Maṇḍalas: Buddhist Maṇḍalas

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In general terms, the Sanskrit word maala (Tib., dkyil 'khor ) refers to something that is round or circular. Maala also designates a region, terrestrial division, domain, assembly, or group. In Tantric traditions, the term maala often refers to a space with a specific structure that is enclosed and delimited by a circumferential line into which a deity or deities are invited by means of mantras. This space is often a circle, but may also appear as a square, a triangle, or another shape.

The center of a maala contains an image or symbol of the main deity, the maaleśa or maala lord, for which the maala is named. The maaleśa is identified with the whole maala, and the surrounding deities are the maaleśa 's aspects. The number of residents of a maala (e.g., buddhas, bodhisattvas, deities, consorts, offering goddesses, and gatekeepers) differs according to specific schools, giving rise to many varieties of maalas, which are difficult to classify. A simple maala has only one maaleśa with four surrounding deities situated in the four cardinal directions. This simple structure can be expanded by adding four more divine beings in the intermediate directions. Thus, the divinities surrounding the maaleśa usually number eight or multiples of eight. Greater complexity of the basic structure is achieved by increasing the number of divinities surrounding the center, by varying their spatial relationship to the center, and by grouping them around the center in circles of increasing distance.

Maalas can be classified structurally as unicyclic, with only one inner circle; bi-cyclic, with a second circle; tricyclic; and quadricyclic. The circles within some tricyclic maalas are called the body maala, the speech maala, and the mind maala, according to the way in which the deities are represented. Generally, the deities can be represented in one of three ways. They may appear as images with iconographic characteristics, in symbolic form, or as seed syllables (bīja ), which are mantras of deities and are thus considered identical to them. The symbols are often identical with the attributes held by the images. In the body maala, the deities are represented as anthropomorphic images with iconographic attributes; in the speech maala, they are represented by their seed syllables; and in the mind maala, they are represented by their symbols.

Composite maalas consist of several individual maalas, each with a central deity. While the simplest maala houses one to five deities, more complex maalas may accommodate several hundred or more than one thousand deities. The maala structure can function as an important device for representing the pantheon of deities in a system or school, as well as the hierarchy of deities within the system. The hierarchical status of the maala inhabitants declines as one moves away from the center, and those in the outermost ring generally function only as guardians. The element of distance from the maala's center assumed importance when it came to including Brahmanic and Hindu deities, who were regularly assigned to the periphery of the maala.

There is no single uniform maala pattern. Maalas display various shapes and consist of different constituent parts, depending on the traditions of different schools, the ritual application, the deity worshiped, and the practitioner's qualifications and goals. It must be emphasized, however, that the maala is not merely a physical structure with a specific design. It is the place in which the practitioner beholds the deities who have been invoked into the maala and so have become an integral part of the structure.

One basic structural element of maalas (and yantras ) is the lotus design. The lotus is a South Asian symbol of creation, purity, transcendence, and the sphere of the absolute, but it is especially known as a symbol of the female reproductive organ. In maalas of lotus design, the central deity is positioned in the pericarp, with the emanations or subordinate deities in the petals. A lotus design may feature one or more concentric rings of petals. Four-petaled and eight-petaled lotus designs are the most common. The petals of an eight-petaled lotus ideally point in the cardinal and intermediate directions and are thus well suited for positioning deities in their respective directions. Eight-petaled lotus designs are commonly found in the center of Buddhist (and also Hindu and Jain) maalas, such as in some versions of the maala of the Eight Great Bodhisattvas. The free-standing lotus maalas, which were manufactured in India from brass and later in Tibet from other metals, also feature an eight-petaled lotus with a statue of a tathāgata in the center and small statues of surrounding deities on the lotus petals. A pattern of nine lotuses arranged in groups of three placed one above the other appears in several important maalas, including versions of the Buddhist vajradhātumaala ; this pattern also appears in Hindu Tantric maalas, such as versions of the Pāñcarātra navapadmamaala and the Śaiva navanābhamaala.

