In the Himalayan Buddhist tradition, symbolic representations
of any kind are collectively referred to as ku sun thug ten, where
ten means "a support." (Compare our theatrical term, "prop.")
Ten are categorized according to whether they stand for the Body,
Speech or Mind of Enlightenment. Ku ten are "body supports"
and include images of the Buddha, deities, or such as those painted thankas.
Sun ten are "speech supports", or scriptures such as Sutras or Tantras,
or commentaries on these. Tug ten are "mind supports" such as stupas
What is a mandala?
Kumar permits the posting here of the following Sept. 2000 Article of the Month,
Buddhist Mandala: Sacred Geometry and Art
Perhaps 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 [the] 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 world-model.
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
CREATION OF A MANDALA:
The origin of the mandala is the center, a [bindu or] 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.
CONSTRUCTION OF A MANDALA:
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 ...
Namgyal monastery (the personal monastery of the Dalai lama), for example, this
period is three years.
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
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
Each 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 up.
Generally, 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.
The 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 the form.
In 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 following
1) Peaceful Deities: A peaceful deity symbolizes its own particular
existential and spiritual approach. For example, the image of Bodhisattva
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
2) Wrathful Deities: 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.
3) Sexual Imagery: 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.
[110 kb] :
COLOR SYMBOLISM OF THE MANDALA:
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.
White - Vairocana: The delusion of ignorance becomes the wisdom of
Yellow - Ratnasambhava: The delusion of pride becomes the wisdom of
Red - Amitabha: The delusion of attachment becomes the wisdom of
Green - Amoghasiddhi: The delusion of jealousy becomes the wisdom of
Blue - Akshobhya: The delusion of anger becomes mirror-like wisdom.
THE MANDALA AS A SACRED OFFERING:
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.
Comments about Sacred Art and Geometry should go
Other articles on the art of India may be found at http://www.exoticindiaart.com/update.htm
where you can subscribe to Nitin's Monthly Newsletter.
The Mandala in Tantric Initiations
During an initiation or empowerment, four
types of mandala are present:
The building, room or sacred space in which
the ritual occurs is consecrated and considered a mandala.
There may be an image or construction in
three dimensions that stands for the residence of the tantric deity.
Those participating will get to see it as they go to the front for the
various empowerments. In fact, this visit may be considered a separate
empowerment in itself.
The participants will offer rice,
symbolic of all wealth, by throwing it at least twice during the
ritual. The rice is not wasted, but is swept up and collected to feed
to birds and other animals. [By the way, there is no
evidence to suggest that it swells up in their bodies!]
The symbolic gesture of offering the
world and its goods using fingers.
< The mandala
Mandalas to Wear
to the scapular that is still pinned by a doting parent to the clothing of
Catholic children for their protection, some Tibetan religious make these
mandalas to sell in order to pay for their food, shelter and education.
Prayers and mantras are hand-written on
fine paper using traditional methods while the monk does
the related practice. The paper is then carefully folded into squares
which are wound and woven with the braided
threads of suitable colours to form the appropriate
^ The above amulet was made by Tenzing Nyima
Lama, Kathmandu, Nepal.
The Mandala and Western Psychology
Student, protege and some-time opponent of Sigmund Freud,
"the father of psychoanalysis," Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) thought that
traces of powerful, fundamental common past experiences of all humanity lie in
every individual's unconscious mind. He coined the word archetype
to denote these images, story lines and reactions.
He is the single person most responsible for introducing the
Sanskrit word mandala into mainstream Western culture. The
idea that a symmetrical symbolic drawing might have a psychologically healing
effect derives from his own personal experiences in the 1940's. However, it is
important to note that he used the word in a rather idiosyncratic [personal,
original] sense. That is, in his work he uses it to refer to a
symbol created by the individual in the form of a colourful, geometric diagram
(usually, but not always circular) involving both personal and cultural
Some therapists and clinicians believe that through creating
circular symbolic designs, clients can express their state or level of
psychological integration. Some have gone as far as to say that through
working with the coherence of these drawings, people can integrate their sense
of identity and improve or even create feelings of harmony through "psychosynthesis."
The exterior ring consists of alternating silenus and siren
figures. The centaurs play the syrinx (double flute) while the female
mermaids or naginis hold their hands to
their chests. Dolphins play in a ring of stylized waves, while closer to
the centre is a series of wild animals. At the core, crowned by snakes is
a Medusa mask comparable to the "mask
of glory" -- open mouthed with tongue extruding. On the obverse
or upper side, between the spouts where flames would emerge and light the room,
are sixteen other detailed figures.