CREATION OF A MANDALA
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.
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 the 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 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
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.
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
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
1) Peaceful Deities: 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.
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.
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 the mirror like
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 offerings.
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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Posted with Nitin G.'s permission
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