Maalas of the goddess Vajravārāhī (Vajrayoginī) include a hexagram consisting of two superimposed equilateral triangles, one pointing upwards and the other downwards. The triangles, which are also found in Hindu maalas and yantras, symbolize the union of the female and male principles. The hexagram is a widespread symbol and has been used for decorative purposes or as a magical sign in many cultures. It is also known as Magen David, the Shield of David, or as the Seal of Solomon.

Maalas have been used in different ways in various traditions. Indian Buddhist Tantric texts attest to their use in rituals, most importantly in Tantric consecration or empowerment (abhieka ) rites, which form part of a ritual initiation by a Tantric teacher. The number of empowerments received by the disciple differs according to the type of initiation. In the garland empowerment, a blindfolded initiate casts a flower on the maala in front of him. The initiate's buddha family is then determined from the place in the maala where the flower has fallen. A similar ritual is also known in Hindu Tantric traditions. Maalas for such temporary use in a specific ritual are prepared from various materials, including colored powders. After they have fulfilled their purposes, the maalas are ritually obliterated. The actual size of maalas differs according to the practitioner's means and goals. At times they are large enough for the practitioner to enter and move along pathways in them. Maalas are also visualized as part of Tantric sādhana s (described below).

Maalas in Indian Buddhist Texts

Descriptions of maalas for visualization appear in Indian sādhana texts in such collections as the Sādhanamālā. Some of these texts may date back to the ninth century ce or earlier. The term sādhana refers both to the methods employed by Tantric practitioners for the worship of a particular deity and the texts written to guide practitioners, often called yogins, in worship. As part of a sādhana, the practitioner may mentally create a maala of a deity in the following manner. After completing certain preliminary rites, the practitioner visualizes in succession: (1) an outer enclosure of ritual thunderbolt scepters (vajra ); (2) a pavilion made of thunderbolt scepters; (3) a floor of adamantine stones; and (4) an outer boundary. Next the practitioner visualizes a white downward-pointing triangle inside the pavilion; this is the symbol of the female generative principle, called the "origin of existents" (dharmodayā ), which is said to consist of space. Such an inverted triangle is also common in Hindu maalas and yantras, where it is a symbol of the female pubic triangle, sex organ, and womb. In the center of the triangle the practitioner visualizes a lotus with multicolored petals, and in its pericarp a five-pronged crossed thunderbolt scepter (viśvavajra ) having the form of space. The spheres of the four great elements (wind, fire, water, earth), arising through the transformation of specific seed syllables, are configured atop one another in the center of the crossed thunderbolt scepter. Generated from the transformation of the four elements, the practitioner then visualizes a square palace, made from various jewels, with four gates, eight columns (two at each gate), four verandas, and four arches. The palace is decorated with garlands, half-garlands, mirrors, fly-whisks, various banners, bells, and other ornaments. In its innermost part the practitioner visualizes an eight-petaled lotus within whose pericarp the deity is enthroned.

Other patterns for maala visualization do not feature the origin of existents but call for the palace to be situated in the pavilion made of thunderbolt scepters and to rest on the five-pronged thunderbolt scepter, which is inside the pericarp of a huge lotus with multicolored petals. The lotus in turn rests on Mount Sumeru, which is surrounded by the oceans, continents, and subcontinents.

Structural elements of maalas appear more clearly in complex three-dimensional maalas made of such materials as wood, metal, or even precious stones. Three-dimensional maalas are already mentioned in the Dharmamaalasūtra by Buddhaguhya, a text composed in the eighth century and extant only in its Tibetan translation. This work deals with various aspects of the maala and its symbolism. The Nipannayogāvalī and Vajrāvalī, two complementary works by Abhayākaragupta that were written around 1100, are important documents for the study of late Indian Tantric maalas. Both texts describe in great detail twenty-six maalas from various Tantric traditions, including a version of the kālacakramaala. The Nipannayogāvalī focuses on the three-dimensional forms of these maalas for visualization (bhāvyamaala ) and describes in detail the iconography of deities. The Vajrāvalī explains the construction and ritual use of two-dimensional maalas, which are to be drawn or painted (lekhyamaala ) on the ground. In visualized maalas, the deities are mentally seen with their distinct iconographic characteristics, whereas in drawn maalas they are usually only represented by corresponding symbols (cihna, samaya ). The elaborate ritual descriptions in the Vajrāvalī begin with the selection and purification of the site and the drawing of the lines of the maala, and include important details of the consecration rituals.

