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12.01.2009 12:46
A virtual Journey through the
Kalachakra Cosmos and its
Mandala Palace on Top of Mount Meru.

Most mandalas are two-dimensional representations of a three-dimensional concept: a palace full of deities, on which the practitioner is supposed to meditate.
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A virtual Journey through the Kalachakra
Cosmos and its Mandala Palace
on Top of Mount Meru

by Martin Brauen & Peter Hassler

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Translate words into pictures

Tibetan Buddhism utilizes images with an intensity like no other form of Buddhism or any other religion in order to communicate the deepest religious truths. Since these images often show deficiencies, even mistakes, when they are compared to their subjacent texts, and because there are often only written description of these visualizations, the Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zürich has attempted to translate semantic language into pictorial language with the help of the latest computer technology. The following text is an appeal for pictorial translation - even in the humanities.

by Martin Brauen

Why is there never a single illustration, graphic or photograph in countless books and articles about psychology, history, linguistics, religion, etc.? How come budding academics are indeed able to use words sophisticatedly, but never learn to express themselves in pictures or to write texts in pictures, even when a graphic representation is explicitly called for: for example, when describing and analyzing spatial features? Why are pictures so seldom used in the different sciences as a means of expression for facts, relationships and results?

There is a simple answer to these questions: the reason is that in the academic world - especially in the arts and social sciences - the written word is everything and the picture counts for little, even nothing. According to the widespread belief, only the written word is the incorruptible conveyor of truth; the picture belongs to a mythical and primitive time, an age before reason, and is unreliable and imprecise - this is a false idea, and one which the research discussed here refutes.

Rich pictorial language of Tibetan Buddhism

The Tibetan version of Buddhism works closely with meditation methods, in which visualizations - pictorial creations of deities and symbols - play a central role. These visualizations are indeed described in great detail in texts but they are difficult to represent as, or rather translate into, images because of the written (or spoken) nature of the texts, since it often concerns very complex forms.

The Tibetans began early on to produce pictorial representations of such visualizations; however, these displayed inadequacies - despite masterful abilities on the whole: visualizations are the products of consciousness; they are spiritual creations but the colors and materials used to depict the visualizations belong to the material world. How could a transparent body that is shimmering in all the colors of the rainbow be copied by using traditional materials?

At first glance, many academic publications seem to consider the pictorial world of Tibetan Buddhism to an appropriate extent. Yet on closer inspection of these works, one realises, however, that although the Tibetan images are described in the minutest detail in them - which figures are visible, which emblems these contain, which colors they use, etc. - the structure, the "grammar" of this Tibetan visual code is actually analyzed only in extremely few cases to establish a specific world view and individual perspective as the basis of the Tibetan images.

Translating pictures with the computer

In the past few years, I, along with computer specialists, have begun to decode the pictorial world of Tibetan Buddhism and translate the pictorial descriptions into academic images. Tibetan written and oral descriptions as well as traditional images from the Kalachakra-Tantra tradition formed the concrete basis of my research.

Whilst comparing the written Tibetan sources with Tibetan and Western renderings of the images, I discovered many discrepancies and "translation errors". Also, it became apparent just how difficult - even impossible at times - it was to accurately imagine, visualize a complex, spatial object after reading a description of it. For this reason, we decided to draw the written and, in part, oral descriptions of the mandala and the cosmos as per the Kalachakra tradition by utilizing a CAD program, which allowed three-dimensional drawings.

The results were true-to-scale models of the cosmos and the mandala palace. Models, which were by far superior to the linguistic descriptions: the many image parts with countless details with regard to sizes, distances, line shapes, surfaces and bodies combined to form one extremely multi-faceted overall picture, which could be disassembled into any number of parts as desired - at the touch of a button.

A further important advantage of using 3-D computer images was that the pictures led at times to new discoveries and information, which were not identifiable from reading the text. This was the case above all when the correlations mentioned in the text between the cosmos, man and the mandala palace were analyzed and suddenly showed new correlations, which were not described in the texts (see illustrations 8 and 9), or if an angle was chosen, which was not mentioned in the texts.

Refining the translated images

The initial rendering in pictorial terms also showed deficiencies, since the software at the time only allowed for a sort of rough sketch, i.e. wire frame model drawings. In the second phase, Peter Hassler reprocessed the data of the first generation using Autodesk 3-D Studio (Version 3.0) as well as further graphics programs: we adjusted colors, brightness and saturation, transparency levels, and some other parameters for individual objects to create a virtual illumination with several light sources and positioned - again virtually - a camera in this fictitious cosmos.

In a third step, the new data was prepared as a computer animation, which meant the spatial relationships in the cosmos, between the cosmos and the mandala and within the mandala palace could be understood better than with an oral or written description.

First, the animation shows the Kalachakra cosmos from above. The 12 wind planes, which the planets follow, are clearly visible (illustrations 1, 2, 5). The camera, or rather the observing individual, moves circularly around the cosmos (illustration 5), approaches the southern continent of Jambudvîpa and lands. It looks up and sees the planetary orbits and then climbs up to Mount Meru, moves up the mountain's face until it is exactly above the center of Mount Meru. The camera then quickly approaches the center of the rounded surface of the mountain, where the Kalchakra-Mandala is located (illustration 3). A three-dimensional mandala palace grows out of the two-dimensional mandala and there is a transparent Vajara protective dome around it (illustration 6). Whilst the palace rotates on its own axis, a person and a model of the Kalachakra cosmos blend into the middle of the palace showing the correlation between man (inner mandala), the universe (outer mandala) and the mandala palace (illustration 9).

Neither words nor pictures

At the end of the virtual journey through the cosmos, you approach the palace and end up - via the body and linguistic area - in the center of the spiritual area of the palace, where Kalachakra and Visvamata are standing; they disappear at the end - into the empty void, where neither words nor pictures exist...


The German version of this article first appeared in:
Unimagazin. The newspaper of the University of Zürich.

Comments to this entry

15.04.2010 17:55
Comment by Scott Bodenheimer
Really fascinating, a memory palace. I wonder if it arose as a mnemonic device independently or was inspired by Buddhists who interacted with Hellenistic philosophers in ancient Afghanistan, and then taught the memory palace technique in Tibet.

03.08.2014 19:13
Comment by Renzi Giancarlo
This is an incredible good job that could help all practitioners to better visualize the Kalachakra Mandala during the practice!
Thank you a lot