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The Sanskrit noun maṇḍala is often translated as "circle" or "discoid object"; however, the term is also used to define visual and meditative images. Used in Hindu and Jain traditions as well as Buddhism, maṇḍalas are described as cosmoplans both in the external sense as diagrams of the cosmos and in the internal sense as guides to the psychophysical practices of an adherent. Fundamentally, however, they represent the manifestation of a specific deity (or group thereof) in the cosmos and as the cosmos. Maṇḍalas can include a few deities or thousands. Both figurative works, as well as those focusing on words, syllables, or attributes, are made. The principal deity, who is also its generative force, is usually placed at the center or core of the maṇḍala. Other deities, who function both independently and as manifestations of the essence and powers of the central image, are carefully placed to illustrate their relation to the primary icon. A maṇḍala can be understood, to some extent, as a web of forces radiating in and out of a self-contained and self-defined spiritual cosmos. Rites based on these icons presume a constant dialogue between the deity at the heart of the maṇḍala and the practitioner who moves, at least metaphorically, from the outside to its core. Once within, the practitioner identifies with the central deity, apprehends all manifestations as part of a single whole, and moves closer to the goal of perfect understanding or enlightenment.

Preserved principally in architectural structures and permanent material such as wood, stone, and paint, maṇḍalas are also made in ephemeral material such as sand or butter. The creation of a maṇḍala is integral to a ritual, during or after which it is sometimes destroyed. Both permanent and impermanent examples are used to decorate and sanctify monasteries and homes, in initiation rites for monks and rulers, and as the focus of visualization by clergy and other advanced practitioners and of worship by lay followers.

Groups of eight bodhisattvas assembled around a seated buddha (variously identified as Śākyamuni, AmitĀbha, or Vairocana) are among the earliest and most widespread examples of maṇḍala imagery. Lists of eight great bodhisattvas occur in early MahĀyĀna texts, where they are described as protectors of the faithful and providers of mundane blessings, and are linked to a group of eight buddhas. In later texts such groupings are identified as maṇḍalas. The first preserved visual examples of the Maṇḍala of Eight Great Bodhisattvas date from the sixth century, and the type was widespread from the eighth to the twelfth century. Examples include an interesting portable wooden shrine in the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Missouri; a group found along the interior walls of cave 11 at Ellora in India; a distinctive ninefold arrangement from cave 12 at the same site; versions from Chandi Mendut, Chandi Sari, and Chandi Pawon in Indonesia; a large mural in cave 25 in the Yulin grottoes in Gansu province in China; and images in Ldan ma brag in the Chamdo district and the Assembly Hall of Gra thang Monastery in Tibet. Later painted examples are found in both Korea and Japan.

Compositions of the Maṇḍala of Eight Great Bodhisattvas fall into three basic types: those in which the eight bodhisattvas are arranged in two sets of four to either side of the central Buddha; those in which the eight bodhisattvas encircle the central Buddha; and less common examples in which the nine figures in the maṇḍalas are arranged in groups of three placed one above the other. Of these, the circular arrangements, which provide prototypes for the inner sections of other maṇḍalas, are the most influential in later Buddhist art.

A Buddha surrounded by eight bodhisattvas forms the core of the Womb World Maṇḍala (Sanskrit, Garbhadhātu; Japanese, Taizōkai), whereas a ninefold arrangement is repeated in the structure of the Diamond World Maṇḍala (Sanskrit, Vajradhātu; Japanese, Kongōkai), examples of which are preserved since at least the eighth century. Found principally in Japan, these maṇḍalas are shown as a pair and are placed on the east and west walls of the inner precinct of a temple.

The Womb World (or Matrix) has 414 deities and symbolizes the possibility of buddhahood in the phenomenal world, while the Diamond World with 1,416 deities is a guide to the requisite spiritual practices.

Both the Womb World and the Diamond World maṇḍalas focus on Vairocana Buddha, and both are further subdivided into courts, each of which has its own primary and secondary deities and its own theme.

For example, in the Womb World Maṇḍala, Vairocana is seated in the center of an eightfold lotus containing four buddhas and four bodhisattvas. The maṇḍala unfolds from the center in twelve sections, each containing a central deity and attendant figures, symbolic of aspects of the cosmos or the process of spiritual development. The three courts to the east, reading from the center, include six deities surrounding a central triangle containing the burning fire of wisdom; the historical Buddha, Śākyamuni, thought to be a manifestation of Vairocana in the phenomenal world, with thirty-eight disciples; and at the outermost edge, Mañjuśrī, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, with an entourage of twenty-three other figures.