Maalas in the Tibetan and NevĀr Buddhist Traditions

Permanent maalas painted on cloth are known as paa (Skt.), thaka (Tib.), and paubhā or paubāhā (Nevārī). Such maalas on cloth are commonly found in the Tibetan and Nevār Buddhist traditions as objects of general worship, and must have been popular in India as well since simpler versions, which assign anthropomorphic images of deities in the directions and have been called proto-maalas, are described in the Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa (eighth to eleventh century). Important painted maala collections of the later Tibetan tradition include the or collection, a set of 132 maalas produced at or Monastery, the headquarters of the Tibetan Sa skya (Sakya) pa or sect. The collection forms part of a voluminous work, the Rgyud sde kun btus (Compendium of Tantras), which is based on earlier maala texts and encompasses all Tibetan Tantric traditions, with an emphasis on the Sa skya sect. The text was compiled and the maala paintings were produced in Eastern Tibet during the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Maalas are also painted on the walls and ceilings of temples in the Tibetan and Nevār Buddhist traditions, a practice that continues today. The painting of maalas became part of the Bon tradition of Tibet, which is still active as an organized religion and has absorbed considerable Buddhist influence. In addition to the painting of maalas, a tradition of manufacturing and installing stone maalas of Dharmadhātuvāgīśvara, a form of Mañjuśrī, for the purposes of worship started around the seventeenth century among Nevār Buddhists. Many such stone maalas can be found in the Kathmandu Valley.

A two-dimensional painted or drawn maala represents a three-dimensional maala structure from a bird's-eye view. The outer parts of Tibetan painted maalas are often made up of several concentric rings. The outermost rim consists of a circle of fire, with the flames represented by a line of scrollwork. This flame barrier is usually depicted in five colors: blue, red, green, white, and yellow. Contiguous to the circle of fire is a dark, impenetrable wall of thunderbolt scepters. Some texts identify it with the ring mountain of Buddhist cosmology, the world's most exterior boundary. Such a circle of thunderbolt scepters can appear in different positions on a maala. Its general function is that of a separator between the outer rings of the maala.

In some cases, especially in maalas of wrathful deities, a circle containing eight cremation grounds (śmaśāna ) follows. They are represented as places of religious practice, with four in the cardinal and four in the intermediate directions. The cremation grounds are modeled on a detailed iconographic plan. Each site has been assigned a specific mountain, relic shrine (stupa), river, tree, and ascetic who practices there. An ocean appears between each of the cremation grounds. In some maalas the circle of cremation grounds is found in the outermost part of the maala, outside the circle of fire. The cremation grounds encircle a ring of multicolored lotus petals. These are the petals of the huge lotus, which is conceived of as supporting the entire maala structure. Inside these enclosures is a park-like courtyard, often filled with water or cloud motifs, or displaying symbols of victory and auspiciousness.

A square palace appears in the center of the maala. Each of the four sides of the palace is interrupted by a T-shaped gate guarded by a gatekeeper. The palace rests on a foundation consisting of a crossed thunderbolt scepter, whose prongs project beyond the T-shaped gates. The palace has an inner courtyard of four basic colors that represent the four directions, usually white (east), yellow (south), red (west), and green (north). The center of the palace, usually marked off by another circle, contains the throne of the deity, which takes such shapes as that of a lotus flower or a wheel. These structural parts of the maala may be adorned elaborately in various ways.

