AskDefine | Define mandala

Dictionary Definition

mandala n : any of various geometric designs (usually circular) symbolizing the universe; used chiefly in Hinduism and Buddhism as an aid to meditation

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. (Hinduism, Buddhism) Any ritualistic geometric design, symbolic of the universe, used as an aid to meditation

Old High German


Late Latin amygdala


mandala f

Extensive Definition

Early and Theravada Buddhism

The mandala can be found in the form of the Stupa and in the Atanatiya Sutta in the Digha Nikaya, part of the Pali Canon. This text is frequently chanted.

Tibetan Vajrayana

A kyil khor (Tibetan for mandala) in Vajrayana Buddhism usually depicts a landscape of the Buddha land or the enlightened vision of a Buddha (which are inevitably identified with and represent the nature of experience and the intricacies of both the enlightened and confused mind): "a microcosm representing various divine powers at work in the universe." Such mandalas consist of an outer circular mandala and an inner square (or sometimes circular) mandala with an ornately decorated mandala palace placed at the center. Any part of the inner mandala can be occupied by Buddhist glyphs and symbols as well as images of its associated deities, which "symbolise different stages in the process of the realisation of the truth." Mandalas are commonly used by tantric Buddhists as an aid to meditation. More specifically, a Buddhist mandala is envisaged as a "sacred space," a Pure Buddha Realm and also as an abode of fully realised beings or deities. While on the one hand, it is regarded as a place separated and protected from the ever-changing and impure outer world of Samsara, and is thus seen as a Buddhafield or a place of Nirvana and peace, the view of Vajrayana Buddhism sees the greatest protection from samsara being the power to see samsaric confusion as the "shadow" of purity (which then points towards it). By visualizing purelands, one learns to understand experience itself as pure, and the abode of enlightenment. The protection 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 The mandala is also "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 which can then be summoned and contemplated at will as a clear and vivid visualised 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.
The photograph at right is a good example of a Tibetan sand mandala. This pattern is painstakingly created on the temple floor by several monks who use small tubes and rub another metal object against the tube's notched surface to create a tiny flow of grains. The various aspects of the traditionally fixed design represent symbolically the objects of worship and contemplation of the Tibetan Buddhist cosmology.
To symbolize impermanence (a central teaching of Buddhism), after days or weeks of creating the intricate pattern, the sand is brushed together and is usually placed in a body of running water to spread the blessings of the mandala.
The visualization and concretization of the mandala concept is one of the most significant contributions of Buddhism to Transpersonal 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 his or her self. 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.
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. A 'mandala offering' in Tibetan Buddhism is a symbolic offering of the entire Universe. Every intricate detail of these mandalas is fixed in the tradition and has specific symbolic meanings, often on more than one level.
The mandala can be shown to represent in visual form the core essence of the Vajrayana teachings. In the mandala, the outer circle of fire usually symbolises wisdom. The ring of 8 charnel grounds probably represent the Buddhist exhortation to always be mindful of death and impermanence with which samsara is suffused: "such locations were utilized in order to confront and to realize the transient nature of life." Described elsewhere thus: "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 in Japan is the mandala of the "Five Buddhas", archetypal Buddha forms embodying various aspects of enlightenment, the 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.

Mandala offering

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 one's teacher for example. Within Vajrayana practice, 100,000 of these mandala offerings (to create merit) can be part of the preliminary practices before a student can begin with 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.

Shingon Buddhism

The Japanese branch of Vajrayana Buddhism, Shingon Buddhism, makes frequent use of mandalas in their 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. A common feature in this ritual is to blindfold the new initiate and have them throw a flower upon either mandala. Where the flower lands assists in the determination of which tutelary deity the initiate should work with.
Sand Mandalas, as found in Tibetan Buddhism, are not practiced in Shingon Buddhism.

Nichiren Buddhism

The mandala in Nichiren Buddhism is called a moji-mandala (文字漫荼羅) and is a hanging paper 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 Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, considered to be the name of the supreme Dharma and 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

Like Nichiren, Pure Land Buddhists such as Shinran and his descendent Rennyo sought a way to create objects of reverence, but objects that were readily available to the lower-classes of Japanese society that could not afford the traditional form of mandala. In the case of Shin Buddhism, Shinran designed a mandala using a hanging scroll, and the words of the nembutsu (南無阿彌陀佛) written vertically.
Such mandalas are still often used by Pure Land Buddhists in home altars called butsudan today.

