The Tao, the Universe and the Mandala: Discovering Unity in the Cosmos
The Universe is the indivisible unity of all existence. The Tao is the essential spirit of nature in the universe. The Mandala is a vision of the unity within the spirit, and a sacred diagram of our place in the vast complexity of the cosmos. Each of us is the center of the mandala, and every center is a point of focus, stability and peace. We carry the strength of that position within ourselves, although it seems we are not aware of it. We often feel lost, as if there were no right place for us, and we spend our lives searching for a way to belong. We are an essential part of the universe in all its chaotic splendor, connected to every point in the totality of the cosmos. Yet we seem blind to this connection, so we spend our lives searching for a way, for a purpose, to reach that indefinable place where we can feel that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. But the truth is that we are linked, intimately and inextricably, to all the wonder that surrounds us. The reality that is so difficult to see, to understand, to believe, is that we already belong, that we are connected, that we are one with the beautiful spirit of the universe.
We are surrounded by a cosmos of dizzying complexity and indescribable variety. We see the planets spinning in their courses, uncountable stars that shine out upon the darkness of space, galaxies that spin and drift through the incomprehensible distances of the universe. In our own immediate corner of the cosmos we find a rich, dense collection of elements that embody everything we know and love. We are a planet full of life, of rocks, of water and energy and air. We look around us and see more things than we can easily catalog. The numbers that describe this earthly profusion are vast—to count the individual plants and animals, minerals and gases, mountains and rivers and lakes, would be beyond the practical ability of the greatest and smartest of us. And yet this amazing multiplicity evident all around us can only be appreciated at the level of awareness to which our particular consciousness has evolved. We perceive such large-scale molecular arrangements as plants and animals because it was necessary for our survival to identify them and react to their presence. Yet what they precisely are is a mass of molecules working together, within a larger system, according to the dictates of physics. Even then, variety is a matter of perception. The apparently separate elements of the universe are actually all the same essential bits of energy arrayed with a dazzling variety of organization and alignment. The Periodic Table of the Elements that describes our current understanding of the structure of matter is a vivid and brilliant chemical rainbow shining over the spectrum of subatomic relationships. Whether we are studying hydrogen, argon or uranium, we are simply observing various groupings of protons, neutrons and electrons. We can look deeper, to the next level of system organization, and we will be gazing exclusively upon the rich family of quarks, the subatomic particles that comprise all matter. We can dig deeper still and find that these quarks are minute concentrations of energy, like dimples in the fabric of the universe, blurring, if not eliminating, the barrier between matter and energy itself. We arrive eventually at a unified field of energy that pervades everything and from which every form and force emerges.
The underlying homogeneity of the universe is a key element in Taoist philosophy, which roughly describes the Tao as the all-encompassing course of nature. Within the Tao can be found everything that exists, and we, whether as individuals or as entire societies, can achieve internal harmony only by understanding the interrelationships that make up the world around us. By understanding them we may emulate them, and by emulating them we may rediscover our original state of cooperative existence. Taoism is a philosophy of nature, acceptance and self-discipline. It says that nature, in other words the universe, knows what it is doing. It wisely points out that we can only achieve balance by following the example set by nature. The Taoist concept of wu-wei means something like “non-forcing.” This refers to the Taoist’s confidence in the universe’s natural behavior, and warns against trying to force nature against its will. Unfortunately, the majority of all human activity seems to ignore this warning—whether in dealings with our selves, with each other or with the environment, it is human nature to try to conquer it, subdue it, or alter it to suit our ephemeral tastes. Taoism tells us that such a struggle is ultimately futile, and can only fill our lives with stress, anxiety and sorrow. While, on the other hand, to follow the example of the universe is to align ourselves with a course of behavior that flows at its own pace and in its own manner. Whether we realize it or not, we are moving along within that flow of matter and energy. We can choose to either ride the current or swim against it. And since we are an integral element in this vast universal current, when we struggle against the flow of nature we are struggling against the connections to our ancient, original self.
This elementary inclusiveness is also the basic philosophy of the mandala. In the layout of any mandala there is apparent variety and underlying unity. There is the circle, which encompasses the totality of the universe, and the square, which overlays the human perception of structure upon that totality. The Tibetan tradition views the mandala as a palace through which one can mentally travel in the course of purifying one’s spiritual essence. This is achieved by a focusing of the center, the core of being, and by discarding extraneous psychological materials that hamper the refinement of the spirit. The mandala has a powerful impact on the human subconscious, and along these lines the famous psychologist Carl Jung conducted a great deal of research with his patients. He found that the basic image of the mandala is evident in what he called the "collective unconscious," whereby people from across the globe and throughout human history have intuitively created similar images although they seemed to have no common source from which to draw upon. Thus the mandala has been shown to have a powerful inherent link to the human subconscious, across time and space, from a source beyond even our earliest memories.
That link is the result of a deeply hidden awareness within the human consciousness of the inherent unity of the universe and of our intimate relationship with it. But conscious awareness of this truth is something that we have lost, and this loss is the source of all our deepest anxieties. Connectivity is the essential state of the universe, wherein everything is linked to everything else. But more important than physical or spatial relations, it is the evolution of the universe as a whole that establishes our unity. Every thing that exists has developed together with everything else, one polymorphous step at a time, from the ancient past until today and on to the mysterious horizons of our future. We are an integral part of that development, just as much as the chemical elements, the stars and the stones. We are not things in a place, standing alone on a planet, looking outward into dark and empty space. Rather, we are elements in a wondrous and self-contained system, intimately woven into the fabric of the universe. Awareness of the great truth of universal oneness is hidden somewhere within us, but all of our conscious thoughts and actions are engineered to divide and categorize what is essentially indivisible. In our efforts to divide the indivisible we are, as the Taoists would say, trying to force nature against its will. And since the struggle is a futile one, we are doomed to failure and despair if we persist. But the truth is that these conflicts we suffer through are all self-imposed, and the seeds of unity and harmony can be found inside each of us. We need only open our awareness to it—within and without, unity and harmony flourish.
October 23, 2007
by Peter Patrick Barreda, material copyright 2009, all rights reserved