A comparison between the structural elements of some extant painted maalas in the Tibetan tradition and those of the visualized maalas described in Indian sādhana texts shows many similarities. The fire circle of the painted maala corresponds to the outer boundary, which is visualized as surrounding the whole maala structure on all sides like a fire. According to some sādhana texts this circle is visualized in five colors, as in the Tibetan maala paintings. The circle of ritual thunderbolt scepters corresponds to the outer enclosure of thunderbolt scepters, which is identified with the ring mountain in cosmology. The huge crossed thunderbolt scepter of painted maalas, upon which the maala palace stands, corresponds to the crossed thunderbolt scepter (viśvavajra ) visualized as resting on the lotus inside the origin of existents. The multicolored lotus petals in the painted maalas are the petals of this lotus.

Offering maalas

While the basic structure of the maala suggests that it was originally intended to portray the central deity as a king on a throne surrounded by his court inside a palace, various theological and philosophical concepts and schemes became associated with the maala structure when the maala symbolism evolved to more intricate and complex levels in the course of time. Such elements as the four gates of the maala were identified with categories of the Buddhist path. Iconographic characteristics of the maala deities were interpreted as expressing Buddhist truths. This development naturally led to various interpretations of the maala structure. The interpretations are extremely varied so that even a single text may provide more than one interpretation of the structural elements of a maala.

In The Theory and Practice of the Maala, Giuseppe Tucci called the maala "a map of the cosmos" and a "psychocosmogram" (Tucci, 1961, p. 23). These terms have been taken over by many later authors, who speak about the maala as a "cosmogram." This can be misleading, since we do not find representations of the continents in deity maalas, although cosmological notions often became associated with them. The "world" depicted in a deity maala is mostly a divine, transcendent world, distinguishable from the universe offered up in another kind of maala, the offering maala.

The offering maala or Mount Meru maala, which is widely known in the Tibetan tradition, is the symbolic offering of the spheres of the universe to a deity or preceptor. This maala represents the component parts of the universe according to ancient Indian cosmology: Mount Meru, the four continents, the eight subcontinents, the sun and moon, and the symbols of wealth and auspiciousness. The offering is made in containers of various shapes and materials. The most commonly used container consists of a round plate topped by hollow concentric metal rings of decreasing diameter and held in position by the grain offering that is placed inside. A decoration, which may include the wheel of the law, is placed on the top of the maala. Handfuls of grain, signifying the components of the universe, are generally heaped into the concentric rings. In this way the donor makes an offering of the universe in miniature. A similar scheme is also represented by free-standing brass, silver, beaded, or wooden structures, which are often placed on altars. Similar to the Tibetan offering maala is the gurumaala, which figures prominently in rituals of Nevār Buddhists. It is an ancient ritual offering of Mount Meru and the continents to the gurū, identified with the transcendental Buddha Vajrasattva.

Maalas in Japanese Shingon Buddhism

Maalas also play an important role in the Shingon and Tendai esoteric schools of Japanese Buddhism. Kūkai (774835 ce), who received a Buddhist Tantric transmission of Indian origin from his teacher Hui-ko (746805) in China, is credited with bringing to Japan copies of a pair of maalas. The paired maalas assumed a prominent role in the ritual of the Shingon school that Kūkai subsequently founded, which aims at integrating the individual with the Buddha. The two maalas are said to represent the two aspects of the dharma, the knower and the known, which are viewed as two aspects of the same reality. One is the so-called Womb or Matrix Maala (Skt., garbhamaala or [mahākaruā ]-garbhodbhavamaala ; Jpn., taizō mandara or daihi taizō shō mandara ), meaning "maala generated from the womb of Great Compassion." The other maala is the Thunderbolt Realm Maala (Jpn., kongōkai mandara ), which is one of several known versions of a vajradhātumaala. The Womb Maala features in its center the familiar pattern of an eight-petaled lotus with Mahāvairocana occupying the throne. The Thunderbolt Realm Maala can best be categorized as a composite maala, an aggregate of originally nine individual maalas arranged horizontally and vertically in rows of three. When viewed collectively, these individual maalas are referred to as the "assemblies." Structurally, the Thunderbolt Realm Maala can be compared to the above-mentioned nine-lotus maalas. In addition to these two fundamental maalas, other maalas are also known in these esoteric Japanese traditions.

