Mandala means "circle of kings." The mandala is a model for describing the patterns of diffuse political power in early Southeast Asian history. The concept of a mandala counteracts our natural tendency to look for the unified political power of later history, the power of large kingdoms and nation states, in earlier history where local power is more important. In the words of O. W. Wolters who originated the idea in 1982:

"The map of earlier Southeast Asia which evolved from the prehistoric networks of small settlements and reveals itself in historical records was a patchwork of often overlapping mandalas"13

In some ways similar to the feudal system of Europe, states were linked in overlord-tributary relationships. Compared to feudalism however, the system gave greater independence to the subordinate states; it emphasised personal rather than official or territorial relationships; and it was often non-exclusive. Any particular area, therefore, could be subject to several powers or none.

In Buddhism

Theravada Buddhism

The mandala can be found in the Atanatiya Sutta14 in the Digha Nikaya, part of the Pali Canon. This text is frequently chanted.

Tibetan Vajrayana

Tibetan monks making a temporary "Sand-Mandala" in the City-Hall of Kitzbühel in Austria in 2002Details of Sand-Mandala

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."15 Such mandalas consist of an outer circular mandala and an inner square (or sometimes circular) mandala with an ornately decorated mandala palace16 placed at the center. Any part of the inner mandala can be occupied by Buddhist glyphs and symbols 17 as well as images of its associated deities, which "symbolise different stages in the process of the realisation of the truth."18 Mandalas are commonly used by tantric Buddhists as an aid to meditation. More specifically, a Buddhist mandala is envisaged as a "sacred space,"19 a Pure Buddha Realm 20 and also as an abode of fully realised beings or deities. 21 While on the one hand, it is regarded as a place separated and protected from the ever-changing and impure outer world of Samsara, 22 and is thus seen as a Buddhafield23 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."24 The ring of vajras forms a connected fence-like arrangement running around the perimeter of the outer mandala circle25 The mandala is also "a support for the meditating person,"26 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,"27 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.28 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.29 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'30 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 grounds31 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."32 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."33 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.34 This mandala is generally structured according to the model of the Universe as taught in a Buddhist classic text the Abhidharmakosha, 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 (shrines) called butsudan today.

In Christianity

Painton Cowen, who dedicated his life to the study of rose windows,35 states that mandala-esque forms are prevalent throughout Christianity: celtic cross; rosary; halo; aureole; oculi; Crown of Thorns; rose windows; Rosy Cross'; dromenon. 36 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.37

Similarly, many of the Illuminations of Hildegard von Bingen can be used as Mandalas, as are many of the images of esoteric Christianity (i.e., 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 star, represent the Divine. The entire building of the mosque becomes a mandala as the interior dome of the roof represents the arch of the heavens and turns the worshipper's attention towards Allah.38

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 resembled a wagon wheel lying on its side. The wheels could be large, reaching diameters of 75 feet. Although archeologists are not definite on the intended 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.

Other Mandalas

Among Indigenous Australians, Bora is the name given both to an initiation ceremony, 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)39 gives an excellent eye-witness account of a Bora ceremony, and explains the use of the two circles.


There are many different types of mandalas that vary according to religious tradition, ritual use, and intended purpose. "Tibetan Mandalas come in a variety of forms, but most are variations on the basic themes outlined above. Broadly speaking, there are two basic types of mandalas:

1) Garbha-dhatu (Sanskrit: “womb world”; Japanese: taizo-kai), in which the movement is from the one to the many
2) Vajra-dhatu (Sanskrit: “diamond world”; Japanese kongo-kai), from the many into one."40


