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The Mandala - Tantric Symbol of Integration

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by Sangharakshita

Aspects of Buddhist Psychology

Lecture 45: The Mandala: Tantric Symbol of Integration Reverend Sir and Friends Nowadays we all know quite a lot of people are very much exercised by what they call the problem of communication. Only this morning I happened to look into the window of a bookshop and I noticed a new book - at least, one of which I hadn't heard before - called "The Psychology of Human Communication", which seemed quite an interesting title. One might say it is significant in a way that communication should have become for many people nowadays a problem at all, but that is neither here nor there.

We may say, that very broadly speaking, there are two principal means or modes of communication between human beings. First of all, there is the conceptual - communication in terms of thoughts, ideas and so on; and secondly communication in terms of or in the form of images. The first type of communication, that through abstract ideas, through concepts, is addressed more particularly to the rational - even the critical - intelligence.

The second mode of communication, that through images, aims rather at the unconscious depths which lie beneath the rational intelligence. The first type of communication (that through concepts, through abstract ideas) is employed by science, by philosophy; whereas the second (through images) is employed by all forms of imaginative literature.

Now religion we may say, spiritual traditions, we may say, employ both. They communicate through abstract ideas: they also communicate through images. But perhaps we may say that they tend to rely - certainly in their more popular forms - more on the latter; more on the images - they tend to try to communicate more with the unconscious depths; to move and to stir them.

Now in the course of this series of lectures on Aspects of Buddhist Psychology, we've passed as it were, from one mode or type of communication to the other. We started in the first lectures which we had with a more conceptual type of approach. But soon we found ourselves where we are now, in the midst of images, in the midst of symbols, even in the midst archetypes. And today we come to the Mandala, which the subtitle of the lecture describes as the Tantric Symbol of Integration.

At once we can see that there are three principal topics which fall to be considered, or three questions which at this point we may ask, or which naturally suggest themselves. First of all, "What is a Mandala?"; secondly, "What do we mean by Integration?"; and thirdly, "In what way is the Mandala a symbol of Integration?" We are going to deal with these three questions, but we are not going to deal with them in a strictly logical fashion. When dealing with material of this sort, we may say, this is quite impossible. We can't deal with material of this sort in a strictly logical sequence or order, and even if we could, it would give a false impression, perhaps, about the nature of the material itself.

First of all, before coming onto these three main topics or questions, I want to say something about this adjective Tantric. We say that the Mandala is the Tantric symbol of integration - but what do we mean by Tantric, what do we mean by Tantra? Or what are the Tantras? In order to understand this, we have to refer back to what I said about the three Yanas, the three vehicles the three ways, the three great stages in the development of Indian Buddhism, in a previous lecture. These three great stages or phases are of course, the Hinayana, the Mahayana and the Vajrayana. The Hinayana - the Little Way or little Vehicle, the Mahayana - the Great Way or Great Vehicle, the Vajrayana - the Adamantine Way or Adamantine Vehicle. And as I said these represent the three great phases or stages of development of Buddhism in India, the land of its birth. Each of these Yanas was dominant and flourished for a period of about 500 years, and each Yana produced its own distinctive, its own characteristic type of canonical literature or sacred Scriptures.

The Hinayana produced what we call the Tripitaka, the Three Baskets, the Three Collections, of Scriptures, consisting of the Vinaya, or Monastic Code; the Hinayana Sutras, contained mainly in the Middle Length or Long Discourses; and the Abhidharma, the Higher or further Doctrine or teaching about which we heard something in our first lecture. All of these exist in different versions.

The Mahayana produced as its contribution to the field of canonical literature, its characteristic scriptures, the Vaipulya Sutras. Vaipulya means extended or amplified because some of these sutras are very, very lengthy indeed, a single sutra, a single discourse is sometimes the length of a whole volume. So the Mahayana produced these - great texts like the Saddharma Pundarika, the Lankavatara, the Prajnaparamita, and so on. These are the Vaipulya sutras, sometimes called the Mahayana Sutras.

And the Vajrayana, this third great phase of Buddhism in India, the Vajrayana or Adamantine way, produced what we call the Tantras: the Tantras are the Scriptures of the Vajrayana. Now the word Tantra is from a verbal root meaning to weave, so a Tantra is that which is woven or that which is put together - or, in other words, that _________________________________________________________________________________________________ which is compiled. In other words, a Tantra is simply a book, and the term Tantra, strictly speaking in Sanskrit literary usage, can be applied to any type of work. One has got for instance in Indian literature a number of works on mathematics which are called Tantras. So Tantra has got this general literary meaning.

But usually Tantra is applied within the field of Buddhism specifically to the Vajrayana Scriptures. We may say that there's a very large number indeed of Tantras in existence indeed, mainly in the Tibetan Canon. No-one knows exactly how many there are. For instance I have been told that there are no less than 300 Nyingmapa Tantras in Tibet, which are peculiar to the Nyingmapa school of Tibetan Buddhism and not recognised by the Gelugpas, the majority party. And I have heard (one of my friends has been doing research in this field) that the Sanskrit originals of a number of Nyingmapa Tantras which some scholars had suspected to be original Tibetan compositions have quite recently been located in Nepal in out of the way Buddhist monasteries and temples.

Now all these Tantras were originally written in Sanskrit, in what is technically called Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit or Mixed Sanskrit, and of course many of them have been lost in the course of centuries. Those which we do have, apart from those few which are available in Nepali and Sanskrit, are mostly found in the Tibetan Canon in Tibetan translation. It's a rather staggering thought that out of all these hundreds of important works, the Tantras, only one so far has been translated in its entirety into the English language. There's one which has been half translated and there are several extracts from which have been translated, but only one - the Hevajra Tantra - has been translated in its entirety in English. But I'm afraid that doesn't help us very much. I remember the distinguished scholar Dr Conze when he read the English translation of the Hevajra Tantra, with great interest (because not knowing Tibetan to that extent, he had no access to this material) he wrote a review and he remarked after reading the Hevajra Tantra in English that he was no wiser than before. Why this should have been may appear in a minute.

The Tantras, we may say, are very different from other types of canonical literature. The Tripitaka, the Three Baskets or Collections of the Hinayana, that is to say the Vinaya, the Hinayana Sutras and the Abhidharma, these are mainly conceptual in their approach, and this is one of the reasons for the great appeal of many parts of the Pali Canon of the Theravada School (one of the subdivisions of the Hinayana). The approach is rational, it's understandable; one can get at it with the rational intelligence.

Now the Mahayana Sutras, on the other hand, are of both kinds; some of them are couched in conceptual terms; other accounts more in terms of images, more in terms of myth. For instance, if you take the Perfection of Wisdom, the Prajnaparamita, this uses the language of concepts almost exclusively; it's a very intellectual sort of approach. But if you take the Saddharma Pundarika, you find that the approach here is more dramatic, more poetic, more mythical, more archetypal. And therefore Sutras like the Saddharma Pundarika are only just beginning, among Western Buddhists, to achieve some popularity.

Now we may say that the Tantras are entirely non-conceptual in their approach. The Saddharma Pundarika has at least got some sort of organisation from a literary point of view, but the Tantras are not only entirely non- conceptual in their approach, they're an absolute chaos in a sense, they're just a jumble from a literary point of view, of images, of archetypes and of very cryptic practical instructions. There's no logical sequence, no logical arrangement at all. And this is what Dr Conze, for instance, found so baffling in the English translation of the Hevajra Tantra. There's apparently no order, no organisation: just a flux, just a flow of images, concepts, practices, descriptions, ...

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