This mandala is commonly found in monasteries and retreat centers in the Mahasi Sayadaw tradition of Theravada Buddhist meditation. One such hangs in the entranceway at a monastery/retreat center in Lumbini, Nepal where I’ve practiced almost annually for many years. Over the years of glancing at it and sometimes taking time to study it, I’ve learned its lesson through practice. I’ve learned that when the mental factors of faith/confidence, energy/effort, mindfulness, concentration, wisdom with virtue are combined and balanced, many doors to spiritual insight can be opened. It takes a combination of all these mental factors with virtue in balance to open the door.
Mindfulness meditation, when practiced alone and not linked to virtue and clear comprehension, will simply teach the mind to focus and to become calm. In current times, mindfulness meditation is commonly used as a psychological therapy for the treatment of various mental conditions, used in the medical profession for the treatment of pain, used in sports for enhanced performance, and now it’s even being used by the American military to train snipers in order to become more accurate in their aim. Clearly, despite being used successfully in these arenas, mindfulness training is not a spiritual or even always a wholesome practice in and of itself. In these cases cited, mindfulness training is a health modality or a productivity technique and is not intended or being used for the cultivation of wholesomeness of the mind/heart.
The mandala visually describes the ways these mental factors link and the way the mind works when mindfulness is fully operational when coupled with virtue. The outer circle lists the five mental factors that are the necessary components for mindfulness to become operational. The inner circle sila is at the center and at the heart for the entire system, and without all combined, the work towards liberation cannot truly begin. The mandala is a visual way to learn how this wholesome combination of mental factors can train a meditator’s mind/heart towards liberation.