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Home > Advanced Meditation > Tantra Teachings > The Meaning and Use of a Mandala

The Meaning and Use of a Mandala

Alexander Berzin, December 2003

The Meaning of a Mandala

The Tibetan word for "mandala," dkyil-‘khor , literally means "that which encircles a center." A "center," here is a meaning, and "that which encircles it" – a mandala – is a round symbol that represents the meaning. Not all mandalas, however, are round.

There are many types of mandalas, used for various purposes in both the sutra and tantra practices of Buddhism. Let us survey some of them.

Outer Mandala

An outer mandala (phyi’i dkyil-‘khor) is a representation of a world system. It is used as an offering made to a spiritual teacher in request for a teaching, the conferring of a set of vows, and for the conferring of a tantric empowerment. It is similarly used as an offering of appreciation at the conclusion of the teaching or the vow or empowerment (tantric initiation) ceremony.

The mandala offered may consist of a flat-bottomed bowl, held bottom side up, with three mounds of raw grain or gems, placed one atop the other on its surface and contained within progressively smaller concentric rings. It is crowned with an ornamental diadem.


Traditional Tibetan mandala offering sets

Alternatively, the mandala offering may be made by a hand-mudra, with the fingers intertwined in a specific pattern.

Mandala Offering Hand-Mudra

The world system represented by both types of outer mandala is most frequently that depicted in the abhidharma teachings concerning special topics of knowledge. It consists of a system having four island-continents around a Mount Meru in the center, with each island-continent having two smaller islands flanking it on the side facing away from Mount Meru. In the Kalachakra system, the shape of the world-system is slightly different, although it still has a Mount Meru, four island-continents, and eight smaller islands.

His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama has often said that we may also imagine the outer mandala representing the planet earth, the solar system, the galaxy, or the universe, as modern science conceives of them today. It makes no difference. The point is that offering a mandala represents the willingness to give everything in the universe to receive teachings, vows, or empowerment.

Offering an outer mandala a hundred thousand times is a standard part of the special preliminary practices (sngon-‘gro) done to build up sufficient positive force (bsod-nams, merit) to begin earnest tantra practice with some modicum of success. In such cases, the object to whom the mandala is offered is usually a visualized assembly of Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and lineage masters, especially our own personal spiritual teachers. The effectiveness of the mandala in building up positive force depends on the purity of the motivation, the level of concentration, and the depth of understanding the voidness of ourselves making the offering, the objects to whom we offer it, the mandala itself, and the action of offering it.

Repeated offering of an outer mandala also builds up the positive force required to break through our current level of understanding and progress to a deeper level. For example, Tsongkhapa (Tsong-kha-pa Blo-bzang grags-pa), the founder of the Gelug tradition, offered eighteen sets of 100,000 mandala offerings, in addition to thirty-five sets of 100,000 prostrations, in order to build positive force sufficient for gaining a correct understanding of the Prasangika-Madhyamaka view of voidness.

Inner, Secret, and Very-Nature-of-Reality Mandalas

Anuttarayoga tantra, the highest of the four classes of tantra in the New Translation Period schools (Kagyu, Sakya, and Gelug), has four levels of offering. Parallel to them are the four levels of mandala offering. These four levels of offerings and mandala offerings correlate with the four empowerments (dbang, initiation, "wang") of anuttarayoga tantra.

