Buddha Mandalas

In Tibetan Buddhism, a mandala is an imaginary palace that is contemplated during meditation. Each object in the palace has significance, representing some aspect of wisdom or reminding the meditator of some guiding principle. Tradition dictates the shapes, sizes and colors of these objects. There are many different mandalas, each with different lessons to teach. Most mandalas contain a host of deities as well as inanimate objects.

The word ‘Mandala' means a ‘circle' in the classical Indian language of Sanskrit, but it has far deeper significance than is conveyed by its literal meaning. It represents wholeness, and can be seen as a model for the organizational structure of life itself--a cosmic diagram that reminds us of our relation to the infinite, the world that extends both beyond and within our bodies and minds. The mandala pattern is used in many religious traditions. Hildegard von Bingen, a Christian nun in the 12th century, created many beautiful mandalas to express her visions and beliefs. In the Americas, Indians have created medicine wheels and sand mandalas. The circular Aztec calendar was both a timekeeping device and a religious expression of ancient Aztecs. In Asia, the Taoist "yin-yang" symbol represents opposition as well as interdependence.

Mandala, in Hindu and Buddhist Tantrism, is a symbolic diagram used in the performance of sacred rites and as an instrument of meditation. In ancient India, the mandala was a round or square mud platform at a meditation site erected to ward off "demons" during meditation sessions of the Esoteric Buddhists. When a king ascended to the throne, or when a monk was ordained, the ceremony would take place on a mandala. To these ceremonies, all the deities representing the

past, present and the future from all the cosmic compass points (east, west, south, north, northeast, northwest, southeast and southwest from high above and down below) would be invited as witnesses to these occasions, and on the platform their images would be drawn. Later on, different types of mandala were developed, of which the following four are the most common:

  • The Great Mandala (Maha Mandala), at which the presence of the deities from their respective areas are drawn in green, yellow, red, white and black to represent "the earth, water, fire, wind and air".
  • The Samaya mandala, at which the presence of the deities is shown not by the drawings of their images, but by those of the pearls, swords or wheels they carry so that the meditators may associates these objects with the images of the deities and practice visionary meditation.
  • The Dharma Mandala, at which the deities are not represented by the drawings of their images, or those of the objects they carry, for it is believed that the sight of the initial syllables in Sanskrit of their titles will invoke their images in meditators.
  • The Karma Mandala, where carved, sculptured or cast figures of the deities are set up to impress the meditators with the vivid, life-like sight of these deities.

In ancient Tibet, as part of a spiritual practice, monks created intricate mandalas with colored sand made of crushed semiprecious stones. They are formed of a traditionally prescribed iconography that includes geometric shapes and a multitude of ancient spiritual symbols. The tradition continues to this day as the monks travel to different cultures around the world to create sand mandalas and educate people about the culture of Tibet.

The mandala is basically a representation of the universe and a consecrated area. Man (the microcosm), by mentally "entering" the mandala and "proceeding" toward its center, is by analogy guided through the cosmic processes of disintegration and reintegration. It affects a spiritual journey toward perfection, culminating in ‘Siddhi'. It is not only theoretical but also practical as an operational scheme involving a practical realization of the process within oneself. It thus becomes an instrument (Yantra).

There are many types and varieties of Mandalas depending on the nature of the central deity, and they have distinct concepts and different purposes. The individual representations range from the so-called Cosmic Mandalas, which transmit the ancient knowledge of the development of the universe and the world-systems which represents a high point among Mandalas dedicated to meditation; to the Mandalas of the Medicine Buddha which demonstrates how the Buddha-power radiates in all directions, portraying the healing power of the Buddha. The symbolism of meditation Mandalas has a rich tradition. The outer form of these so-called holy circles is a geometrical diagram, a Yantra, and each detail of its construction has symbolic meaning.

In its most common form, the mandala appears as a series of concentric circles, its deities housed in a square structure with four elaborate gates, sometimes described as a four-sided palace or temple. Beginning with the outer circles, one often finds the following structure: a ring of fire, frequently depicted as stylized scrollwork, which symbolizes the process of transformation necessary to enter the sacred territory within. This is followed by a ring of thunderbolt or diamond scepters (vajra), indicating the diamond-like, unchangeable nature of the mandala's spiritual realms. Particularly in mandalas featuring deities in their wrathful (krodha) forms, one finds eight cremation grounds (smasana) arranged in a wide band and marking the next concentric circle of the mandala. Each is associated with one of the cardinal or intermediate points of the compass.

Each cremation ground has its own mountain, stupa (symbol of the Buddha's teaching and thus, the promise of salvation even in the midst of samsara), river, tree, and mendicant. The cremation grounds also symbolize death and the fear of death; in confronting and surpassing this fear, one is free to move into subtler regions of the human psyche. There follows a circle of lotus petals, indicating that the subsequent pure realms exist not in the phenomenal world, but deep within the human heart. Next appears the mandala's four-walled palace or temple, oriented to the east, its elaborate gates (torana) mark the cardinal points of the compass. The palace walls are golden and encrusted with jewels, each gate surmounted by two gazelles adorned with streamers and facing the wheel of the Buddhist law (dharmacakra). The temple-palace includes sacred and royal symbolism, reflecting ancient ties between sacred and royal societies. In the temple-palace (kutagara) appear the mandala's various circles of deities. Some mandalas house hundreds of deities, others far fewer. Regardless of number, deities are arranged symmetrically, marking the four cardinal points of the compass, the intermediate points. At this point in the mandala, one may find four "offering goddesses," embodiments of offerings made to the mandala's central deity. Finally, at the center of the mandala lies the deity with whom the initiate identifies and whose characteristics he or she hopes to share. The central deity may be peaceful in appearanceor may be wrathful. Sexual imagery suggests the integrative process which lies at the heart of the mandala, male and female being symbols of the countless pairs of opposites (e.g. love and hate, good and evil) which one experiences in mundane existence. Sexual imagery can also be understood as a metaphor for enlightenment, with its qualities of satisfaction, bliss, unity, and completion. 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.

The various symbols used in the Mandala are:

  • Diamond: the indestructible diamond, clear, yet showing all colors, becomes a symbol of the nature of the mind
  • Bell: the female part of the Tantric polarity: the symbol of emptiness - the boundless openness, giving room for wisdom
  • Vajra: the male part of the Tantric polarity: the symbol of effective means and Buddha's active compassion with the meditating person.
  • Dharma Wheel: the eight hubs are a symbol of the Eightfold Path, leading to perfection
  • Lotus: symbol of the teaching of Buddha. This plant stands with the roots in the mud, yet rises its blossom towards the light. One should aim to be like it. The symbol of Buddha lives in the center of the mandala, surrounded by eight Buddhas for meditation - symbolic deities: four male and four female. These figures, facing the corners of the earth form together a lotus flower.

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, dark blue. Each color is associated with one of the five families (kula) of deities, each of these governed by a celestial Buddha (tathagata): Vairocana (white), Aksobhya (blue), Amitabha (red), Ratnasambhava (yellow), and Amoghasiddhi (green). Each color is also associated with one of the five afflictions (panchaklesa) of the human personality: confusion (moha), pride (mana), envy (irsya), hatred (dvesa), and desire (raga). These characteristics obscure our true nature, but through spiritual practice, they can be transformed into the wisdom of the tathagata with whom they are associated.


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