Each maṇḍala is based on a different text: the Womb World on the Mahāvairocana-sūtra (Great Vairocana Sūtra) and the Diamond World on the Vajraśekara (Diamond World). The former was translated from Sanskrit into Chinese by the Indian Śubhakarasiṃha (637–735) in the eighth century, while the latter is based on a translation by Amoghavajra (705–774) during the same period. Together with Vajrabodhi (669–741), these monks are revered as the founders of the Mijiao (Esoteric) school of Buddhism in China. Examples of both maṇḍalas are said to have been brought to Japan from China in the early ninth century by the famed monk KŪkai (774–835). As is more often than not the case with maṇḍalas, not all examples of these two conform precisely to these texts.

South or Southeast Asian evidence for either maṇḍala, and particularly for their use as a pair, is rare. It has been suggested that some figures in cave 6 at Aurangabad, a sixth- or seventh-century site in western India, can be understood to symbolize the Diamond and Womb World maṇḍalas. A variant of the Diamond World Maṇḍala is thought to underlie the structure and imagery of the famous ninth-century Borobudur in Java. In addition, two examples of three-dimensional maṇḍalas, created using small (three- to five-inch) sculptures, have been found in Indonesia: a well-known late tenth- to early eleventh-century group from Nganjuk, and a slightly earlier assemblage from Surucolo.

Two divergent maṇḍala traditions are preserved after the eleventh century. One is associated with Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, the other with Japanese practices. The Indo-Tibetan examples reflect the spread of the Anuttarayoga or Unexcelled Yoga Tantra tradition from India to Tibet; however, with the exception of a few stone stelae, Indian prototypes are no longer extant.

A lotus flower, generally eight-petaled, fills the core of Indo-Tibetan maṇḍalas. The lotus is housed in a palacelike inner sanctuary with elaborate arched gateways at the four cardinal directions. The square palace is surrounded by an outer circle composed of rings of fire, vajras (ritual implements symbolic of the adamantine properties of the diamond), and lotus petals. The small figures that inhabit the graveyards or charnel grounds, often placed between the inner palace and the outer ring, are standard images in Tibetan maṇḍalas, and reflect early practices that led to the development of Anuttarayoga Tantra. The figures at the sides of the maṇḍala represent either teachers associated with its practices, or related deities.

Maṇḍalas are made as single works or in sets. A well-known series, based on the Vajravali (Diamond Garland) and commissioned by Ngor chen kun dga' bzang po (1382–1456), includes both single icons and paintings depicting four related maṇḍalas.

A seventeenth-century painting of the KĀlacakra Maṇḍala in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston shows a large central maṇḍala surrounded by four smaller versions for related deities. The painting is based on the Kālacakra Tantra (Wheel of Time Tantra), a late text distinguished by its elaborate cosmology and the prophecy of an apocalyptic war ending in the triumph of Shambhala, a hidden Buddhist kingdom, and the enlightenment of the cosmos. The central palace has been divided into three structures, one symbolic of body, one mind, and one speech, the three primary components of the complicated Kālacakra system.

The twelve animals carrying circles filled with deities in the space between the middle and outer walls of the palace represent the days of the year according to the Kālacakra cycle. The tiny figures at the top of the painting are the kings of Shambhala, where the Kālacakra teachings were first taught and are preserved. The numerous small figures that provide the upper background for the five maṇḍalas represent lamas who have upheld the Kālacakra lineage. Those toward the bottom are various deities associated with the Kālacakra. Monks and lay patrons, involved in the creation of the work and possibly in its ritual use, are shown seated around an offering table at the lower left.

In addition to continuing early maṇḍala traditions, such as that of the eight bodhisattvas, Japanese Buddhism created several unique traditions, also known as maṇḍalas, that illustrate revered sites, such as the Kasuga shrine near Nara or Mount Kōya to the south of Osaka. Ascetics and others, some of whom were influenced by early forms of Esoteric Buddhism popular in Japan from the eighth through the twelfth centuries, frequently used such sites. Over time, the sharing of ideas and practices among these varied seekers and more settled monastic adherents led to the creation of a system known as honji suijaku or "true-nature" manifestation. According to this system, native Shintō gods are manifestations of imported Buddhist deities, and the two become interchangeable. Paintings illustrating these complicated ideas include representations of famous scenic sites, with or without the Shintō shrines and Buddhist temples they house. Such paintings also include representations of both Shintō and Buddhist manifestations of the deities associated with these sites, as well as representations of the sacred animals or other emblems affiliated with the practices and beliefs of individual locations.

See also:Stūpa


Brauen, Martin. The Maṇḍala: A Sacred Circle in Tibetan Buddhism, tr. Martin Willson. Boston: Shambhala, 1998.

Leidy, Denise Patry, and Thurman, Robert A. F. Maṇḍala: The Architecture of Enlightenment. New York: Asia Society and Tibet House, 1997.

ten Grotenhuis, Elizabeth. Japanese Maṇḍalas: Representations of Sacred Geography. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999.

Denise Patry Leidy

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