  • An outer offering (phyi’i mchod-pa) is of external objects such as water, flowers, incense, and so on, or of the desirable objects of the five senses. An external mandala is an offering made of an external world-system. The outer offering and outer mandala correlate with the vase empowerment (bum-dbang). A vase empowerment purifies the body for attaining a Nirmanakaya (sprul-sku), Corpus of Emanations. It empowers practice of the generation stage (bskyed-rim), during which we visualize ourselves as Buddha-figures.
  • An inner offering (nang-mchod) is of aspects of the body. These may be either aspects of the gross body, namely the five aggregates and five elements or, in Kalachakra, aspects of the subtle body, namely the ten subtle energy-winds. Five meats and five nectars, purified, transformed, and multiplied, represent the two sets of five or the ten. An internal mandala (nang-gi dkyil-‘khor) is an offering made of various parts of the gross body, with the spine or trunk imagined as Mount Meru and the four limbs imagined as the four island-continents. The inner offering and inner mandala correlate with the secret empowerment (gsang-dbang). A secret empowerment purifies the subtle energy-winds and speech for attaining a Sambhogakaya (longs-sku), Corpus of Full Use. It empowers practice, on the complete stage (rdzogs-rim), of illusory body (sgyu-lus).
  • A secret or hidden offering (gsang-mchod) is of blissful awareness. Alternatively, it is of the nonconceptual blissful awareness of voidness with the clear-light, subtlest level of mental activity (a clear-light mind). Similarly, a secret or hidden mandala (gsang-ba’i dkyil-‘ khor) is an offering of a blissful awareness or of a nonconceptual blissful awareness of voidness with a clear-light mind. The secret or hidden offering and the secret or hidden mandala correlate with the deep discriminating awareness empowerment (shes-rab ye-shes dbang). A deep discriminating awareness empowerment purifies the mind for attaining a Jnana-dharmakaya (ye-shes chos-sku), Corpus of Deep Awareness Encompassing Everything. It empowers practice, on the complete stage, of clear light (‘od-gsal).
  • An offering of the very nature of reality (de-kho-na-nyid mchod-pa, thusness offering) is of the nonconceptual cognition of voidness. Alternatively, it is of the inseparable two truths, namely (1) the pure appearance of ourselves as Buddha-figures (yidam, "deity") and (2) nonconceptual blissful awareness of voidness with a clear-light mind. A mandala of the very nature of reality (de-kho-na-nyid-kyi dkyil-‘khor, thusness mandala) is an offering of the nonconceptual cognition of voidness or of the two inseparable truths formulated as above. The offering of the very nature of reality and the mandala of the very nature of reality correlate with the fourth (dbang bzhi-pa) or word empowerment (tshig-dbang). A fourth or word empowerment purifies the body, speech, and mind inseparably together for attaining a Svabhavakaya (ngo-bo-nyid sku), Corpus of Essential Nature or more fully, a Svabhava-dharmakaya (ngo-bo-nyid chos-sku), Corpus of Essential Nature Encompassing Everything. It empowers practice, on the complete stage, of the unified pair (zung-‘jug) of the two truths.

Mandalas on the Basis of Which Empowerments are Conferred

Unlike subsequent permissions (rjes-snang), which are conferred on the basis of a torma (gtor-ma) roasted barley cake actualized (actually transformed) into a Buddha-figure by a tantric master, empowerments are conferred on the basis of a mandala.

The vase empowerment, found in all four classes of tantra, is conferred on the basis of the symbolic mandala world in which a Buddha-figure or set of Buddha-figures lives. It includes (1) the supporting mandala (rten-pa’i dkyil-‘khor) – namely, a palace and the environment around it – and (2) the supported mandala (brten-pa’i dkyil-‘khor) – all the figures inside.

The basis for labeling or imputing (gdags-gzhi) the symbolic mandala world during the empowerment ritual may be:

  • A cloth mandala (ras-bris-kyi dkyil-‘khor), which is a two-dimensional depiction of the palace and environment, somewhat like an architectural blueprint, painted on a piece of cloth or paper, and usually placed inside an ornately painted square wooden frame with open sides and a roof.


Painted cloth mandala of Kalachakra

  • A powdered sand mandala (rdul-phran-gyi dkyil-‘khor), which is a depiction of the palace and environment made of powdered colored sand and usually placed in the same type of wooden frame as is a cloth mandala.
     

    Making a Guhyasamaja Sand Mandala

  • A mandala of mental stability (bsam-gtan-gyi dkyil-‘khor), which is actualized from the absorbed concentration (ting-nge-‘dzin, Skt. samadhi) of the tantric master, without a physical basis.
  • Exclusively in some mother anuttarayoga tantras, such as Chakrasamvara, Vajrayogini, Hevajra, and Chittamani Tara, a body mandala (lus-kyi dkyil-‘khor, lus-dkyil), in which the tantric master has actualized (actually transformed) various parts of his or her subtle body as aspects of the supporting and supported mandalas. Receiving an empowerment from a body mandala requires prior receipt of an empowerment from one of the other three types of mandala listed above.
  • Occasionally, a three-dimensional mandala (blos-blangs), usually made of wood or metal, may alternatively be used.


Traditional 3D Kalachakra mandala

in the Potala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet

A modern 3D Kalachakra mandala
made by Arjia Rinpoche in the USA

The next three empowerments are found only in anuttarayoga tantra.

