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Mandala – Sacred Geometry in Buddhist Art | Exotic India

Article of the Month - September 2000
Viewed 606600 times since 2nd Oct, 2008

Mandala Thangka PaintingsPerhaps the most admired and discussed symbol of Buddhist religion and art is the mandala, a word which, like guru and yoga, has become part of the English language. Its popularity is underscored by the use of the word mandala as a synonym for sacred space in scholarship world over, and by its presence in English-language dictionaries and encyclopedias. Both broadly define mandalas as geometric designs intended to symbolize the universe, and reference is made to their use in Buddhist and Hindu practices.

The mandala idea originated long ago before the idea of history itself. In the earliest level of India or even Indo-European religion, in the Rig Veda and its associated literature, mandala is the term for a chapter, a collection of mantras or verse hymns chanted in Vedic ceremonies, perhaps coming from the sense of round, as in a round of songs. The universe was believed to originate from these hymns, whose sacred sounds contained the genetic patterns of beings and things, so there is already a clear sense of mandala as world-model.

The word mandala itself is derived from the root manda, which means essence, to which the suffix la, meaning container, has been added. Thus, one obvious connotation of mandala is that it is a container of essence. As an image, a mandala may symbolize both the mind and the body of the Buddha. In esoteric Buddhism the principle in the mandala is the presence of the Buddha in it, but images of deities are not necessary. They may be presented either as a wheel, a tree, or a jewel, or in any other symbolic manifestation.

Creation of a Mandala

Buddhist Paintings

The origin of the mandala is the center, a dot. It is a symbol apparently free of dimensions. It means a 'seed', 'sperm', 'drop', the salient starting point. It is the gathering center in which the outside energies are drawn, and in the act of drawing the forces, the devotee's own energies unfold and are also drawn. Thus it represents the outer and inner spaces. Its purpose is to remove the object-subject dichotomy. In the process, the mandala is consecrated to a deity.

In its creation, a line materializes out of a dot. Other lines are drawn until they intersect, creating triangular geometrical patterns. The circle drawn around stands for the dynamic consciousness of the initiated. The outlying square symbolizes the physical world bound in four directions, represented by the four gates; and the midmost or central area is the residence of the deity. Thus the center is visualized as the essence and the circumference as grasping, thus in its complete picture a mandala means grasping the essence.

Construction of a Mandala

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), for example, this period is three years.

In the early stages of painting, the monks sit on the outer part of the unpainted mandala base, always facing the center. For larger sized Mandalas, when the mandala is about halfway completed, the monks then stand on the floor, bending forward to apply the colors.

Traditionally, the mandala is divided into four quadrants and one monk is assigned to each. At the point where the monks stand to apply the colors, an assistant joins each of the four. Working co-operatively, the assistants help by filling in areas of color while the primary four monks outline the other details.

The monks memorize each detail of the mandala as part of their monastery's training program. It is important to note that the mandala is explicitly based on the Scriptural texts. At the end of each work session, the monks dedicate any artistic or spiritual merit accumulated from this activity to the benefit of others. This practice prevails in the execution of all ritual arts.

There is good reason for the extreme degree of care and attention that the monks put into their work: they are actually imparting the Buddha's teachings. Since the mandala contains instructions by the Buddha for attaining enlightenment, the purity of their motivation and the perfection of their work allows viewers the maximum benefit.

Each detail in all four quadrants of the mandala faces the center, so that it is facing the resident deity of the mandala. Thus, from the perspective of both the monks and the viewers standing around the mandala, the details in the quadrant closest to the viewer appear upside down, while those in the most distant quadrant appear right side up.

Generally, each monk keeps to his quadrant while painting the square palace. When they are painting the concentric circles, they work in tandem, moving all around the mandala. They wait until an entire cyclic phase or layer is completed before moving outward together. This ensures that balance is maintained, and that no quadrant of the mandala grows faster than another.

The preparation of a mandala is an artistic endeavor, but at the same time it is an act of worship. In this form of worship concepts and form are created in which the deepest intuitions are crystallized and expressed as spiritual art. The design, which is usually meditated upon, is a continuum of spatial experiences, the essence of which precedes its existence, which means that the concept precedes the form.

Thangka PaintingsIn 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. Its perfect square shape indicates that the absolute space of wisdom is without aberration. This square structure has four elaborate gates. These four doors symbolize the bringing together of the four boundless thoughts namely - loving kindness, compassion, sympathy, and equanimity. Each of these gateways is adorned with bells, garlands and other decorative items. This square form defines 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, one often finds a ring of fire, frequently depicted as a stylized scrollwork. This symbolizes the process of transformation which ordinary human beings have to undergo before entering the sacred territory within. This is followed by a ring of thunderbolt or diamond scepters (vajra), indicating the indestructibility and diamond like brilliance of the mandala's spiritual realms.

