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THE MEANING AND PURPOSE OF MANDALAS
by the Ven Tenzin Deshek

 

Mandala means "circle" in Sanskrit. Mandalas sometimes symbolize the universe as well as the natural perfection and harmony in nature. Tibetan monks create sand mandalas symbolizing the residence of Enlightened Beings in order to help people imagine the vast and profound enlightened state. They are also used as meditational aids.

The mandala of Lord Chenrezig is, in many ways, a "typical" mandala, so we will look at it closely, identifying each of the major elements. In this way, we can acquire a general framework from which to view other mandalas and have a general understanding of their meaning.

The primary deity of each mandala is represented at the very center, this being the location of the throne within the palace. At the center of this mandala is green circle with a lotus and moon seat upon which is a lotus. This lotus symbolizes Lord Chenrezig, a form of Buddha Amitabha. The central figure is surrounded by an eight-petaled lotus. On the red petal directly below the lotus, in the Eastern side of the mandala, is a blue vajra symbolizing Buddha Akshobhya. On the red petal to the left of the central lotus, as you face the mandala, which represents the Southern direction, is a yellow jewel symbolizing Buddha Ratnasambhava. To the right, in the North, is a green sword symbolizing Buddha Amoghasiddhi, and above the lotus, in the West, is a white dharma wheel. Each of the symbols of the heads of the Buddha families stands upon a lotus and moon seat. Thus we see that within the circle which makes up the central portion of the mandala are found the heads of each of the five Buddha families. They are surrounded by a protective chain of vajras emanated from the heart of Lord Chenresig.

The eight-petaled lotus and vajra chain are enclosed by the walls of the celestial mansion. The walls are made up of five parallel lines of red, green, white, yellow and blue symbolizing the five wisdoms accomplished through the five Buddha families. Lines passing from corner to corner divide the floor of the mansion into four triangles which disappear beneath the central lotus. Each triangle is in the color representative of its particular direction. The East is blue; the South yellow; the North green and the West white. (These colors extend into the T-shaped entranceway and gate found in each of the four directions which will be described later.) At each corner where the colors meet is a moon, jewel and half-vajra symbolizing the body, speech and mind of a Buddha.

Just outside the walls of the mansion is a red ledge upon which are sixteen offering goddesses, two on either side of each gate. If you were to circumambulate the mansion, beginning at the Eastern gate, you would first pass two goddesses offering water. As you rounded the corner and came to the southern side of the mansion, you would pass goddesses offering flowers, incense, lamps and perfume. On the West you would pass those offering food, music, form objects and sound. Turning toward the North wall you would first walk past goddesses offering smell and taste, and then passing the gate, you would pass two goddesses offering tactile objects. Again finding yourself on the East of the mansion, you would pass two more goddesses making offerings of water before returning to your starting point at the Eastern gate. You would have noticed that each corner of the offering ledge is adorned with a moon, jewel and half-vajra. And just beyond it is a chain of wish-fulfilling jewels on a red background enclosed by narrow white lines. Similar white lines will demarcate subsequent architectural features of the mansion.

If you have made it this far in the description, I hope you have benefited from your effort and have gained some understanding of the intricacies of a mandala. While a mandala may be very beautiful and contain an amazing depth of detail, the reality it represents is of far greater benefit. If my description has caused confusion or left you with more questions than answers, please feel free to email your questions to loselmaitri@aol.com.

-- Tenzin Deshek

 

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