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Mandala in Buddhism: An Introduction

By Devik Balami at
Mandala in Buddhism

A Mandala literally means circle and has its own meaning in Hinduism and Buddhism. This usually represents the universe. In the present context, the word mandala is used as a term for any diagrams that represent cosmos metaphysically or symbolically, a microcosm of the universe.

We can see mandala in monasteries, included in Thangka paintings and most of all it is highly demanded due to in symbolic representation of different Buddhists Sutras. Therefore, mandala is also regarded as Buddhist art even though it is equally important in other religions.

image of mandala

Mandala in Buddhism

During the time of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, there was not division. Every follower and disciples follow the path that Siddhartha Gautama Buddha showed towards the enlightenment. But after the death of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, slowly the sangha was scattered and then there were many forms of Buddhism. Every sect has their own practices towards the enlightenment but the core teachings are that of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha. Hence, even though they are separated, they are united. So the basic sect of Buddhism, to name few, is Theravada Buddhism, Shingon Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Nichiren Buddhism, and Pure Land Buddhism. These all sect of Buddhism focuses on one thing and that is enlightenment but the way of obtaining enlightenment is different. Hence, it is obvious that the culture that they have been cultivating is also different and it has influenced the making of the mandala as well.

Theravada Buddhism

In Theravada Buddhism, the use of mandalas are not well known but someone does build in the form of the stupa. The mandala can also be seen in the ancient scriptures like Atanatiya Sutta, Digha Nikaya, and Pali Canon.

Tibetan Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhism or Vajranayana Buddhism is a branch of Manayan Budddhism. In Tibetan Buddhism, Mandala has been developed as a sand painting and as well as thangka painting. Mandala are also a part of Anuttarayoga Tantra Practices.

In Tibetan Buddhism, the Mandala is regarded as a safeguard place which is separated and protected from the impure outer world. Thus, it is regarded as a Buddha field or a place of Nirvana.

The Mandala is also regarded as a support for the meditation. While meditating, the person focuses on the image of the mandala such that it becomes fully internalized in even minutest detail. It then can be summoned at will with a clear and vivid visualized image. Hence, the Mandalas are used as an aid to meditation by tantric Buddhists

Another practice in Tibetan Buddhism is Mandala Offering. A Mandala offering is a symbolic offering of the entire universe. This practice was taught by Siddhartha Gautama Buddha and is believed that the results of Mandala offering are ultimate happiness and enlightenment.

Shingon Buddhism

Shingon Buddhism is also a branch of Mahayana Buddhism which is practiced in Japan. In Shingon Buddhism, the mandala is frequently used mainly in its rituals though it differs with the mandala of other Buddhism. It is said that when Kukai, founder of Shingon Buddhism, returned to Japan from his training in China, he had brought two mandalas with him- The Mandala of the Womb Realm, and the Mandala of the Diamond Realm. Now, these two mandalas have become central to the ritual of the Shingon Buddhism. Mainly these two Mandalas are used in the Abhiseka initiation ritual. During the initial ritual, a new student is blindfolded and they are asked to throw a flower. Now, the flower will decide which sect should follow.

Nichiren Buddhism

Nichiren Buddhism is a branch of Mahayana Buddhism which is also practice in Japan. This sect of Buddhism was founded by Japanese Priest Nichiren in the 13th century. In Nichiren Buddhism, the Mandala is called mojj-mandala which is the paper hanging scroll and it consists of Chinese Characters and medieval Sanskrit script. These scripts represent elements of the Buddha's enlightenment, Protective Buddhist deities, and certain Buddhist concepts. The first mojj-mandala is Gohandon which is inscribed by Priest Nichiren himself.

Pure Land Buddhism

Pure Land Buddhism is one of the branches of Mahayana Buddhism. It is one of the widely practiced traditions of Buddhism in East Asia which focuses on the tradition of Amitabha Buddha's teachings. The three primary texts of this tradition are- "Longer Sukhavativyuha Sutra", "Shorter Sukhavativyuha Sutra", "Amitayurdhyana Sutra". Hence, the mandalas in this Buddhism graphically represents Pure Lands as described by the above-mentioned sutras. Therefore, the mandalas are generally used as a teaching aid. It is not used as a medium of meditation as used by Vajrayana Buddhism. The famous Mandala in Japan is Taima Mandala which is based upon Amitayrudhyana Sutra or Contemplation Sutra. It was made on 763 CE.

Apart from graphical representation of Pure Lands, in Jodo Shinshu Buddhism (a branch of Pure Land Buddhism), Japanese Monk Shinran and his disciple, Rennyo designed a mandala with the words of nembutsu- Namu Amida Butsu- using a hanging scroll in order to create an object of reverence for the lower classes of Japanese society. This type of mandala is placed by Jodo Shinshu Buddhists in homes and butsudan, even today.