What Is Mandala?
The basic form of most mandalas is a square with four gates containing a circle with a center point. Each gate is in the general shape of a T. Mandalas often have radial balance.
The term appears in the Rigveda as the name of the sections of the work, and Vedic rituals use mandalas such as the Navagraha mandala to this day. Mandalas are also used in Buddhism.
In various spiritual traditions, mandalas may be employed for focusing attention of practitioners and adepts, as a spiritual guidance tool, for establishing a sacred space and as an aid to meditation and trance induction.
A yantra is similar to a mandala, usually smaller and using a more limited colour palette. It may be a two- or three-dimensional geometric composition used in sadhanas, puja or meditative rituals, and may incorporate a mantra into its design. It is considered to represent the abode of the deity. Each yantra is unique and calls the deity into the presence of the practitioner through the elaborate symbolic geometric designs. According to one scholar, “Yantras function as revelatory symbols of cosmic truths and as instructional charts of the spiritual aspect of human experience”
Many situate yantras as central focus points for Hindu tantric practice. Yantras are not representations, but are lived, experiential, nondual realities. As Khanna describes:
Despite its cosmic meanings a yantra is a reality lived. Because of the relationship that exists in the Tantras between the outer world (the macrocosm) and man’s inner world (the microcosm), every symbol in a yantra is ambivalently resonant in inner–outer synthesis, and is associated with the subtle body and aspects of human consciousness.
The Rajamandala (or Raja-mandala; circle of states) was formulated by the Indian author Kautilya in his work on politics, the Arthashastra (written between 4th century BCE and 2nd century BCE). It describes circles of friendly and enemy states surrounding the king’s state.
In historical, social and political sense, the term “mandala” is also employed to denote traditional Southeast Asian political formations (such as federation of kingdoms or vassalized states). It was adopted by 20th century Western historians from ancient Indian political discourse as a means of avoiding the term ‘state’ in the conventional sense. Not only did Southeast Asian polities not conform to Chinese and European views of a territorially defined state with fixed borders and a bureaucratic apparatus, but they diverged considerably in the opposite direction: the polity was defined by its centre rather than its boundaries, and it could be composed of numerous other tributary polities without undergoing administrative integration. Empires such as Bagan, Ayutthaya, Champa, Khmer, Srivijaya and Majapahit are known as “mandala” in this sense.
In Vajrayana Buddhism, mandalas have been developed also into sandpainting. They are also a key part of Anuttara yoga Tantra meditation practices.
Visualisation of Vajrayana teachings
The mandala can be shown to represent in visual form the core essence of the Vajrayana teachings. The mind is “a microcosm representing various divine powers at work in the universe.” The mandala represents the nature of the Pure Land, Enlightened mind.
An example of this type of mandala is Vajrabhairava mandala a silk tapestry woven with gilded paper depicting lavish elements like crowns and jewelry, which gives a three-dimensional effect to the piece.
A mandala can also represent the entire universe, which is traditionally depicted with Mount Meru as the axis mundi in the center, surrounded by the continents. One example is the Cosmological Mandala with Mount Meru, a silk tapestry from the Yuan dynasty that serves as a diagram of the Tibetan cosmology, which was given to China from Nepal and Tibet.
Wisdom and impermanence
In the mandala, the outer circle of fire usually symbolises wisdom. The ring of eight charnel grounds represents the Buddhist exhortation to be always mindful of death, and the impermanence with which samsara is suffused: “such locations were utilized in order to confront and to realize the transient nature of life”. Described elsewhere: “within a flaming rainbow nimbus and encircled by a black ring of dorjes, the major outer ring depicts the eight great charnel grounds, to emphasize the dangerous nature of human life”. Inside these rings lie the walls of the mandala palace itself, specifically a place populated by deities and Buddhas.
One well-known type of mandala is the mandala of the “Five Buddhas”, archetypal Buddha forms embodying various aspects of enlightenment. Such Buddhas are depicted depending on the school of Buddhism, and even the specific purpose of the mandala. A common mandala of this type is that of the Five Wisdom Buddhas (a.k.a. Five Jinas), the Buddhas Vairocana, Aksobhya, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha and Amoghasiddhi. When paired with another mandala depicting the Five Wisdom Kings, this forms the Mandala of the Two Realms.
