcends the body’s materiality and material existence. Pure consciousness is superordinate to all material existence.

Jung was more focused on the process of individuation than he was on enlightenment (as the realization of pure consciousness). For Jung, the aim of individuation was to “become a self.” (Cw 12, para 105). This is certainly important for our lived experience. In this regard one says, Jung says:

“The energy of the central point is manifested in the almost irresistible compulsion and urge to become what one is just as every organism is driven to assume the form that is characteristic of its nature, no matter what the circumstances”(ibid).

Jung is speaking of an instinct to reach our potential, to Self-actualize. His use of the term Self is psychologically oriented. Everything happens in psychic life, making up the “total personality.” Jung continues:

“Although the centre is represented by an innermost point. It is surrounded by a periphery containing everything that belongs to the self-the paired opposites that make up the total personality” (ibid).

Self-realization is a process of integrating the aspect of the mind that is unlimited and infinite. The mandala motif represents this integration.

Jung says that the unconscious has at its disposal “all the subliminal psychic contents, all those things which have been forgotten and overlooked, as well as all the experience of uncounted centuries laid down in its archetypal organs” ((CW 7, p.196). Jung want to bring the eternal into the temporal thought the contact with the archetypes.

Jung’s form of enlightenment is well suited to the Western mind. The process is a deeping into the depths of the Self, integrating the various layers of psychic contents and archetypal dimensions of the mind. This opens the ego slowly to the unlimited and indefinite aspects of consciousness. This may be the most healthy way to approach enlightenment for the western ego, especially if we fear ego decompensation.

In terms of enlightenment, the realization of pure consciousness is always integrated into our lived experience. This is true because we are alive. In the modern Enlightenment teachings, it is said that the ego dissolves. In my experience, it is more that a new center emerges, and this center is the Self.

Vajravarahi Mandala

I would like to explore the mandala of Vajravarahi as a means to understand the perspective of enlightenment. Vajravarahi is a goddess invoked in Tantric meditation. Her name means ‘Diamond-like Sow’. According to the Met musem: “The goddess represents the triumph over ignorance (symbolized by the sow).”

Notice the six-pointed star in the middle of the mandala. “The Sadhanamala describes the six-pointed star as the union of male (the upward-pointing triangle) and female (the downward-pointing triangle) energies”

I believe that Jung would say that the two triangles represent the integration of the conscious and the unconscious.

From the perspective of enlightenment, the triangles represent the interplay of the temporal and eternal dimensions of consciousness, or said another way the modified and unmodified dimensions of consciousness.

Integration of the eternal and temporal dimension gives rise to the enlightened state. In meditation, Vajravarahi is visualized as emerging from the heart. The heart is an archetypal space and place for the integration of the eternal and temporal dimensions of Being.

The eternal, infinite, unmodified unbound nature of consciousness is beyond body, beyond the material world, and yet is ground or essence of the material world. It gives rise to our lived experience and yet extends beyond lived experience.

“Early Tibetan translations of Sanskrit texts, such as the Sadhanamala (Garland of Means for [Spiritual] Attainment), the Nishpannayogavali (Garland of Perfection Yogas), and the Hevajra Tantra, describe Vajravarahi’s mandala as unfolding within the heart of a practitioner” (ibid).
The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Jung might also see the Vajravarahi as a syzygy image. The syzygy “always takes the form of the paired opposites, where the One is never separated from the Other, its antithesis”. Jung realized the syzygy to be an image of the “experience of individuation, the attainment of the Self”. Jung sasy, “It is a psychological fact that as soon as we touch on these identifications we enter the realm of the syzygies, the paired opposites, where the One is never separated from the Other, its antithesis. It is a field of personal experience which leads directly to the experience of individuation, the attainment of the self. A vast number of symbols for this process could be mustered from the medieval literature of the West and even more from the storehouses of Oriental wisdom, but in this matter words and ideas count for little. Indeed, they may become dangerous bypaths and false trails. In this still very obscure field of psychological experience, where we are in direct contact, so to speak, with the archetype, its psychic power is felt in full force. This realm is so entirely one of immediate experience that it cannot be captured by any formula, but can only be hinted at to one who already knows.” (Carl Jung, CW 9i, para. 194


Jung, C. G., (1934–1954). The Archetypes and The Collective Unconscious. (1981 2nd ed. Collected Works Vol.9 Part 1), Princeton, N.J.: Bollingen. 0-691-01833-2
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Carl Jung, 9 Part 1 – The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious– 1934–1954