Speculations on the Origins of the Maala

The origins of the Buddhist Tantric maala are not yet clearly understood. Several scholars have suggested that all Tantric maalas are rooted in Vedic traditions. The layout of Vedic altars is taken as indicative of an early interest in geometric designs endowed with cosmological symbolism. The method of determining the lines of the compass for the construction of sacrificial altars, the consecration of bricks on the surface of a cayana altar by means of mantras and the locating of deities on the bricks are essential features of Vedic rituals, and aspects of these rituals recur in the practice of constructing maalas and invoking deities into their parts. The sacred space of maalas and yantras can be seen as a continuation of the Vedic sacrificial site, and the square enclosure of many Tantric maalas can be seen as an analogue of the sacred fire altar. But the similarities between the two traditions are limited, since the patterns displayed by Tantric maalas are distinctly different, as are the details of the rites and the mantras and deities invoked. Influences from other traditions must also have played an important role in the development of the maala.

Ronald M. Davidson pointed out similarities between Buddhist maala structures and structural elements of political systems. He suggested a derivation of the form and functions of Buddhist maalas from the political situation in early medieval India, with the maala replicating the feudal system of vassals (sāmanta ) and the relationship between overlords and peripheral states. This derivation, however, can only account for selected maala patterns. Earlier, Stanley J. Tambiah had interpreted maalas as patterns for social organization.

Some scholars have considered the Wheel of Existence (bhavacakra ) as an antecedent of the Buddhist Tantric maala. The Wheel of Existence, whose earliest representation is a fifth-century painting found on the wall of cave 17 in Ajaā, is a graphic and pictorial didactic device for explaining Buddhist teachings, namely the endless cycle of birth and death. It differs considerably from a maala in its nature and function, since it is not concerned with deities and their emanations in the way maalas are. The kasia disks used as concentration devices in early Buddhism and recommended, for example, in Buddhaghosa's Visuddhimagga, have also been invoked as antecedents of maalas. However, these are plain disks and, unlike maalas, do not represent sacred space. Others have pointed to the symbolism and architectural form of stupas as contributing factors to the development of the Tantric maala. In contrast, Siegbert Hummel assumed that maalas originated outside India, probably in Tibet or China. Tucci believed that the symbolism of the maala was derived from the ziggurats of ancient Mesopotamia. These were towers built of mud brick with a square foundation and five (later seven) terraces, outside staircases, and a shrine at the summit.

Maala -like patterns are also found on Chinese mirrors, which led Schuyler Cammann to postulate the derivation of the Tibetan maala paintings from the Han dynasty's "TLV" mirrors. Cammann studied TLV patternsthree sets of angles, resembling the letters T, L, and V on the backsides of Chinese mirrors used between 100 bce and 100 ce. TLV patterns seem to represent the universe, but the symbolism of the mirror designs is still a matter of debate. The Chinese mirrors depict the square earththat is, the Middle Kingdom, or Chinaat the center of the world with four T-shaped gates. In Tibetan maalas the T-shaped gates are also visible, but they are crowned with elaborate structures. Squares with T-shaped gates (called earth squares ) are common elements of Hindu yantras as well. In the Chinese mirrors, the outer circle is thought to represent the sky, as indicated by a continuous string of clouds or "drifting cloud" design. In the Tibetan maala, however, the scrollwork on the outer ring represents fire.

See Also

Buddhist Meditation, article on Tibetan Buddhist Meditation; Labyrinth; Mahāvairocana; Tantrism, overview article; Temple.