The mandala is “a support for the meditating person”, something to be repeatedly contemplated to the point of saturation, such that the image of the mandala becomes fully internalised in even the minutest detail and can then be summoned and contemplated at will as a clear and vivid visualized image. With every mandala comes what Tucci calls “its associated liturgy … contained in texts known as tantras”, instructing practitioners on how the mandala should be drawn, built and visualised, and indicating the mantras to be recited during its ritual use.
By visualizing “pure lands”, one learns to understand experience itself as pure, and as the abode of enlightenment. The protection that we need, in this view, is from our own minds, as much as from external sources of confusion. In many tantric mandalas, this aspect of separation and protection from the outer samsaric world is depicted by “the four outer circles: the purifying fire of wisdom, the vajra circle, the circle with the eight tombs, the lotus circle”. The ring of vajras forms a connected fence-like arrangement running around the perimeter of the outer mandala circle.
As a meditation on impermanence (a central teaching of Buddhism), after days or weeks of creating the intricate pattern of a sand mandala, the sand is brushed together into a pile and spilled into a body of running water to spread the blessings of the mandala.
Kværne in his extended discussion of sahaja, discusses the relationship of sadhana interiority and exteriority in relation to mandala thus:
…external ritual and internal sadhana form an indistinguishable whole, and this unity finds its most pregnant expression in the form of the mandala, the sacred enclosure consisting of concentric squares and circles drawn on the ground and representing that adamant plane of being on which the aspirant to Buddha hood wishes to establish himself. The unfolding of the tantric ritual depends on the mandala; and where a material mandala is not employed, the adept proceeds to construct one mentally in the course of his meditation.”
Whereas the above mandala represents the pure surroundings of a Buddha, this mandala represents the universe. This type of mandala is used for the mandala-offerings, during which one symbolically offers the universe to the Buddhas or to one’s teacher. Within Vajrayana practice, 1,000,000 of these mandala offerings (to create merit) can be part of the preliminary practices before a student even begins actual tantric practices. This mandala is generally structured according to the model of the universe as taught in a Buddhist classic text the Abhidharma-kośa, with Mount Meru at the centre, surrounded by the continents, oceans and mountains, etc.
One Japanese branch of Mahayana Buddhism—Shingon Buddhism—makes frequent use of mandalas in its rituals as well, though the actual mandalas differ. When Shingon’s founder, Kukai, returned from his training in China, he brought back two mandalas that became central to Shingon ritual: the Mandala of the Womb Realm and the Mandala of the Diamond Realm.
These two mandalas are engaged in the abhiseka initiation rituals for new Shingon students, more commonly known as the Kechien Kanjō (結縁灌頂). A common feature of this ritual is to blindfold the new initiate and to have them throw a flower upon either mandala. Where the flower lands assists in the determination of which tutelary deity the initiate should follow.
Sand mandalas, as found in Tibetan Buddhism, are not practiced in Shingon Buddhism.
The mandala in Nichiren Buddhism is called a moji-mandala (文字曼陀羅) and is a paper hanging scroll or wooden tablet whose inscription consists of Chinese characters and medieval-Sanskrit script representing elements of the Buddha’s enlightenment, protective Buddhist deities, and certain Buddhist concepts. Called the Gohonzon, it was originally inscribed by Nichiren, the founder of this branch of Japanese Buddhism, during the late 13th Century. The Gohonzon is the primary object of veneration in some Nichiren schools and the only one in others, which consider it to be the supreme object of worship as the embodiment of the supreme Dharma and Nichiren’s inner enlightenment. The seven characters Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō, considered to be the name of the supreme Dharma, as well as the invocation that believers chant, are written down the center of all Nichiren-sect Gohonzons, whose appearance may otherwise vary depending on the particular school and other factors.
Pure Land Buddhism
Mandalas have sometimes been used in Pure Land Buddhism to graphically represent Pure Lands, based on descriptions found in the Larger Sutra and the Contemplation Sutra. The most famous mandala in Japan is the Taima mandala, dated to about 763 CE. The Taima mandala is based on the Contemplation Sutra, but other similar mandalas have been made subsequently. Unlike mandalas used in Vajrayana Buddhism, it is not used as an object of meditation or for esoteric ritual. Instead, it provides a visual representation of the Pure Land texts, and is used as a teaching aid.
Also in Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, Shinran and his descendant, Rennyo, sought a way to create easily accessible objects of reverence for the lower-classes of Japanese society. Shinran designed a mandala using a hanging scroll, and the words of the nembutsu (南無阿彌陀佛) written vertically. This style of mandala is still used by some Jodo Shinshu Buddhists in home altars, or butsudan.