In the next concentric circle, particularly those mandalas which feature wrathful deities, one finds eight cremation grounds arranged in a wide band. These represent the eight aggregates of human consciousness which tie man to the phenomenal world and to the cycle of birth and rebirth.

Finally, at the center of the mandala lies the deity, with whom the mandala is identified. It is the power of this deity that the mandala is said to be invested with. Most generally the central deity may be one of the following three:

The Art of Narration in Buddhist Thangka Paintings
Peaceful Deities

A peaceful deity symbolizes its own particular existential and spiritual approach. For example, the image of Boddhisattva Avalokiteshvara symbolizes compassion as the central focus of the spiritual experience; that of Manjushri takes wisdom as the central focus; and that of Vajrapani emphasizes the need for courage and strength in the quest for sacred knowledge.




Wrathful Guardians of Buddhism
Wrathful Deities

Wrathful deities suggest the mighty struggle involved in overcoming one's alienation. They embody all the inner afflictions which darken our thoughts, our words, and our deeds and which prohibit attainment of the Buddhist goal of full enlightenment. Traditionally, wrathful deities are understood to be aspects of benevolent principles, fearful only to those who perceive them as alien forces. When recognized as aspects of one's self and tamed by spiritual practice, they assume a purely benevolent guise.


Love and Passion in Tantric Buddhist Art
Sexual Imagery

Sexual imagery suggests the integrative process which lies at the heart of the mandala. Male and female elements are nothing but symbols of the countless pairs of opposites (e.g. love and hate; good and evil etc.) which one experiences in mundane existence. The initiate seeks to curtail his or her alienation, by accepting and enjoying all things as a seamless, interconnected field of experience. Sexual imagery can also be understood as a metaphor for enlightenment, with its qualities of satisfaction, bliss, unity and completion.



Color Symbolism of the Mandala

If form is crucial to the mandala, so too is color. The quadrants of the mandala-palace are typically divided into isosceles triangles of color, including four of the following five: white, yellow, red, green and dark blue. Each of these colors is associated with one of the five transcendental Buddhas, further associated with the five delusions of human nature. These delusions obscure our true nature, but through spiritual practice they can be transformed into the wisdom of these five respective Buddhas. Specifically:

  • White - Vairocana: The delusion of ignorance becomes the wisdom of reality.
  • Yellow - Ratnasambhava: The delusion of pride becomes the wisdom of sameness.
  • Red - Amitabha: The delusion of attachment becomes the wisdom of discernment.
  • Green - Amoghasiddhi: The delusion of jealousy becomes the wisdom of accomplishment.
  • Blue - Akshobhya: The delusion of anger becomes the mirror like wisdom.

The Mandala as a Sacred Offering

In addition to decorating and sanctifying temples and homes, in Tibetan life the mandala is traditionally offered to one's lama or guru when a request has been made for teachings or an initiation - where the entire offering of the universe (represented by the mandala) symbolizes the most appropriate payment for the preciousness of the teachings. Once in a desolate Indian landscape the Mahasiddha Tilopa requested a mandala offering from his disciple Naropa, and there being no readily available materials with which to construct a mandala, Naropa urinated on the sand and formed an offering of a wet-sand mandala. On another occasion Naropa used his blood, head, and limbs to create a mandala offering for his guru, who was delighted with these spontaneous offerings.


The visualization and concretization of the mandala concept is one of the most significant contributions of Buddhism to religious 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 himself. 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.

