Daily Archives: October 28, 2016

Representation over Significance – the Mandala transition


Many weeks have passed where I have engaged and researched with the Tibetan Buddhists Sand Mandala and created an autoethnographic investigation spanning from watching videos where sand mandalas are being made by monks to looking at the transition the mandala has made from sand to skin relating to tattoo mandalas. This transition of the mandala that was once something spiritual changed it’s meaning through cultures. Where eastern culture presented a spiritual mandala to now where the mandala in the western culture has is seen as art as a pattern on the body. My project will be once again engaging in the autoethnographic experience of the mandala but making sense of it in a digital context. Meaning to what aspect would a mandala be made digital – in the form of a direct copy of the mandala, in the form of meaning that the mandala represents or a new change where something digital has the significance of what the mandala was and transitioned through cultures.

Looking at autoethnography I am following the meaning and approach presented by Ellis et al. who describes autoethnography as “an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyse personal experience in order to understand cultural experience”. While I will not be going over all of the information I presented in my past blogs relating to this topic – I will be going over enough in the hopes of making sense of my approach and method as a starting point. If you would like to read the previous posts, you can find them here, here and here.


A Monk Mandala Source

The colourful visual appeal of Mandalas is one thing that attracted me to the topic. Then following research and the dedication the Tibetan monks have when constructing a Mandala my interest is further intrigued and I am in a focus of knowing everything about Mandalas and the people that create them. A Mandala has different meanings for different cultures and is represented in different ways though falls under the same discipline of religions sentiment. The Tibetan Monk Mandala represents the universe and the teachings of Buddha. Each concentric circle reflects a different teaching of Buddha and each quadrant is significant of the different paths one can take, or must take to fulfil Buddha’s teachings. This religious element is far from anything I have ever engaged in or thought I would want to learn about. Coming from an atheist family and not having religion forced upon me by my family (school is a different matter) I do not dismiss the value of these engagements nor question the engagement of the Mandalas. Religion much like spirituality is free for those that engage and I am not one to actively diminish those beliefs.


Floor design for a Hindu temple Source

In other eastern cultures the religious context is apparent for mandalas but the details of the design and the way the design is used changes. In Hinduism the mandala is used by creating symmetry of the temples and art design on the floor of the religious temples and the use of sacred flora much like lotus flower is emphasized for use at it is symmetrical and reflects the detailed perfection that a mandala needs. The design on the floor is representative of the universe. In Islam the mandala is intertwined with the entire building from the floor to the roof. The religious impact of the Mandala becomes three-dimensional as the dome centred on the mosque guides religious expression upwards to the heavens. So the building is an entire mandala both in design and layout.


Islamic Building Design Source

The transition of the mandala through the way it is implemented in these religions provides a step in understanding the change of the mandala through cultures. The representation of the mandala being quite broad – the universe, can be interpreted in a different way from each religion. Social groups play an important role in the transition of aspects from one culture to the next. Two or more people create a social group in which share traits and identities that create layers of discourse outside from other people. These identities are looked at from an outside perspective and tried to make an understanding from. Much like how I am outside the Buddhist religion looking in and through an autoethnographic approach I hope to better understand and make meaning out of what I have experienced and the way that I am experiencing it.

The branding of Mandalas as not just a religious statement but also an aesthetic statement transitions into western culture. Wilson and Liu discuss the blend between brands and culture. In regards to tattooing in western culture tattooing has transitioned from sub-culture into the mainstream, where it once was held as a religious exercise at religious ceremonies has become popularized for individual expression. This blend of what was once religious expression now individual expression, adding in the business of tattoos, the aesthetic appeal of a mandala and the popularity of tattoos in western culture. The mandala changed from a religious meaning to a personal meaning (personal meaning could still be religious) but also for aesthetic appeal of symmetry. Once the ideas of what western culture had to offer for tattoo art and design engaging then with other cultures and having that outside perspective gave way to new and more ideas and creations of tattoos. Which created more tattoos to choose from, created a bigger demand for tattooists and changed the meaning and how mandalas are represented once again. I did not fall short from this change of mandala representation as I got a mandala tattoo throughout the research and experience of learning about mandalas.


