The Buddhist Mandala

Here we are going to talk about the Buddhist Mandala. We saw that the goal of Tantric practice is to understand emptiness by achieving a union of opposites. This union was expressed by a series of symbolic pairs. These pairs apply to the personality, to ritual action and also to the cosmos as a whole. Here we are going to talk about a system of Tantric symbolism that is based not in the number two, but in the number five.

As before, the goal is to overcome duality by unifying the experience of human reality in a single whole.

What is a Mandala?

Let’s start with a basic question: What is a Mandala and what does it express? The word Mandala means simply “circle”. In its most simple form, a Mandala consists of five major points: North, South, East, West and the point of the center.

It is useful to think of the Mandala as functioning in a simple ritual way. It simply draws a line around some ritual space, demarcates it and separates it from the profane space that lies outside. You walk around this space and then encounter reality directly by moving right straight to the center of the Mandala. You might say that a Mandala suggests to us that our consciousness moves around encountering diversity and then unifies reality by going right straight to the center.

The Dhyani Buddhas

In Tantric art and symbolism, a separate Buddha can be associated with each one of these points. These five Buddhas of the Mandala are known as “meditation Buddhas” or Dhyani Buddhas.

The identity of these Buddhas is not fixed. This is one of the things that makes the study of the symbolism of a Mandala so complex. Different Buddhas are often associated with different Mandalas and different rituals. Buddhas often change places in the Mandala. However, the Buddha who often occupies the center of a Mandala is the Buddha Akshobhya. This is a Buddha whose name means “the unshakable”. Akshobhya Buddha sits at the center of the Mandala and is unshaken. He symbolizes consciousness and also symbolizes the element of space.

The five Buddhas of the Mandala help a person in this process of symbolic unification by connecting themselves to other five elements. What are these five elements? The five aggregates that constitute the personality. Each of these Buddhas is associated with one of the aggregates. Each Buddha also has a different color. They also symbolize five directions of the cosmos, five female Buddhas, five boddhisattvas, five times of the day, five seasons of the year and so on. These are all different ways in which these Buddhas are associated with different aspects of reality. When you put all these symbolic associations together the Mandala gives you a symbolic map of all of reality.

The Symbolic Representation of the Cosmos

The Mandala represents also a very precise view of the geographical structure of the world. According to this system, at the center there is a mountain. This is a sacred mountain that raises up in the center of the world. It is called mountain Meru.

Around this mountain, according to traditional Buddhist cosmology, there are four continents that are triangular in shape. The place where we live is the Southern continent Jambudvipa. We live in one of the four petals that extend out of the central mountain of the cosmos.

This view of the cosmos embodies a precise view of the human personality. The body itself is made up of a Mandala. You may have heard of the Chakras. These are energy centers located along the spine. In traditional Tantric physiology there are six of these running from the base of the spine right up to the top of the head. Five of these represent the points of the Mandala and the sixth point at the top represents the space that transcends reality.

Uses of the Mandala

How is the Mandala used in the Tantric tradition? One of the things that could be done is pretty simple. To take a plate and pieces of grain. Each one of these pieces of grain is placed in the plate and used to designate an important piece within the structure that we talked about. Then take that and offer it to a deity.

This is a simple gesture but a really powerful one. What you are doing here is to offer the whole world to the Buddha or the object you are worshipping. I may offer a flower to the Buddha, that’s great, but it is just a small portion of the cosmos. How much more powerful and effective would be to create a map of the cosmos and offer it to the deity.

Another thing that is often done as a form of worship and meditation is to create a Mandala using colored sand. When groups of Tibetan monks are asked to display some aspect of their tradition to an American audience they often create Mandalas using colored sand, sometimes simple ones and sometimes Mandalas enormously complex that take weeks to put together grain by grain.

These Mandalas are blessed and function as temporary palaces for the deities. When the worship is over the Mandala is destroyed as a lesson in impermanence.

Mandalas used for worship don’t have to be just in two dimensions. The cosmos is a three-dimensional structure. Some Mandalas can be build as places of worship in three dimensions. In Tibet there are enormous and complex three-dimensional Mandalas that represent the cosmos and are used in various ways as ritual objects.

Mandalas as Tools for Meditation

Mandalas can be used as powerful tools for meditation. In some rituals, Tibetan practitioners visualize the deities that are found in this sacred space. These visualizations are quite detailed and follow the form of the deities as they are represented in the texts and in Tantric art.

This kind of meditation where one visualizes a deity is very common in Mahayana Buddhism and is used to explore the ambiguities and complexities of the concept of emptiness. This is also what the practitioners of the Tantric tradition do, but here there is a difference.

Previously we talked of the Buddha as being different from ourselves, as begin out there in front of us. In the Tantric tradition we dissolve that distinction between the Buddha and ourselves. At the end of this ritual you dissolve that Buddha into your heart, so that that Buddha becomes you and you become the Buddha.

This is sometimes called deity-yoga, a discipline in which you imagine a deity in front of you and then you become identified with him. This is one of the fundamental forms of practice in the tradition of the Mandala.

The Mandala as the Journey of the Dead

The Tibetan Book of the Dead is used in funerals to guide the soul (or consciousness, more precisely) of the dead person through the difficulties of the afterlife and also to provide a meditation for the living about what will happen to them when they die.

The movement of the consciousness through the afterlife is visualized as a journey through the Mandala, not from the edges to the center, but from the center out to the edge.

When a person dies, according to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the consciousness becomes dissolved into the form of the central Buddha of the Mandala, in a state of pure non-dual awareness. If the person can recognize, accept and being absorbed into it, then the person is no longer subject to rebirth. If there is something frightening about the experience, then the person begins to fall out of the center of the Mandala and makes a procession around the edge seeing each one of the deities on a different day.

In each moment of this process it is possible to become absorbed into that deity and escape the cycle of transmigration if the person is prepared. If not, the person falls off the edge of the Mandala and back into rebirth in this world.

The Mandala and Tibet

There is one more important way in which the Mandala is manifested in Buddhist practice. We saw that the Mandala can represent the cosmos as a whole, but it doesn’t have to represent all of the cosmos. It can represent a particular piece of land. Tibet itself is understood as a Mandala. The sacred center is the capital city of Lhasa.

One of the ways to experience the Mandala in Tibet is to go on a pilgrimage. You must circulambule the great country itself, visiting the shrines that mark the sacred spots in the Mandala and finally making your way into the central territory that is associated with a shrine in the capital city.


In representations of the Mandala we see that there are always two central elements. There is a movement around, visiting the different spots of the perimeter of whatever manifestation of the Mandala, and there is this movement into the center, where you find a symbolic representation of reality in its unified state.

You can see that the Mandala is quite simple. It is just a circle. It is simple in its basic form but it is really powerful and affects many aspects of Buddhist life.

Return from Buddhist Mandala to Introduction to Tantric Buddhism

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