Post a Comment
  • Great reading. Thanks.
    by vicsar on 16th Nov 2015
    by Shadi on 15th Apr 2014
  • Hi, Nitin! Please check Les Mandalas de Niki. You can contact me in nikimandala@yahoo.com, blog:www.mandalaborobudur.wordpress.com
    by Niki Saraswati on 13th Oct 2013
  • I would like to know where in India I can take a workshop about the art of mandalas. I am planning to go in January next year and I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW, THE PLACE, THE COST AND ALL POSSIBLE INFORMATION ABOUT IT
    by argelia oraa on 15th Nov 2012
  • enlightening. . . very informative
    by maeng on 3rd Jul 2012
  • Nitin,
    Great, in-depth explanation of the Buddhist mandala. I teach photography and my students are creating mandalas. I showed them your site so they could appreciate REAL mandalas.
    Thank you.
    by Jacqueline Shuler on 14th Apr 2011
  • i AM working on a project for Mr Kraybill and i have 2 make a mandala
    by Becky on 7th Mar 2011
  • This was great information for my art class. I teach in a public high school in New York city. Thanks!!
    by Dee Wilkins on 29th Nov 2010
  • Niki what are your contact details? NITIN thank you so much for the enlightenment!
    by Jeevan on 12th Nov 2010
  • I've Mandala images which can be sold as poster or easy-to-print in hi-resolution image. I\'ve collaborated with French healer which she used it for healing stoke patients. If you\'re interested for sending you various sample, please feel free to contact me. Thanks, Niki
    by Niki Saraswati on 27th Oct 2010
  • I had taken LSD a decade ago and seen a mandala with sanskrit-like writing on its surface. I had no prior exposure to Buddhism or mandalas, raised as a Christian, seeing this led to pursue what this is about. How does one percieve such a thing? Is it inherently locked inside my mind or soul or the fabric of space and time? Any answer would be greatly appreciated.
    by JWM on 25th Oct 2010
  • dammmn my proj is gonna be freaking righteousss!!!
    by lola on 22nd Sep 2010
  • Here are some more current Sacred Mandalas of a highly visionary quality in honor of the Mandala masters of all possible pasts :)


    See the mandalas SPIN here... www.allindiansnochiefs.org/wordpress/artists/art-of-dino/spinning-mandalas/

    enjoy, and spread peace and eternity to ALL :)
    by dino on 29th Jun 2010
  • i looked all over the web and could not find anything informitive.till i came here. now i klnow all the basic stuff i need for my report.where as not knowing anything at all.
    by sandra on 9th Dec 2009
  • Interesting article. I only wish you had included endnotes.
    by Maggie on 15th Nov 2009
  • YEEW!!! bloody fantastic
    by Pimp on 4th Nov 2009
  • Excellent article. I do wish that you discussed the distruction of the mandala, and it's consiquent meaning of the impermenance of all things.
    by nicholas j. petty on 13th Apr 2009
  • This info relly helped out...cheers keep up the good work...
    by Richard Zuzart, Tennessee USA on 27th Oct 2008
  • it was very informative
    by cool on 19th Aug 2008
  • Vipin,
    This sure is one of the best article on Mandala I have come across on the web.
    Thank you for letting me use your article in my brochure.
    Best of luck and Ji tey raho Vipin.
    by karma on 25th May 2008
  • This was very helpful for learning all about ancient Indian art. This helped me understand the basic structure of Indian art. Thank You
    by Jacob on 5th Mar 2008
  • I enjoyed the article very much, it is very helpful for studying Indian art!
    Thank you for your great job!
    by Anahit Avagyan on 12th Nov 2007
  • Wonderful article. I recently had the great priviledge of watching a group pf monks from Drepung Loseling create a very beautiful sand mandala over a period of many days; it was a truly spiritual experience for me, and this article has helped me understand the true significance behind it, and perhaps helped me gain a deeper understanding of my faith. Thank you.
    by Kiki B. on 12th Sep 2007
  • I found this article to be clear yet informative, providing enough description of both the spiritual and fundamental aspects which make up a mandala. Coming into the beginning of this writing having little to no knowledge on the subject I now feel that I have an excellant base for referrance. Thank you for your time and concise report. :)
    by Megan Johnson on 26th Aug 2007
  • Me ha gustado e interesado demasiado. Agradecería me enviasen temas al respecto. Hermoso y gracias, María Cristina
    by María Cristina González B. on 3rd Jan 2007
  • Thank you so much for this article! I had the hardest time finding information on mandalas until I found this! I didn't know how important mandalas were to cultures and religions. Now I do! Great article!!
    by Emily Bowman on 15th Nov 2005
  • Thank you very much for your beautiful words and teachings about the Mandala. I teach yoga to children. We are learning about the Tree of Yoga. One of the parts of the Tree is "Dhyana (Meditation). I have the children do Mandala art as a form of meditation. They love doing them very much. I will share your insight on the mandala with them. Thank you and Namaste~
    by Pam on 5th Jul 2004
  • This article was just like a salvation for me. I needed information about mandalas and there wasn't anything interesting in Lithuania sites. I'm grateful for finding this wonderful article, which "saved my life" :)))))))) P.S. Ofcourse I had to do lots of work to translate it, but this is the least important thing.
    by karolina on 14th May 2004
  • I'm working on an art project for my teacher/mentor, who introduced me to Zen Buddhism. I was delighted to find an explanation of mandalas on your page and will refer back to it as I construct the project.
    by Balam Acab on 5th Apr 2004
  • This was a wonderful education in mandalas! While they seem to be everywhere these days, this is the true basis, and it helps the differences in the authentic, and the purpose of the authentic, be seen.
    by Kala Hillery on 6th Jan 2004
  • loved the article and the pics,,,,i was fortunate enough to watch buddist monks creating a sand mandala once and it was the most spellbinding experience of my existance (except meditating while they chanted!!)...i went back every day for two weeks just to be in silence with them...thankyou for making me recall...love and light to all
    by julia on 10th Apr 2003
  • Thank you for this informative article.
    In Germany, we use coloring Mandala in a form of Mandala Therapy, which is very effective!
    For more about this, feel free to contact me.
    by Gabi on 2nd Apr 2003
  • This was a very good article. I was impresed.This taught me alot about The Buddhist Mandala.
    by Leona McCool on 6th Nov 2002
  • Thank you for sending me ' Article of the Month - September 2000' The Buddhist Mandala. I found it very interesting and informative reading. And enjoyed checking out the Mandalas. Regards
    by Sandra on 3rd May 2001
  • I received a copy of your Mandalas article from the Sangha egroup, and wanted you to know that I enjoyed the article and look forward to checking the web links for prior articles. Regards
    by J Kennedy on 3rd May 2001
  • Laura's Song