Sand Mandala on the left; tattoo on the right. Source from my Prezi post linked above

There are many elements that can be compared between the sand mandala and the tattoo mandala. The detail, the time is takes to create, the experience needed by the person doing the creation and the discipline needed to make the creation work. I will be the first to say that there is an obvious distinction between a sand mandala on the floor compared to a tattoo mandala on the body and that the discipline of human ability on the tattoo exceeds the risk of the sand mandala. As if there is a mistake on the sand mandala it can be rectified in a simple fashion however with the tattoo it will cost money or cost the aesthetic appeal of the tattoo as the tattoo is a permanent fixture on the body.

Going from a religious sand mandala to a tattoo mandala went from eastern culture to western culture but there is a culture that expands both eastern and western and has a great influence on different aspects of eastern and western culture. I am of course talking about cyber culture (Saunders 2010). The internet has allowed the mandala to create a virtual space online in which people can engage with mandalas throughout the time before it. However, looking at the distinctions that the mandala has made through different cultures I would be arguing that the change the mandala has made has followed a different path dependent on what engagement of the mandala you would focus on. Looking at the mandala for what it is aesthetically and people wanting to create a mandala. Then there are websites and tools that aide in the creation. Such as the video below that guides people into how to make a mandala in Photoshop.

Stepping into cyber culture and creating a mandala based on the basis of a patterned and symmetric shape is one direction of what a mandala originally was. The meaning behind the mandala – that of religious meaning and expression is changed to the pseudo-religious behaviour that the internet is involved around. The behaviour is characterized by what elements cyber culture has created, the way they are created and the use for the creations. The mandala become a generic patterned shape that was used to describe any symmetrical and artistic piece in western culture. This loss of singular meaning can be described to many things that cyber culture has developed and used throughout the course of its inevitable usage.


The generic shapes and patterns of the mandala Source

When it comes to cyber culture and the mandala I would add that the generic meaning of what a mandala has become and the elements that the internet creates changes the separate culture that the internet is. To argue that the ‘Meme’ is the equivalent of a generic mandala. Yep that is right I am now going to argue that ‘Memes’ are a reflection of cultural change and generic creation reminiscent of pseudo-religious beliefs and behaviour. Memes are a cultural aspect of cyber culture and the internet. From the start of the internet there have been different memes throughout its course that have been used in different ways by different groups of people to express thought and create interest.

‘Meme’ was first coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Meme was created to express a cultural idea that would spread quickly between people. Memes in basic form are words written over images that display some relation to the style of picture that is used – the Success Kid meme relates to the idea of someone experiencing some form of success in their life and Overly Attached Girlfriend is used to convey the experiences of having an overly attached girlfriend. The style of meme can change to a video or audio also. The engagement that memes have created over the years I find is a reflection of what the mandala did over the ages. When talking about the mandala it has become a generic piece of work in its aesthetic form but for what the mandala represented over though the cultures it went into changed it. The generic meaning and representation that a mandala has now is reminiscent of the cyber culture meme. While the religion on cyber culture and the internet is separated to specific religions such as Islam, Christianity and Hinduism the overall culture of the internet has made way for a more meshed engagement of behaviour and understanding.  The generic picture of a mandala and the generic picture of meme goes hand in hand with the change in the culture that it was once from and the change in culture that once used it.

My understanding of creating a digital mandala was limited by what the mandala represented to the monk and religious groups that used it. It was changed by the cultural transition from a religious symbol to a generic aesthetic art piece and then now changed aesthetically but kept to a generic piece in cyber culture. While there are different aspects of the mandala that can be used to argue different versions of the mandala have been created with in cyber culture. The transition of intent and purpose of cultural pieces plays an important role in the change from how one culture understands another and what aspects of that culture get changed for what purpose. Whether or not people were actively using the mandala as a tool for a generic description of tattooing or as a tool to showcase individualism. There is always going to be a change of cultural identities regardless of intent to appropriate the culture or not learn from it. While I did find the topic of Mandalas interesting the cultural change that the mandala has had from religious eastern culture to western tattoo culture to digital meme culture challenges the impact for what people get out of cultures. With how one identifier of one culture gets separated into visual appeal, meaning and, use and then distributed through different mediums to become something far different from what it once was.


Ellis, C., Adams, T.E. & Bochner, A.P. 2011 ‘Autoethnography: An Overview’, Forum: Qualitative Social Research, vol. 12, no.1

Saunders, S 2010, ‘Superhighway To Hell’, Informationweek, no. 1271, p. 15.