  • The secret empowerment is conferred from a round symbolic mandala of conventional bodhichitta (kun-rdzob byang-sems-kyi dkyil-'khor). This refers to drops, usually of yoghurt and tea, which serve as the basis for labeling the subtle energy-drops of white and red bodhichitta and which are given to taste.
  • The deep discriminating awareness empowerment is conferred from a round symbolic mandala of a womb (bha-ga’i dkyil-‘khor).
  • The fourth or word empowerment is conferred from a round symbolic mandala of deepest bodhichitta (don-dam byang-sems-kyi dkyil-‘khor). This mandala refers to the deepest understanding of voidness.

In Kalachakra,

  • The vase empowerment is conferred from a round symbolic vase-like breast, rather than from a vase containing consecrated water as in other anuttaryoga systems.
  • The secret empowerment is conferred from a round symbolic mandala of a womb, the source of symbolic drops to taste, rather than from a mandala of conventional bodhichitta drops as in other anuttarayoga systems.
  • The deep discriminating awareness empowerment is conferred from a round symbolic mandala of conventional bodhichitta – subtle energy-drops that descend within the body – rather than from the mandala of a womb as in other anuttarayoga systems.
  • The fourth or word empowerment is conferred from the round symbolic mandala of deepest bodhichitta, as in other anuttarayoga systems.

Mandala Symbolic Disks

Tantric practice includes visualization of various round symbolic mandala disks. The most common are mandala disks of the sun and the moon, representing, respectively, the understanding of voidness and the bodhichitta aim to reach enlightenment so as to be of best help to all others.

The five external and bodily elements – earth, water, fire, wind, and space – are often represented by symbolic mandala disks having the shapes and colors set by Buddhist convention. For example, a square yellow mandala disk represents the element earth.

In the Kalachakra system, round symbolic mandala discs of four heavenly bodies involved in eclipses – the moon, the sun, Rahu, and Kalagni (the north and south nodes of the moon) – represent four subtle energy drops within the subtle body. These are the energy-drops of the waking state, the dream state, the deep sleep state, and the fourth or peak state.

Mandala Palaces

Most Buddha-figure systems include a mandala palace, often called an immeasurably magnificent palace (gzhal-yas khang), in which the Buddha-figures of the system reside. The structure of the palaces models that of ancient Indian palaces, although the roofs suggest Chinese influence. The palaces are square, mostly with two but occasionally with more than two stories, and have portals leading to entrance halls on each side and an archway beyond each portal. The walls are multilayered in thickness and are topped with moldings and other complex and ornate structural jeweled features.

Each architectural feature represents a particular aspect of the path to enlightenment. In regard to the Vajrabhairava mandala, for example, the four sides of the palace signify the four noble truths, the five colors of the floor and of the layers of the walls represent the five types of deep awareness, and so on.

Body Mandala

Several Buddha-figure systems of both father and mother anuttarayoga tantra have body mandalas (lus-dkyil). A body mandala comprises a network of Buddha-figures arranged inside the body of ourselves as a Buddha-figure and for which various parts of our impure samsaric bodies have served as their obtaining causes (nyer-len-gyu rgyu). The obtaining cause of something is that from which one obtains the item as its successor and thus it ceases to exist when its successor arises. For example, bread dough, in baking into bread, stops existing as dough. Similarly, in the Guhyasamaja system, for example, our impure aggregate of form serves as the obtaining cause for the pure form of a Vairochana to arise instead of it.

In the Buddha-figure systems of mother anuttarayoga tantra that have body mandalas, such as Chakrasamvara, Vajrayogini, and Chittamani Tara, the figures arise from parts of the subtle energy-body, namely the energy-channels, as their obtaining causes. In the father anuttarayoga tantra systems that have body mandalas, such as Guhyasamaja, the figures arise from parts of the gross body, such as the aggregates, elements, cognitive sensors, and limbs, as their obtaining causes. In the systems of anuttarayoga tantra, designated as nondual in the Sakya tradition, that have body mandalas, such as Hevajra, parts of both the gross and subtle bodies serve as the obtaining causes for the Buddha-figures.

The above are examples of supported body mandalas of Buddha-figures. Some anuttarayoga systems, such as Guhyasamaja, also have a supporting body mandala comprising a palace for which parts of the gross body have served as its obtaining causes.

Only the body mandalas in mother anuttarayoga systems serve as bases from which a vase empowerment may be conferred.