Giuseppe Tucci's The Theory and Practice of the Maala, with Special Reference to the Modern Psychology of the Subconscious, translated by A. H. Brodrick (London, 1961), remains a readable general source on maalas. This is a translation of Tucci's original Italian work, Teoria e pratica del maala, con particolare riguardo alla moderna psicologia de profondo (Rome, 1949). However, Tucci's book, which was influenced by Jung's theory of archetypes, has become somewhat dated and suffers from generalizations and at times a confusing mix of Hindu and Buddhist materials. Also dated, but still a mine of information culled from Indo-Tibetan sources, is Reginald A. Ray's "Maala Symbolism in Tantric Buddhism," an unpublished doctoral dissertation submitted to the Divinity School of the University of Chicago in 1973. Detailed descriptions of thirty-seven major maalas in Indian Tantric Buddhist texts can be found in Marie-Thérèse de Mallmann, Introduction à l'iconographie du tântrisme bouddhique (Paris, 1986), pp. 3982. Buddhaguhya's Dharma-maalasūtra was translated by Erberto Lo Bue as "The Dharmamaala-Sūtra," in Orientalia Iosephi Tucci Memoriae Dicata, edited by G. Gnoli and L. Lanciotti (Rome, 1987), vol. 2, pp. 787818. See also Siegbert Hummel, Der Ursprung des tibetischen Maalas, Ethnos 23 (1958): 158-171; and S. J. Tambiah, World Conqueror and World Renouncer (London, 1976).

For an interpretation of the Buddhist maala as replicating the Indian medieval feudal system, see Ronald M. Davidson, Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement (New York, 2002), pp. 131144. A comprehensive treatment of the Tibetan maala can be found in Martin Brauen, The Mandala: Sacred Circle in Tibetan Buddhism, translated by Martin Willson (Boston, 1998). The book is a translation of the original German work, Das Mandala: Der heilige Kreis im tantrischen Buddhismus (Cologne, Germany, 1992).

Photographs of Tibetan maalas from different periods and traditions are reproduced in many exhibition catalogues, including Denise P. Leidy and Robert A. F. Thurman, Mandala: The Architecture of Enlightenment (New York, 1997). For the Tibetan or maalas, see The Ngor Mandalas of Tibet, vol. 1: Plates, edited by bSod nams rgya mtsho and Musashi Tachikawa (Tokyo, 1989), and vol. 2: Listings of the Mandala Deities, by bSod nams rgya mtsho, revised by Tachikawa, S. Onoda, K. Noguchi, and K. Tanaka (Tokyo, 1991).

For a comprehensive treatment of the two main maalas of the Japanese Shingon and Tendai schools, see Adrian Snodgrass, The Matrix and Diamond World Mandalas in Shingon Buddhism (New Delhi, 1988), and Michael Saso, Homa Rites and Maala Meditation in Tendai Buddhism (New Delhi, 1991). Nepalese stone maalas are described in Adalbert Gail, "Stone Maalas in Nepal," East and West 50 (2000): 309358. For the Tibetan offering or Mount Meru maalas, see Stephan Beyer, The Cult of Tārā: Magic and Ritual in Tibet (Berkeley, 1973), pp. 167170, and Alex Wayman, The Buddhist Tantras: Light on Indo-Tibetan Esotericism (London, 1995), pp. 101106. For the gurumaala of the Nevār Buddhists, see David N. Gellner, "Ritualized Devotion, Altruism, and Meditation: The Offering of the Guru Maala in Newar Buddhism," Indo-Iranian Journal 34 (1991): 161197.

For research on maala and landscape the reader may consult the essays in A. W. Macdonald, ed., Maala and Landscape (New Delhi, 1997). Buddhist yantras in Southeast Asia have been described in François Bizot, "Notes sur les yantra bouddhiques d'indochine," in Tantric and Taoist Studies in Honour of R. A. Stein, edited by Michel Strickmann (Brussels, 1981), vol. 1, pp. 155191; see also François Bizot and Oskar von Hinüber, La guirlande de joyaux (Paris, 1994). For a discussion of the designs of Chinese mirrors and a comparison with Tibetan maala designs, see the following two articles by Schuyler Cammann: "The 'TLV' Pattern on Cosmic Mirrors of the Han Dynasty," in Journal of the American Oriental Society 68 (1948): 159167; and "Suggested Origin of the Tibetan Mandala Paintings," in The Art Quarterly 13 (1950): 106119.

Gudrun BÜhnemann (2005)