    A young woman in Granada
    Waits forever for her lover
    And she whispers to the blooming
    Orange planted by her father
    "In this soil - my mother's tears...
    In this weal - the lizards moan...
    In this heart - my sweetheart's dreams...
    In this world - I am alone.
    Life is but my lover's joke...
    Maybe weeping is the cure,
    Let me weep in papa's garden
    Where love is pure..."

    As the dawn breaks - brilliant maze of dew
    Virgin grass blades not yet bent by you!

    Those flowers are my children
    They shall bloom when I am gone.
    They shall own this little orchard
    They shall fall upon my bones
    Life is just my lover's secret
    Maybe tears are the cure
    Let me shed them...
    In this soil
    Where love is pure.

    As the dawn breaks, brilliant maze of dew
    Virgin grass blades not yet bent by you.
    by Anonymous on 3rd May 2001
  • This article is fantastic - I really appreciate it being sent to me. I wondered if I could ask permission to use part of it to explain the art of mandala creation during a tour of mandala monks around New Zealand next year - would this be ok? Warm regards
    by Kaari Schlebach on 3rd May 2001
  • I just wish to say how much I enjoy your posts and updates. I find it interesting, as a Free Mason , how much Buddhist philosophy and ritual is paralleled in Masonic obediences. Whether these parallels are something absorbed by my ancient brethren or are common to ritualistic works I dont know. Thanks again and Happy Trails.
    by Tom on 3rd May 2001
  • Very nice article. Thank you very much for sending it!
    by John on 3rd May 2001
  • Thank you so much for this excellent article!! What a gift it was to be able to read about the Mandala, a form I have been drawn to for ages. Is there any chance that I could, with your permission, quote part of this article with a link back to your website, and put it on my "Mandala Links" section? It would add so much to my page there, and to the education of all those who love Mandalas. Most sincerely yours
    by Harmony Foster Kieding on 3rd May 2001
  • Thank you for sending me your article on Mandalas. It was very well written.With people like you,all is not lost in reversing the prejudices of the West that Asians are a mass of Ignorance. If only we can all speak the one language and speak to each other and that they will listen.<br>But Life is much too short to force those who do not want to see to do so, and what the Mind does not know, the eyes do not see,our old saying. Keep up your good work.
    by Dr. Jan on 3rd May 2001
  • Thank you very much. I will add it to my knowledge and archives. Please feel free to send me more info on any kind of religeos artifacts, history, and how to's you can. This interests me very much and I enjoy all the knowledge and wisdom that comes from within the study of this ancient culture.
    by Anonymous on 3rd May 2001
  • Thank you very, very much for the article on mandalas. I happen to be very interested in mandalas.<br>I have what I feel is personal knowledge that there is something profound, universal, and basic about mandalas. When I was young I once took a hallucinogenic drug. The following evening, for a period of perhaps half an hour or an hour, each time I would close my eyes I would see what looked almost exactly like a big, circular, multiconcentric layered mandala. But it was not at all stationary or fixed in appearance. Every one of the hundreds of details in the "mandala" layers were streaming, changing randomly though with continuity, in quite rapid fluid, flowing patterns within their respective positions in a given concetric layer. These details were very beautifully colored, as well. None of the details depicted recognizable physical objects. They were soley abstract, curved shapes, somewhat like clouds or colored swirls in a liquid. A given single, colored pattern would most often extend from one border ot its concentric layer to the other, though the shapes of these single patterns were irregular. The patterns resembled somewhat the patterns one often sees in cut, polished sections of muticolored stone. The clouds of Jupiter are another comparison. In fact, the clouds of Jupiter seen in a fast-forwarded video were even more similar to details of the patterns. The details were flowing in their positions at a rate which would see a detail emerge, change, and "flow out"/exit in a brief second or seconds. It was thus an extremely dynamic entity. I would experience absolute amazement at beholding it. The overall size, shape, and pattern of the structure and layers of the "mandala" were fixed and nonchanging, however. It was an overwhelming "sight". And each time I would close my eyes and be presented with the vision the size and stucture of the vision was an identical one, as if I were observing a real object of a fixed structure, viewed in merely a different instant of its existence.