the most admired and discussed symbol of Buddhist
religion and art is the mandala, a word which,
like guru and yoga, has become part of the English
language. Its popularity is underscored by the
use of the word mandala as a synonym for sacred
space in scholarship world over, and by its presence
in English-language dictionaries and encyclopedias.
Both broadly define mandalas as geometric designs
intended to symbolize the universe, and reference
is made to their use in Buddhist and Hindu practices.
The mandala idea originated long
ago before the idea of history itself. In the
earliest level of India or even Indo-European
religion, in the Rig Veda and its associated literature,
mandala is the term for a chapter, a collection
of mantras or verse hymns chanted in Vedic ceremonies,
perhaps coming from the sense of round, as in
a round of songs. The universe was believed to
originate from these hymns, whose sacred sounds
contained the genetic patterns of beings and things,
so there is already a clear sense of mandala as
The word mandala itself is derived
from the root manda, which means essence, to which
the suffix la, meaning container, has been added.
Thus, one obvious connotation of mandala is that
it is a container of essence. As an image, a mandala
may symbolize both the mind and the body of the
Buddha. In esoteric Buddhism the principle in
the mandala is the presence of the Buddha in it,
but images of deities are not necessary. They
may be presented either as a wheel, a tree, or
a jewel, or in any other symbolic manifestation.
The origin of the mandala is the
center, a dot. It is a symbol apparently free
of dimensions. It means a 'seed', 'sperm', 'drop',
the salient starting point. It is the gathering
center in which the outside energies are drawn,
and in the act of drawing the forces, the devotee's
own energies unfold and are also drawn. Thus it
represents the outer and inner spaces. Its purpose
is to remove the object-subject dichotomy. In
the process, the mandala is consecrated to a deity.
In its creation, a line materializes
out of a dot. Other lines are drawn until they
intersect, creating triangular geometrical patterns.
The circle drawn around stands for the dynamic
consciousness of the initiated. The outlying square
symbolizes the physical world bound in four directions,
represented by the four gates; and the midmost
or central area is the residence of the deity.
Thus the center is visualized as the essence and
the circumference as grasping, thus in its complete
picture a mandala means grasping the essence.
Before a monk is permitted to
work on constructing a mandala he must undergo
a long period of technical artistic training and
memorization, learning how to draw all the various
symbols and studying related philosophical concepts.
At the Namgyal monastery (the personal monastery
of the Dalai lama), for example, this period is
In the early stages of painting,
the monks sit on the outer part of the unpainted
mandala base, always facing the center. For larger
sized Mandalas, when the mandala is about halfway
completed, the monks then stand on the floor,
bending forward to apply the colors.
Traditionally, the mandala is
divided into four quadrants and one monk is assigned
to each. At the point where the monks stand to
apply the colors, an assistant joins each of the
four. Working co-operatively, the assistants help
by filling in areas of color while the primary
four monks outline the other details.
The monks memorize each detail
of the mandala as part of their monastery's training
program. It is important to note that the mandala
is explicitly based on the Scriptural texts. At
the end of each work session, the monks dedicate
any artistic or spiritual merit accumulated from
this activity to the benefit of others. This practice
prevails in the execution of all ritual arts.
There is good reason for the extreme
degree of care and attention that the monks put
into their work: they are actually imparting the
Buddha's teachings. Since the mandala contains
instructions by the Buddha for attaining enlightenment,
the purity of their motivation and the perfection
of their work allows viewers the maximum benefit.
detail in all four quadrants of the mandala faces
the center, so that it is facing the resident
deity of the mandala. Thus, from the perspective
of both the monks and the viewers standing around
the mandala, the details in the quadrant closest
to the viewer appear upside down, while those
in the most distant quadrant appear right side
each monk keeps to his quadrant while painting
the square palace. When they are painting the
concentric circles, they work in tandem, moving
all around the mandala. They wait until an entire
cyclic phase or layer is completed before moving
outward together. This ensures that balance is
maintained, and that no quadrant of the mandala
grows faster than another.
preparation of a mandala is an artistic endeavor,
but at the same time it is an act of worship.
