To the initiate, the mandala of the Five Dhyani Buddhas is at once a cosmic diagram of the world and of himself. It is a tool for spiritual growth and mystical experience—a map to enlightenment alive with divine possibilities.
Buddhists often depict the Dhyani Buddhas in a mandala. Mandala is a Sanskrit word meaning “circle,” translated in Tibetan texts as “center” or “what surrounds.” Some say the word derives from manda, meaning “essence.” The mandala as a circle denotes wholeness, completeness and the perfection of Buddhahood. The mandala is also a “circle of friends”—a gathering of Buddhas. Traditionally mandalas are painted on thangkas (scroll paintings framed in silk), drawn with colored sand, represented by heaps of rice, or constructed three-dimensionally, often in cast metal.
A Dhyani Buddha is positioned in the center as well as on each of the cardinal points of the mandala. Mandalas were originally composed on the ground in front of the meditator and are therefore oriented toward the person who is contemplating them. The point nearest the contemplator, at the bottom of the mandala, is the east. The mandala continues clockwise, following the course of the sun, with south to the left of the contemplator, west at the top and north to the right.
Lama Anagarika Govinda, one of the foremost interpreters of Tibetan Buddhism to the West, explains: “In the same way as the sun rises in the east and thus begins the day, the practitioner enters the mandala through the eastern gate, the door in front of which he sits.” 2
A mandala is a sacred, consecrated space where no obstacles, impurities or distracting influences exist. Buddhists use it as an aid in meditation and visualization. “All mandalas,” writes Tibetologist Detlef Lauf, “originate from the seed-syllables, or bija-mantras, of the deities. During meditation upon these mantras, an elemental radiance of light develops, from which comes the image of the Buddhas.” 3
Mandalas are rich in symbolism. The series of circles on the periphery of a mandala symbolizes protection from external influences. The outermost circle of flames signifies knowledge that destroys ignorance or symbolizes the phenomenal world the devotee abandons as he enters the mandala. The flames can also represent the Mountain of Fire that prohibits the uninitiated from receiving the mysteries. The ring of lotus petals inside the circle of fire signifies the spiritual world, spiritual rebirth, the unfolding of spiritual vision, or the purity of heart that is necessary for effective meditation.
The central part of a mandala (signified by the square inside the circle) represents a palace or temple with four gates at the four cardinal points. Outside the palace walls, mandalas often show propitious and victorious symbols, such as the Eight Auspicious Symbols. These eight symbols commemorate the gifts Gautama Buddha received after he attained enlightenment. They are the precious parasol, banner of victory, golden wheel of the Teaching, white conch shell, two golden fish, knot of eternity, vase of great treasures and lotus flower. Buddhists believe these symbols bring good fortune.
The four gates of the palace lead to the innermost circle, the focus of the mandala. “Mandalas appear as circles around a holy center,” write authors Blanche Olschak and Geshe Thupten Wangyal. “These depictions are the ground plan of the visionary heavenly abodes, at whose center is manifested the holy power that is to be invoked. The entire mandala is a fortress built around this Buddha-force.” 4 In his meditation the disciple circles the focus at the center of the mandala until he can finally integrate with that powerful nucleus.
The disciple uses the mandala to find its elements within himself. “As soon as he has entered the mandala,” writes religious historian Mircea Eliade, “he is in a sacred space, outside of time; the gods have already ‘descended' into the…insignia. A series of meditations, for which the disciple has been prepared in advance, help him to find the gods in his own heart. In a vision, he sees them all emerge and spring from his heart; they fill cosmic space, then are reabsorbed in him….By mentally entering the mandala the yogi approaches his own ‘center.'…The yogi, starting from this iconographic ‘support,' can find the mandala in his own body.” 5
Thus with all its symbolism, a mandala is no mere external image of heavenly power. Buddhists believe a mandala is the receptacle of the holy power it portrays. Its purpose, and the goal of every one of its symbolic images, is to help the meditator realize the divine power within himself and achieve his own inner perfection.
“The whole external mandala is a model of that spiritual pattern which the meditating individual sees within himself and which he must endeavour to experience in his own consciousness,” says Lauf. “[The Dhyani] Buddhas are looked upon as beings whose activity will manifest itself through man himself. The mandala thus becomes a cosmic plan in which man and the world are similarly ordered and structured….The meditation Buddhas develop their beneficial activity only in the measure to which the initiate succeeds in recognizing and realizing these characteristics and symbolized forces within himself.” 6
As renowned orientalist Giuseppe Tucci explains, “The five Buddhas do not remain remote divine forms in distant heavens, but descend into us. I am the cosmos and the Buddhas are in myself. In me is the cosmic light, a mysterious presence, even if it be obscured by error. But these five Buddhas are nevertheless in me, they are the five constituents of the human personality.” 7
The Dalai Lama teaches: “Mandala, in general, means that which extracts the essence….The main meaning [of a mandala] is for oneself to enter into the mandala and extract an essence in the sense of receiving blessing. It is a place of gaining magnificence.” 8
For the disciple who knows how to use it, a mandala is therefore a map of the progressive steps to self-transformation and mystic union. It represents the growth of the seed of Buddhahood within him. “The meditator,” says Lama Govinda, “must imagine himself in the center of the mandala as an embodiment of the divine figure of perfect Buddhahood.” And that Buddhahood, he says, “can only be found in the realization of all those qualities which, taken all together, form the richness of the mandala.” 9