In Christianity

Cowen (2005: p.?), holds that mandala-esque forms are prevalent throughout Christianity: celtic cross; rosary; halo; aureole; oculi; Crown of Thorns; rose windows; Rosy Cross'; dromenon on the floor of Chartres Cathedral. The dromenon represents a journey from the outer world to the inner sacred centre where the Divine is found.
Similarly, many of the Illuminations of Hildegard von Bingen can be used as Mandalas, as are many of the images of esoteric Christianity (e.g., Christian Hermeticism, Christian Alchemy & Rosicrucianism).

In Islam

In Islam, sacred art is dominated by geometric shapes in which a segment of the circle, the crescent moon, together with a chrystal star, represent the Divine. The entire building of the mosque becomes a mandala as the dome of the roof represents the arch of the heavens and turns the worshipper's attention towards Allah.

Medicine wheel as mandala

Medicine wheels are stone structures built by the natives of North America for various spiritual and ritual purposes. Medicine wheels were built by laying out stones in a circular pattern that often looked like a wagon wheel lying on its side. The wheels could be large, reaching diameters of 75 feet. Although archeologists are not definite on the purpose of each medicine wheel, it is considered that they had ceremonial and astronomical significance. Medicine wheels are still used today in the Native American spirituality, however most of the meaning behind them is not shared amongst non-Native peoples. Dream catchers are also mandalas.

Bora ring as mandala

A Bora is the name given both to an initiation ceremony of Indigenous Australians, and to the site Bora Ring on which the initiation is performed. At such a site, young boys are transformed into men via rites of passage. The word Bora was originally from South-East Australia, but is now often used throughout Australia to describe an initiation site or ceremony. The term "bora" is held to be etymologically derived from that of the belt or girdle that encircles initiated men. The appearance of a Bora Ring varies from one culture to another, but it is often associated with stone arrangements, rock engravings, or other art works. Women are generally prohibited from entering a bora. In South East Australia, the Bora is often associated with the creator-spirit Baiame. Bora rings, found in South-East Australia, are circles of foot-hardened earth surrounded by raised embankments. They were generally constructed in pairs (although some sites have three), with a bigger circle about 22 metres in diameter and a smaller one of about 14 metres. The rings are joined by a sacred walkway. Matthews (1897) gives an excellent eye-witness account of a Bora ceremony, and explains the use of the two circles.

Other meanings of mandala

In the West, mandala is also used to refer to the "personal world" in which one lives, the various elements of the mandala or the activities and interests in which one engages, the most important being at the centre of the mandala and the least important at the periphery. Depicting one's personal mandala in pictorial form can give one a good indication of the state of one's spiritual life.
In science fiction, geometric patterns akin to mandalas have been used to represent advanced technology with esoteric properties, such as the time travel mechanism in the 2007 movie The Last Mimzy or the alien signal in the 2005 television show Threshold.

See also


  • Brauen, M. (1997). The Mandala, Sacred circle in Tibetan Buddhism Serindia Press, London.
  • Bucknell, Roderick & Stuart-Fox, Martin (1986). The Twilight Language: Explorations in Buddhist Meditation and Symbolism. Curzon Press: London. ISBN 0-312-82540-4
  • Cammann, S. (1950). Suggested Origin of the Tibetan Mandala Paintings The Art Quarterly, Vol. 8, Detroit.
  • Cowen, Painton (2005). The Rose Window, London and New York, (offers the most complete overview of the evolution and meaning of the form, accompanied by hundreds of colour illustrations.)
  • Fontana, David (2005). "Meditating with Mandalas", Duncan Baird Publishers, London.
  • Navajo & Tibetan sacred wisdom: the circle of the spirit Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions International.
  • Grossman, Sylvie and Barou, Jean-Pierre (1995). Tibetan Mandala, Art & Practice The Wheel of Time, Konecky and Konecky.
  • Mipham, Sakyong Jamgön (2002) 2000 Seminary Transcripts Book 1 Vajradhatu Publications ISBN 1-55055-002-0
  • Tucci,Giuseppe (1973). The Theory and Practice of the Mandala trans. Alan Houghton Brodrick, New York, Samuel Weisner.
  • Vitali, Roberto (1990). Early Temples of Central Tibet London, Serindia Publications.
  • Wayman, Alex (1973). "Symbolism of the Mandala Palace" in The Buddhist Tantras Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass.
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