The Mandala is said to be the abode of the Essence of All Buddhas and whose fabric is of the Dharmadhatu. They represent, as does its Thangka cousin, Voidness made visible. All of this revolves around the Principle that all tantric meditations convey some experience of the void. Our next series in September is based on a contemplative’s personal experience of the void, or no-self, wherein voidness is all that remains when one’s superficial faculties subside and all that is left signifies an empty slate from which there is no escape—it must be lived out or one will go insane. But for now our concluding blog of this present series extrapolates the artistic representation of how everything changes back into the void since all dharmatas in themselves are devoid of That Real Essence of which we speak. Perhaps the best expression of this is the Kalachakra, or Sand Mandala—the most colorful and majestic imagery intricately created at the hands of Tibetan monks, only later to be ritually destroyed leaving that blank slate of emptiness or the void which is the actual primal canvas of the whole endeavor.
Here beauty has evaporated into the void, thus leading sentient beings back into their primordial home and away from the mad dream of thinking that their illusionary and phenomenal world will somehow last forever…
During the actual creation of the mandala the artist-yogi…
…merges with the infinite space of the void and draws images of Buddhas which arise before his inward eye in a magic halo of light. Through concentrated recitation of Mantras all the invoked deities appear in a visionary halo as bright and spontaneous manifestations of the all-embracing void. (Detlef Ingo Lauf, Tibetan Sacred Art, The Heritage of Tantra., pg 117)
All of these mystic illustrations are self-realized during times of deep-samadhis during which the artist-yogi actualizes their significance in the ineffable Light of Infinite Voidness. The most majestic representation of this is the Primordial Adibuddha (today’s accompanying image at top). He is of a deep-blue color seated in the Vajraparyanka position, devoid of any attributes, jewels or without apparel since he fully epitomizes the qualities of the first manifestation from the void.
Of all the Dharma-Protectors or Dharmapalas, Mahakala reigns supreme. This is an excellent representation, complete with full tantric description…
This tantric painting on a black ground shows the visionary Mandala of the four-armed Mahakala according to the version of Rva Lo-tsa-ba ( Tib. : mGon-po phyag-bzhi-pa rva-lo ‘-lugs). This translator of Rva was a notable eleventh century scholar. The four-armed Mahakala is seated on a sun lotus throne, with the blue sword of insight in his right hand. He is also known as the Protector of Wisdom (Tib. : Ye-shes mgonpo). From the black ground, the colour of the void, his two companions emerge ; below the lotus throne are four animal-headed deities. Three of these have raven’s heads and are called Las-kyi mgon-po; the fourth, with a lion’s head, is Seng-ge’i gdong-ma. Under the flowering tree (bottom left) a yogi is contemplating the nature of transience in sight of the graveyard; on the right is an elephant-headed deity (Ganapati) with a healing herb. Between the two lamas (at the top) we can see the sun and moon (lunar and solar energy in the yoga) and the Yidam bDe-mchog lhan-skyes on a sun lotus. This painting belongs to the group of extremely esoteric representations and was accessible in Tibet only to initiates. Pictures of this kind are therefore invariably kept in the locked temples of the guardian deities which are found in every monastery. Ibid, 176
The Black Mahakala is a creature arising out of the Dark Void Itself—stamping and striking-out against any unwholesome adversary.
Along with today’s cited reference, another “weighty” (it feels like the size of a hefty bowling ball) volume entitled Voice of the Void, by Sung Min Kim, is a most worthy resource depicting the Heart Sutra’s admonition, rūpa is śūnyatā, and śūnyatā is rūpa.
It is important to realize that here, sunya is not merely a negative state of nothingness, but is the central notion which explains the various modes of existence. It is understood that sunya is experienced in multiple dimensions, from the Ultimate to the phenomenal. The Ultimate Sunya (paramartha-sunyata) presents sunya as the Highest Reality, which apparently directs one’s attention towards the description of Sunya as the source of mandala in the visualization process. Ibid, pg 186
Sung Min Kim says the principle of Wu (nothingness: emptiness) wei (no-action) is the revelation of Sunya as a working principle in the creative process of arts.
In arts space, the void space, unfulfilled yet charged with our freedom and imagination, exists as free space for manifold forms to intermingle in dynamic flow. There, it is not the void space alone but the harmony with the manifold forms that ultimately opens up the other layers of Void. Therefore, aesthetic experience of Wu or sunya brings us to a level of space where the infinite depth and infinite vastness overlap and where we realize the depths of boundless space and the boundlessness of the enclosed cavity…
A sudden cavity or sudden opening of void in nature can create awe and horror in many of us. The empty space without any object in nature barely gives us a chance for any sensual experience of the depth of the vast sky or the vastness of a closed cave.
As we can discern from this series as a whole, the authentic and full meaning of a Bodhisattvas’ Compassion is that of directing sentient beings voidbound—away from any garish samsaric designs. Indeed, Voidness is all-encompassing, as represented by the great Vasubandhu himself:
A little off topic, but I am curious if in all your amazing breadth of myriad comparative mystical scholarship would you by any chance be knowledgeable and interested in presenting a series on the Bön Dzogchen tradition of Tibet?
It is a fascinating and rich subject and would be an interesting topic to explore from a Lankavatarian Chan Zen perspective.
Actually I considered such a possibility many years back but resources were limited; I imagine that situation has changed. Will look into this–perhaps an upcoming spring series. Thanks, Scott
I happened to come across a good one stop resource on all things Bon found at:
Thought I’d share it here.