This Mayan symbology has even made its way into New Age symbolism as the Dreamspell calendar, developed by José Argüelles. Sometimes described as an authentic Mayan mandala, it is “inspired by” elements of the Tzolk’inwheel of time.
Aztec Sun Stone
The earliest interpretations of the stone relate to its use as a calendar. In 1792, two years after the stone’s unearthing, Mexican anthropologist Antonio de León y Gama wrote a treatise on the Aztec calendar using the stone as its basis. Some of the circles of glyphs are the glyphs for the days of the month. The four symbols included in the Ollin glyph represent the four past suns that the Mexica believed the earth had passed through.
Another aspect of the stone is its religious significance. One theory is that the face at the center of the stone represents Tonatiuh, the Aztec deity of the sun. It is for this reason that the stone became known as the “Sun Stone.” Richard Townsend proposed a different theory, claiming that the figure at the center of the stone represents Tlaltecuhtli, the Mexica earth deity who features in Mexica creation myths. Modern archaeologists, such as those at the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City, believe it is more likely to have been used primarily as a ceremonial basin or ritual altar for gladiatorial sacrifices than as an astrological or astronomical reference.
Yet another characteristic of the stone is its possible geographic significance. The four points may relate to the four corners of the earth or the cardinal points. The inner circles may express space as well as time.
Lastly, there is the political aspect of the stone. It may have been intended to show Tenochtitlan as the center of the world and therefore, as the center of authority. Townsend argues for this idea, claiming that the small glyphs of additional dates amongst the four previous suns—1 Flint (Tecpatl), 1 Rain (Atl), and 7 Monkey (Ozomahtli)—represent matters of historical importance to the Mexica state. He posits, for example, that 7 Monkey represents the significant day for the cult of a community within Tenochtitlan. His claim is further supported by the presence of Mexica ruler Moctezuma II’s name on the work. These elements ground the Stone’s iconography in history rather than myth and the legitimacy of the state in the cosmos.
The Cosmati pavements, including that at Westminster Abbey, are geometric mandala-like mosaic designs from thirteenth century Italy. The Great Pavement at Westminster Abbey is believed to embody divine and cosmic geometries as the seat of enthronement of the monarchs of England.
Similarly, many of the Illuminations of Hildegard von Bingen can be used as mandalas, as well as many of the images of esoteric Christianity, as in Christian Hermeticism, Christian Alchemy, and Rosicrucianism.
Alchemist, Mathematician and Astrologer John Dee developed a geometric symbol which he called the Sigillum Dei ‘Seal of God’ manifesting a universal geometric order which incorporated the names of the archangels, derived from earlier forms of the clavicula salomonis or key of Solomon.
Mandalas in Persian art
In Persian Islamic theosophy, each of us is a part of God. We have been separated from our source like the rays of the sun and, we need to always keep in our mind that we have a divine light in us, which is the source of love. This light always shows us the right path to grow and find our way back to our source.
Therefore, in Persian Shamseh motif which symbolizes the sun, there is a center which is the symbol of god or the source of energy. This small circle is surrounded by many other circles or polygons with the same center but in different sizes. These circles are the light rays of the sun which symbolize every god’s creature. Every creature tends to reach God, so the purpose of life is to reach back the source of energy which is mentioned as pure love in some references. Some of us are closer to our origin, while some of us have a long journey to reach it. As in Shamseh, some circles are smaller, therefore, closer to the center.
Shamseh motif was wildly applied during Safavid time in Iran. Safavid was one of the most important ruling dynasties of Iran in art, architecture, astrology, philosophy, and theosophy. An extraordinary example of Shamseh motif would be the tiling of the ceiling of Sheik Lotfollah mosque in Isfahan. Persian “Shamseh” motif painted on a copper plate. The art of hand painting and enameling is called “Meenakari” in Farsi.
Western psychological interpretations
According to art therapist and mental health counselor Susanne F. Fincher, we owe the re-introduction of mandalas into modern Western thought to Carl Jung, the Swiss analytical psychologist. In his pioneering exploration of the unconscious through his own art making, Jung observed the motif of the circle spontaneously appearing. The circle drawings reflected his inner state at that moment. Familiarity with the philosophical writings of India prompted Jung to adopt the word “mandala” to describe these circle drawings he and his patients made. In his autobiography, Jung wrote:
I sketched every morning in a notebook a small circular drawing, … which seemed to correspond to my inner situation at the time. … Only gradually did I discover what the mandala really is: … the Self, the wholeness of the personality, which if all goes well is harmonious.— Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, pp. 195–196.
