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published: 12/10/04
updated: 8/8/13

Mandalas: Sacred Art and Geometry




Mandalas are works of sacred art in Tantric (Tibetan) Buddhism. The word "mandala" comes from a Sanskrit word that generally means "circle," and mandalas are indeed primarily recognizable by their concentric circles and other geometric figures. Mandalas are far more than geometical figures, however. For Tantric Buddhists, they are rich with symbolism and sacred meaning. In fact, the etymology of the word "mandala" suggests not just a circle but a "container of essence."

Overview

Simply stated, a mandala is a sacred geometric figure that represents the universe. When completed, a mandala becomes a sacred area that serves as a receptable for deities and a collection point of universal forces. By mentally entering a mandala and proceeding to its center, a person is symbolically guided through the cosmos to the essence of reality. By constructing a mandala, a monk ritually participates in the Buddha's teachings.

In Tibetan Buddhism, contemplation of sacred images is central to religious ritual, and a mandala is one of the most important of these sacred images. A Tibetan mandala is usually made with careful placement of colored sand, and accordingly is known in Tibetan as dul-tson-kyil-khor, or "mandala of colored powders." In China, Japan and Tibet, mandalas can also be made in bronze or stone three-dimensional figures. In recent years, a variety of mandalas have been created using computer graphics, although these are usually created by non-Buddhists and are not considered sacred.





Constructing a Mandala

The process of constructing a mandala is a sacred ritual. It is a meditative, painstaking process that can take days or even weeks to complete.

Before a monk may participate in the construction of a mandala, he must undergo a lengthy period of artistic and philosophical study. In the Namgyal monastery, the personal monastery of Dalai Lama, this period lasts three years.

Traditionally, four monks work together on a single mandala. The mandala is divided into quadrants with one monk assigned to each. Midway through the process, each monk receives an assistant who helps fill in the colors while the primary monk continues to work on detailed outlines.

Mandalas are constructed from the center outward, beginning with a dot in the center. With the placement of the center dot, the mandala is consecrated to a partcular deity. This deity will usually be depicted in an image over the center dot, although some mandalas are purely geometric.

Lines are then drawn through the center dot to the four corners, creating triangular geometric patterns. These lines are then used to construct a square "palace" with four gates. The monks usually keep to their own quadrant at this point.

From the inner square, the monks move outward to a series of concentric circles. Here the monks work in tandem, moving all around the mandala. They wait until each section is entirely completed before moving outward together. This ensures that balance is always maintained.

Although some mandalas are painted and serve as an enduring object of contemplation, the traditional Tibetan sand mandala, when completed, is deliberately destroyed. The sand is poured into a nearby stream or river to distribute the positive energies it contains. This ritual reminds those who painstakingly constructed the mandala of the central Buddhist teaching of the impermanence of all things.


Mandala Symbolism

In Buddhism, mandalas are rich with symbolism that evokes various aspects of Buddhist teaching and tradition. This is part of what makes the creation of a mandala a sacred act, for as they work, the monks are imparting the Buddha's teachings.

Outside the square temple are several concentric circles. The outermost circle is usually decorated with stylized scrollwork resembling a ring of fire. This ring of fire symbolizes the process of transformation humans must undergo before being able to enter the sacred territory within. It both bars the unitiated and symbolizes the burning of ignorance.

The next circle inward is a ring of thunderbolt or diamond scepters, which stands for indestructability and illumination. This is followed by a circle of eight graveyards, representing the eight aspects of human consciousness that bind a person to the cycle of rebirth. Finally, the innermost ring is made of lotus leaves, signifying religious rebirth.

The square structure in the middle of a mandala is a palace for the resident deities and a temple containing the essence of the Buddha. The square temple's four elaborate gates symbolize a variety of ideas, including:

  • The four boundless thoughts: loving-kindness, compassion, sympathy and equanimity
  • The four directions: south, north, east and west

Within the square palace or temple are images of deities, which are usually the Five Dyani Buddhas (the Great Buddhas of Wisdom). The iconography of these deities is rich in symbolism in itself. Each of the Dyani Buddhas represents a direction (center, south, north, east and west), cosmic element (like form and consciousness), earthly element (ether, air, water, earth and fire), and a particular type of wisdom. Each Buddha is empowered to overcome a particular evil, such as ignorance, envy or hatred. The Five Dyani Buddhas are generally identical in appearance, but are each represented iconographically with a particular color, mudra (hand gesture), and animal. See the article on the Five Dyani Buddhas for more information.

In the center of the mandala is an image of the chief deity, who is placed over the center dot described above. Because it has no dimensions, the center dot represents the seed or center of the universe.


Types of Mandalas

Tibetan Mandalas come in a variety of forms, but most are variations on the basic themes outlined above. Broadly speaking, there are two basic types of mandalas:

  • Garbha-dhatu (Sanskrit: “womb world”; Japanese: taizo-kai), in which the movement is from the one to the many
  • Vajra-dhatu (Sanskrit: “diamond world”; Japanese kongo-kai), from the many into one




Notes and References

  1. The mandala is also a part of Hindu Tantrism and in other traditions like North American Indians, but this article will focus on the Buddhist mandala.
  2. "Mandala."
    Encyclopædia Britannica
    . 2004. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service.
  3. Little Tibetan Buddhist Iconography.

Links on Buddhist Mandalas


Mandalas in Tibetan Buddhism. Meaning of mandalas, how to make mandalas, mandala symbolism, resources on mandalas.