What is a mandala?
A mandala is a schematic diagram that portrays the sacred environment of a particular deity. The deity in the sacred space is a direct reference to the presence of the divinity in the world. The mandala is used by practitioners as a guideline for meditation. It helps people visualize the way in which they will restructure the world in a manner to bring about universal salvation. Mandalas can be three-dimensional, but the most common form is painted in colored sand or pigments in two-dimensions. They consist of a complex of circles, enclosures, auspicious signs, and a vast central platform, from which the deity sends forth his powers of salvation.
Which deities are depicted here?
The center of this mandala shows Cakrasamvara (pronounced "Chakra-some-vahra") in a militant pose, firmly embracing his partner, Vajravarahi. Cakrasamvara is a powerful god (wrathful deity or yidam) of Buddhism and he is immensely popular in Tibet, Mongolia, and Nepal. Depicted above are the first three lineage holders of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism—Buddha Vajradhara (middle), the Indian Mahasiddhas Tilopa (left), and Naropa (right). Vajradhara is a Buddha who is revered as the quintessencial teacher of the Tantras. Mahasiddhas are often very ordinary persons who had the fortune to meet with a qualified Tantric teacher (lama) and reached enlightenment in that very lifetime through the energetic application of Tantric technology (Vajrayana practices).
Among the Mahasiddhas were men and women, scholars, kings, wives, farmers, and even thieves, drunks and outcasts. The Eighty-four Mahasiddhas all came from India. Tibet has its own Mahasiddha tradition that continues to the present day. Famous Tibetan Mahasiddhas include such women as Yeshe Tsogyal, Trashi Tseringma, Machig Labdron, Achi and contemporary women such as Drikung Tashi Dolma. Of the thousands of male Mahasiddhas, some of the more famous are Milarepa, Ra Lotsawa, Drom Tonba, Je Tsongkhapa, Rigdzin Chodrak, and contemporary Mahasiddhas such as Ngakpa Yeshe Dorje.
How to Look at a Mandala:
Below the mandala are tantric offerings, the guardian Mahakala, and the dancing skeletons known as Masters of the Cemetery. The latter are worldly protectors of Buddhism, as are the figures in the outer most ring of the mandala known as the Eight Great Cemetaries, which represent samsara in its transitional phase towards enlightment at the center. After passing through this level, one must pass through fires of purification and the other levels as one nears enlightenment in the center of the mandala.
For information on Sand Mandalas see: ccat.sas.upenn.edu/george/mandala.html
Discussion Points/Teaching Suggestions:
- Mandala extension activity: View the video Sand Painting: Sacred Art of Tibetan Buddhism (Available for loan from the Asian Art Museum. For more information contact: resourcecenter [at] asianart.org) and discuss: Compare the mandala with the uses of other kinds diagrams (e.g. building plans, maps, computer instruction manuals). Are they easy to use? What functions do they serve?
- Make your own mandala: Draw your own mandala, using Basic Proportions of a Sand Mandala, or model it after the image above. Mandalas are not only painted, they are also fabricated out of metal, and constructed of sand. Sand mandalas are created by monks out of sand colored with pigments and ground precious stones (see Symbolism of Colors in Tibetan Art). This process takes many days, even weeks and its construction is often part of a ritual or sacred festival. Once the mandala and the ritual or festival is completed, the mandala is deconstructed by the monks and the sand is poured into a nearby river, lake or ocean in a ritual to spread its blessings and sacred powers to the beings of the world.