Perhaps the most admired and discussed symbol of Buddhist religion and art is the Mandala. Mandalas originated in India and now can be found on all continents and in nearly every culture. The word Mandala is from the classical Indian language of Sanskrit. The root of the word, manda, means “essence,” to which the suffix “la,” meaning “container,” had been added. Thus, one obvious connotation of Mandala is that it is a container of essence.
In India and other eastern cultures, it’s believed that working with Mandalas can help to attain spiritual enlightenment. It’s a form of sacred artwork that can be used as a form of sacred prayer. All Mandalas follow a precise symbolic format. A Mandala is the place where a deity is invoked by mantra. The placing of mantras upon the Mandala gives it life, and the Mandala is then regarded, like a mantra, as the deity itself (and not a mere representation of the deity).
Working with Mandalas is a way to meditate and can be used as a tool used to connect with your inner core or your true self. By directing your energy and focus inward, you connect with the divine inner realities which can aid in creating an inner healing that brings about complete wholeness or enlightenment. In essence, it’s a way to communicate with Divine Source through sacred geometry or numbers, objects and colors. Drawing Mandalas can help break through the layers that keep us from seeing and realizing our inner lights.
In its most common form, the Mandala appears as a series of concentric circles. Each Mandala has its own resident deity housed in the square structure situated concentrically within these circles. This square structure has four elaborate gates. These four doors symbolize the bringing together of the four boundless thoughts: loving kindness, compassion, sympathy, and equanimity. This square form is essential to the architecture of the Mandala described as a four-sided palace or temple — a palace because it is the residence of the presiding deity of the Mandala, a temple because it contains the essence of the Buddha.
The series of circles surrounding the central palace follow an intense symbolic structure. Beginning with the outer circles, there’s often the depiction of a ring of fire. This symbolizes the process of transformation that ordinary human beings have to undergo before entering the sacred territory within. This is followed by a ring of thunderbolts or diamond scepters that indicate the indestructibility and diamond-like brilliance of the Mandala’s spiritual realms. In the next concentric circle there are eight cremation grounds arranged in a wide band. These represent the eight collective elements of human consciousness that tie man to the phenomenal world and the cycle of birth and rebirth.
Finally, at the center of the Mandala lies the deity, with whom the Mandala is identified. The power of this deity is invested in the Mandala.
Traditionally, before a monk is permitted to work on constructing a Mandala he must undergo a long period of technical artistic training and memorization, learning how to draw all the various symbols and studying related philosophical concepts. At the Namgyal monastery (the personal monastery of the Dalai lama), this period is three years.
Sand Mandalas are one of the most magnificent types of Mandala construction and they are associated with the most profound and elaborate Buddhist ceremonies in Tibet. The colored sand is made of crushed semiprecious stones. Every color, dot, and line in the Mandala represents an essential part of the deity and Buddhist philosophy. Each component must be placed in exactly the same place every time the Mandala is constructed.
The creation of a sand Mandala takes many hours and days to complete. When finished, the monks gather in a colorful ceremony, chanting in deep tones as they sweep their Mandala into a jar and empty it into a nearby body of water as a blessing. This action also symbolizes the cycle of life.