Jung recognized that the urge to make mandalas emerges during moments of intense personal growth. Their appearance indicates a profound re-balancing process is underway in the psyche. The result of the process is a more complex and better integrated personality.
The mandala serves a conservative purpose—namely, to restore a previously existing order. But it also serves the creative purpose of giving expression and form to something that does not yet exist, something new and unique. … The process is that of the ascending spiral, which grows upward while simultaneously returning again and again to the same point.— Jungian analyst Marie-Louise von Franz, C. G. Jung: Man and His Symbols, p. 225
Creating mandalas helps stabilize, integrate, and re-order inner life.
According to the psychologist David Fontana, its symbolic nature can help one “to access progressively deeper levels of the unconscious, ultimately assisting the meditator to experience a mystical sense of oneness with the ultimate unity from which the cosmos in all its manifold forms arises.”
One of the most intense archaeological discoveries in recent years that could redefine the history of eastern thought and tradition of mandala is the discovery of five giant mandalas in the valley of Manipur made with Google Earth imagery. Located in the paddy field in the west of Imphal, the capital of Manipur, the Maklang geoglyph is perhaps the world’s largest mandala built entirely of mud. The site wasn’t discovered until 2013 as its whole structure could only be visible via Google Earth satellite imagery. The whole paddy field, locally known as Bihu Loukon, is now protected and announced as historical monument and site by the government of Manipur in the same year. The site is situated 12 km aerial distance from Kangla with the GPS coordinates of 24° 48′ N and 93° 49′ E. It covers a total area of around 224,161.45 square meters. This square mandala has four similar protruding rectangular ‘gates’ in the cardinal directions guarded each by similar but smaller rectangular ‘gates’ on the left and right. Within the square there is an eight petalled flower or rayed-star, recently called as Maklang ‘Star fort’ by the locals, in the centre covering a total area of around 50,836.66 square meters. The discovery of other five giant mandalas in the valley of Manipur is also made with Google Earth. The five giant mandalas, viz., Sekmai mandala, Heikakmapal mandala, Phurju twin mandalas and Sangolmang mandala are located on the western bank of the Iril River.
In contemporary use
Mandalas can be found in early Buddhist art from the 14th and 15th centuries.
Fashion designer Mandali Mendrilla designed an interactive art installation called Mandala of Desires (Blue Lotus Wish Tree) made in peace silk and eco friendly textile ink, displayed at the China Art Museum in Shanghai in November 2015. The pattern of the dress was based on the Goloka Yantra mandala, shaped as a lotus with eight petals. Visitors were invited to place a wish on the sculpture dress, which will be taken to India and offered to a genuine living Wish Tree.
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- Khanna, Madhu, Yantra: The Tantric Symbol of Cosmic Unity. Thames and Hudson, 1979, pp. 12-22
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- K. Mills, W. B. Taylor & S. L. Graham (eds), Colonial Latin America: A Documentary History, ‘The Aztec Stone of the Five Eras’, pp. 23, 25
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- See David Fontana: “Meditating with Mandalas”, p. 11, 54, 118
- “Cosmati Pavement – Video Library”. www.westminster-abbey.org.
- see Susanne F. Fincher: Creating Mandalas: For Insight, Healing, and Self-Expression, pp. 1 – 18
- See David Fontana: Meditating with Mandalas, p. 10
- Wangam, Somorjit (2018). World’s Largest Mandalas from Manipur and Carl Jung’s Archetype of the Self, p. 25-33. NeScholar, ed. Dr. R.K.Nimai Singh ,Imphal. ISSN2350-0336.
- A. Wayman (1981). “Reflections on the Theory of Barabudur as a Mandala”. Barabudur History and Significance of a Buddhist Monument. Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press.
- Hasegawa, Masami (2017). “Phylogeny mandalas for illustrating the Tree of Life”. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. 117: 168–178. doi:10.1016/j.ympev.2016.11.001. PMID27816710.
- “China Art Museum in Shanghai – Forms of Devotion”. Retrieved 10 October 2016.
- “Haljinu “Mandala of Desires” dnevno posjećuje čak 30 000 ljudi!”.
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