Mandala: Memory Palace and Simulated Worlds

Amoghap??a Five-deity Mandala Michael C. Carlos Museum/Emory University

A world simulated in the mind, where fortresses of bone rise above a sea of blood. Where a pantheon of wrathful and serene deities assemble in precise arrangement. Where multi-limbed beings dance, cyclopean architecture looms high and a mountain bridges Earth to the cosmos.

That's the rich world of the Mandala (Sanskrit for "circle"), an artistic visualization tool that allows Tibetan Buddhism 's most advanced psychonauts to enter heightened states of meditation.

It's essentially an imagined palace, not unlike the dreamscape architects in the sci-fi film "Inception," or the famed "memory palace" mnemonic device that emerged in ancient Rome. Julie and I covered memory palaces in this STBYM episode, but it all basically boils down to employing spatial memory to memorize information by placing it all in an imagined "palace" filled with memorable symbols.

East Asia scholar Dan O'Huiginn provides some interesting commentary on the concept of Mandala-as-memory-palace in this wonderful post. He even argues that the deities in a Mandala are themselves parts of the memory palace, their various physical characteristics all symbolizing Buddhist doctrine.

I recently attend Emory University's "Mandala: Sacred Circle in Tibetan Buddhism," so all of this is still bouncing around my head. The Atlanta exhibit (running through April 15, 2012) provides fascinating insight into Mandala tradition, and you'll even get to witness the live creation (and destruction) of a sand Mandala by actual Tibetan Monks if you drop by before Feb. 11.

I love the cosmology of Mandalas. I love the art. And, having recently researched the future of virtual sex and the Living Earth Simulator for HowStuffWorks, I found the concept of Mandala computer models rather fascinating. What was once simulated in the mind comes to simulated life inside the virtual world.

I've included some video clips of computer Mandalas here. Think about them. Might future virtual worlds be used for more than mere escapist fantasy and hedonistic indulgence? Might we use them to attain spiritual liberation?

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.