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What is a mandala?

Mandala Diagram

This diagram is an imaginative version of a standard mandala form.

The five directional Buddhas

The five directional Buddhas, from a depiction of the deity Achala (detail), approx. 1300–1400. Tibet. Colors on cotton. Asian Art Museum, Gift of Alex Biancardi in honor of Terese Tse Bartholomew, 1997.2.

Mandala Diagram
The five directional Buddhas

What is a mandala?
A mandala is a geometric meditation map made of nested squares and circles, typically organized around a central axis and symbolically oriented to the east, south, west, and north.

Most painted mandalas are two-dimensional representations of three dimensional palaces or structures. Mandalas are designed to be entered in full three-dimensional detail in the mind’s eye during meditation. View a video of a three-dimensional representation of a mandala. 

The diagram above is an imaginative version of a standard mandala form. While it may initially appear complex, the structure of this mandala is actually quite simple once you see it. The outer circle of flames symbolically separates the visionary world of the mandala from the ordinary subject-object world. Just inside the flames is a circle of stylized lightning bolts (vajras). Next, a circle of lotus petals surrounds four arched structures.

The square walls of the mandala palace lie upon the foundation of the crossed vajras. At the east, south, west, and north are the directional Buddhas surrounding Vairochana, the Buddha of the central axis. 

The “Lightning Vehicle” of Buddhism and Mandala-Related Art
“Lightning Vehicle” is one translation of Vajrayana, a form of Buddhism, and mandala-related artworks belong especially to this way of enlightenment (or “vehicle”). “Lightning” is one common translation of the word vajra. Also rendered as “diamond,” vajra is translated as “lightning”  to emphasize the power and swiftness of the Lightning Vehicle’s art and philosophy.

Although especially associated with Himalayan regions, mandala-related artworks appear throughout much of Asia. 

Who Are the Five Directional Buddhas?
Five directional Buddhas are found throughout regions of Asia influenced by Lightning Vehicle thought. Where did they come from, and what do they do? Some early schools of Buddhism developed the theory that there were many Buddhas throughout the universe. Among these Buddhas were yellow Ratnasambhava of the south, blue Akshobhya of the east, white Vairochana of the center, red Amitabha of the west, and green Amoghasiddhi of the north; in the image above (second from left), you see the five directional Buddhas arranged left to right in a linear format.

Given this profusion of Buddhas, philosophers adopted the graphic form of the mandala—a series of nested squares and circles—as a framework for organizing and guiding complex meditation. They then mapped an older Buddhist psychological system, focused on “poisons” (klesha), onto the mandala. In the resultant mandala-based system, every being is dominated by one of five “poisons”: aversion (east), attraction (west), pride (south), jealousy (north), and delusion (center).

The predominance of a poison in any person’s psychological makeup determines that being’s Buddha family; each family is headed by the directional Buddha best tuned to transmute the poison into a corresponding “wisdom”—respectively, the mirror-like wisdom, penetrating wisdom, equality wisdom, accomplishment wisdom, and vision-of-reality wisdom.

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