In this form of worship concepts and form are
created in which the deepest intuitions are crystallized
and expressed as spiritual art. The design, which
is usually meditated upon, is a continuum of spatial
experiences, the essence of which precedes its
existence, which means that the concept precedes
its most common form, the mandala appears as a
series of concentric circles. Each mandala has
its own resident deity housed in the square structure
situated concentrically within these circles.
Its perfect square shape indicates that the absolute
space of wisdom is without aberration. This square
structure has four elaborate gates. These four
doors symbolize the bringing together of the four
boundless thoughts namely - loving kindness, compassion,
sympathy, and equanimity. Each of these gateways
is adorned with bells, garlands and other decorative
items. This square form defines the architecture
of the mandala described as a four-sided palace
or temple. A palace because it is the residence
of the presiding deity of the mandala, a temple
because it contains the essence of the Buddha.
The series of circles surrounding
the central palace follow an intense symbolic
structure. Beginning with the outer circles, one
often finds a ring of fire, frequently depicted
as a stylized scrollwork. This symbolizes the
process of transformation which ordinary human
beings have to undergo before entering the sacred
territory within. This is followed by a ring of
thunderbolt or diamond scepters (vajra), indicating
the indestructibility and diamond like brilliance
of the mandala's spiritual realms.
In the next concentric circle,
particularly those mandalas which feature wrathful
deities, one finds eight cremation grounds arranged
in a wide band. These represent the eight aggregates
of human consciousness which tie man to the phenomenal
world and to the cycle of birth and rebirth.
Finally, at the center of the
mandala lies the deity, with whom the mandala
is identified. It is the power of this deity that
the mandala is said to be invested with. Most
generally the central deity may be one of the
A peaceful deity symbolizes its
own particular existential and spiritual approach.
For example, the image of Boddhisattva Avalokiteshvara
symbolizes compassion as the central focus of
the spiritual experience; that of Manjushri takes
wisdom as the central focus; and that of Vajrapani
emphasizes the need for courage and strength in
the quest for sacred knowledge.
Wrathful deities suggest the
mighty struggle involved in overcoming one's alienation.
They embody all the inner afflictions which darken
our thoughts, our words, and our deeds and which
prohibit attainment of the Buddhist goal of full
enlightenment. Traditionally, wrathful deities
are understood to be aspects of benevolent principles,
fearful only to those who perceive them as alien
forces. When recognized as aspects of one's self
and tamed by spiritual practice, they assume a
purely benevolent guise.
Sexual imagery suggests the integrative
process which lies at the heart of the mandala.
Male and female elements are nothing but symbols
of the countless pairs of opposites (e.g. love
and hate; good and evil etc.) which one experiences
in mundane existence. The initiate seeks to curtail
his or her alienation, by accepting and enjoying
all things as a seamless, interconnected field
of experience. Sexual imagery can also be understood
as a metaphor for enlightenment, with its qualities
of satisfaction, bliss, unity and completion.
If form is crucial to the mandala,
so too is color. The quadrants of the mandala-palace
are typically divided into isosceles triangles
of color, including four of the following five:
white, yellow, red, green and dark blue. Each
of these colors is associated with one of the
five transcendental Buddhas, further associated
with the five delusions of human nature. These
delusions obscure our true nature, but through
spiritual practice they can be transformed into
the wisdom of these five respective Buddhas. Specifically:
In addition to decorating and
sanctifying temples and homes, in Tibetan life
the mandala is traditionally offered to one's
lama or guru when a request has been made for
teachings or an initiation - where the entire
offering of the universe (represented by the mandala)
symbolizes the most appropriate payment for the
preciousness of the teachings.
Once in a desolate
Indian landscape the Mahasiddha Tilopa requested
a mandala offering from his disciple Naropa, and
there being no readily available materials with
which to construct a mandala, Naropa urinated
on the sand and formed an offering of a wet-sand
mandala. On another occasion Naropa used his blood,
head, and limbs to create a mandala offering for
his guru, who was delighted with these spontaneous
The visualization and concretization
of the mandala concept is one of the most significant
contributions of Buddhism to religious psychology. Mandalas are seen as sacred places which, by their
very presence in the world, remind a viewer of
the immanence of sanctity in the universe and
its potential in himself. In the context of the
Buddhist path the purpose of a mandala is to put
an end to human suffering, to attain enlightenment
and to attain a correct view of Reality. It is
a means to discover divinity by the realization
that it resides within one's own self.
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