<br>The experience was made much more powerful by the fact that while beholding this vision I was aware of all of the details in all of the concentric circles simultaneously! Normally one can focus and be aware of only one or a few details at any given moment of observation. Obviously in remembering the experience I am not at all able to visualize it in the manner and detail that was initially experienced (wish I could!).<br>At a later time I realized that this vision looked almost exactly like a mandala, except that a traditional mandala just captures the appearance of this phenomenom in a single moment of time. In addition, my vision did not have any linear structural components (eg, a central square) or depict any dieties or otherwise recognizable forms. But I have strongly suspected since that time that this vision is the same one that at times appears to meditating buddhist monks who portray a single "frame" of this vision in their colored sand artworks. The fact that the monks traditionally sweep away their mandalas the instant that they are completed may suggest that they do this to emphasize the ephemeral nature of any one pattern, as experienced in the rapidly changing vision. Thank you again for sending me the article.
    by Rick Bennett on 3rd May 2001
  • TERRIFIC ARTICLE!!! I am involved with monks on tour from the Gyudmed Tantric Monastery in Southern India. Although I know about sand mandalas and watch them being created often, I am still fascinated by each grain of sand and found your article very informative. Thank you
    by Nancy Fireman on 3rd May 2001
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Dictionary of Buddhist Iconography: Volume-5 (Haakushu - Jyotisprabha ? Buddha)
Dictionary of Buddhist Iconography: Volume-5 (Haakushu - Jyotisprabha ? Buddha)
Lokesh Chandra
Dictionary of Buddhist Iconography: Volume-5 (Haakushu - Jyotisprabha ? Buddha)
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"'The Wheel of Life'...serves as a powerful inspiration to spiritual aspirants...to look deeply into their own inner beings...it is an attempt to convey spiritual insights behind our 'physical existence' in purely visual terms...(It) symbolically represents how...beings, who have not practiced the Dharma and liberated themselves, are bound in a cycle of existences whose very nature is suffering...One should intently and seriously contemplate the meaning of this wheel...Once this happens, the wish to be free of this mindless suffering is spontaneous and constant"
The Wheel of Life - Aesthetics of Suffering and Salvation
"...there exists in Buddhism the concept of a rainbow body... the rainbow body signifies the awakening of the inner self to the complete reservoir of terrestrial knowledge that it is possible to access before stepping over the threshold to the state of Nirvana..."
Color Symbolism In Buddhist Art
"In its characteristic unique way, Buddhist thought divides the eventful life of its founder into twelve glorious "events." These defining incidents of his life are given visual form in densely packed sequences narrated in a special genre of paintings... These artworks not only delineate Buddha's gradual progress towards spiritual enlightenment, but also present a visual depiction of a vast number of abstract philosophical notions underlying esoteric Buddhism..."
The Life of Buddha and the Art of Narration in Buddhist Thangka Paintings
"...The young prince Gautama Siddhartha was born into the ancient Sakya clan...he learned in a few days the sciences suitable to his race...Intrigued by his first encounter with old age...Four weeks after he began meditating under the Bodhi tree...on the night of a full moon, Sakyamuni attained enlightenment…"
The Life of Buddha in Legend and Art
A Thangka is a painted or embroidered banner which was hung in a monastery or a family altar and carried by lamas in ceremonial processions. In Tibetan the word 'than' means flat and the suffix 'ka' stands for painting. The Thangka is thus a kind of painting done on flat surface but which can be rolled up when not required for display.
Sacred Buddhist Painting - The Tibetan Thangka
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