  1. ↑ David Fontana. Meditating with Mandalas: 52 New Mandalas to Help You Grow in Peace and Awareness. (London: Duncan Baird Publishers, 2006), 10
  2. ↑ "Mandals" Crystal Links: Mandalas Retrieved October 4, 2008.
  3. ↑ C. G. Jung. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. (New York: Vintage, 1989), 186-197
  4. ↑ Marty Chappell Handout, how to make a mandala. Retrieved October 4, 2008.
  5. ↑ Sacred Art and Geometry: Buddhism Mandalas Religion facts. Retrieved October 4, 2008.
  6. ↑ Fontana, 12
  7. ↑ Vaman Shivram Apte. The Practical Sanskrit Dictionary. (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1965), 781. For root यन्त्र् (yantr) meaning "to restrain, curb, check"
  8. ↑ David Gordon White. The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996), 481, note 159. For definition: "A yantra (from the root yam) is that which controls or subdues."
  9. ↑ For definitions for noun यन्त्रं (yantraṃ) including 1) "that which restrains or fastens, any prop or support"; 2) "a fetter," 4) "any instrument or machine," and 7) "an amulet, a mystical or astronomical diagram used as an amulet"; see: Apte 1965, p. 781.
  10. ↑ For definitions for यन्त्रं (yantra) including "any instrument for holding, restraining, or fastening, a prop, support, barrier"; "any instrument or apparatus, mechanical contrivance, engine, machine, implement, appliance"; "restraint, force"; "an amulet, mystical diagram supposed to possess occult powers," see: Monier-Williams. A Sanskrit-English Dictionary. (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1899), 845.
  11. ↑ Roderick Bucknell, & Martin Stuart-Fox. The Twilight Language: Explorations in Buddhist Meditation and Symbolism. (London: Curzon Press, 1986), ix.
  12. ↑ Madhu Khanna. Yantra: The Tantric Symbol of Cosmic Unity. (Inner Traditions, 2003. ISBN 0892811323), 21
  13. ↑ O. W. Wolters. History, Culture and Region in Southeast Asian Perspectives. (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Revised Ed., 1999), 27
  14. ↑ Peter Skilling, (translator). Mahasutras: Great Discourses of the Buddha. volume II, parts I & II, Pali Text Society (Wisdom Publications, 1994. ISBN 0860133192), 553ff
  15. ↑ Nepal Council for Preservation of Buddhist Religion. Retrieved October 4, 2008.
  16. ↑ Jytte Hansen, Albertslund, Denmark Mandala Retrieved October 4, 2008.
  17. ↑ Mandala by Jytte Hansen Retrieved October 4, 2008.
  18. ↑ BENOY K. BEHL, // TRANS-HIMALAYAN MURALS Frontline 21 (22) (2004) online Retrieved October 4, 2008.
  19. ↑ The Mandala - Sacred Geometry and Art Article of the Month - September 2000 2 Retrieved October 4, 2008.
  20. ↑ Retrieved October 4, 2008.
  21. ↑ Retrieved October 4, 2008.
  22. ↑ 5 Retrieved October 4, 2008.
  23. ↑ 6 Retrieved October 4, 2008.
  24. ↑ Hansen, 7 Retrieved October 4, 2008.
  25. ↑ Hansen, 8
  26. ↑ Hansen, 9
  27. ↑ 10 Retrieved October 4, 2008.
  28. ↑ Sand Mandala Retrieved October 4, 2008.
  29. ↑ Melitta Tchaicovsky 11 Retrieved October 4, 2008.
  30. ↑ Alexander Berzin, December 2003 The Meaning and Use of a Mandala berzinarchives. Retrieved October 4, 2008.
  31. ↑ Julie O'Donnell, et al., A Monograph on a Vajrayogini Thanka Painting 12 Retrieved October 4, 2008.
  32. ↑ Of Charnel Grounds, Graveyards and Cremation Groundsthe yoniverse. Retrieved October 4, 2008.
  33. ↑ //
  34. ↑ Venerable Thubten Chodron, Preliminary Practice (Ngondro) Retrieved October 4, 2008.
  35. ↑ Painton Cowen. The Rose Window. (London; and New York: 2005)
  36. ↑ It is correctly termed a "dromenon," not a maze nor labyrinth, because there is only one path to the centre.
  37. ↑ Fontana, 11, 54, 118
  38. ↑ Fontana, 11-12
  39. ↑ R.H. Matthews, "The Burbung of the Darkinung Tribes, 1897, online 13 Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria 10, 1: 1-12. Retrieved October 4, 2008.
  40. ↑ Mandalas: Sacred Art and Geometry Retrieved October 4, 2008.


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