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What is a Mandala? (An Academic Explanation)

Posted by SATOYuya on
曼荼羅 マンダラとは何か?(学術的な説明)

Can the world of Truth and Enlightenment also be expressed ?

Is the experience of Truth and Enlightenment something that can be expressed to other people ?

Author Yukei Matsunaga writes about this intelligibly in his book, “Esoteric Buddhism, Cosmos, and Mandalas”.

Enlightenment cannot be expressed in words or sentences. Buddhists are well aware that it is impossible to communicate a religious experience, in its true form, to others. This is reflected in the legend that after Buddha was enlightened under the Bodhi tree, while he expressed it to his disciples, he decided to stop teaching the public.
Even in Mahayana Buddhism, it was attempted to be expressed using sky and tathata-like expressions, as well as using negative language such as sadness and denial. Moreover, the late-century scriptures of Esoteric Buddhism and the “Prajnaparamita Sutra”, words that are associated with the brink of enlightenment are used, such as “brightly shining” (Prabhāsvara).
とはいえ、Nevertheless, it is common knowledge, not only in Buddhism but in the religious world, that truth is a broken language, impossible to be expressed accurately. In technical terms, this is when "the cause can be explained, but not the outcome." In Chinese Buddhism, the phenomenal world is the cause, and the absolute world, the world of Truth, is the outcome. Even if the cause can be explained, the outcome cannot.
Excerpt from “Esoteric Buddhism, Cosmos, and Mandalas” by Yukei Matsunaga.

So, is the world of Truth and Enlightenment, something that can be expressed ?

Excerpt from “Esoteric Buddhism, Cosmos, and Mandalas”.

If the world of Truth is independent of the real world, and is impossible to be communicated, then truth itself is meaningless to us humans. Truth must have some sort of relation to us. If the outcome cannot be explained to us in some way, shape or form, then Buddhism itself would fall apart.
Kukai lived in a time when “the cause can be explained, but not the outcome” was common sense, and yet, was able to explain the outcome. Why is it possible to express the world of Truth in Esoteric Buddhism ? This is because, by using the discourse of tathata to directly express truth itself, rather than the words or phrases universally used in society, it activates the tenth cognitive effect -- it activates intellect.
In other words, it is not a cognitive action based on normal logic, but rather, the symbol of truth must be decoded through intuition. This is how the truth can be grasped. In other words, the truth continues to send us codes. Whether or not that code is decrypted depends on how we receive it. Whether the outcome is viewed as explainable or inexplicable, depends on whether or not the symbol of truth can be decrypted.
Of course, the said symbol cannot be understood by relying solely on human reason. Rather than reason, the only option is to grasp it intuitively, by utilizing all of the human senses. Esoteric Buddhism has a way of grasping the truth by fully utilizing the five senses.
Excerpt from “Esoteric Buddhism, Cosmos, and Mandalas” by Yukei Matsunaga.

The idea that the world of Truth and Enlightenment can be expressed, that the outcome can be explained, is the most defining feature of Esoteric Buddhism.


Moreover, looking at a Mandala, of the five human senses, vision is a way of grasping the Truth.

Types of Mandalas

There are various types of Mandalas, and this post will delve into the definition and types of Mandalas.

Quite a few books related to Mandalas are available at the library, however, the book that offered the best answer to the question, “what is a Mandala?” was the book, “Esoteric Buddhism, Cosmos, and Mandalas” by Yukei Matsunaga. It states:

The characteristics of Mandalas break down as follows:
First, the basic Esoteric belief is that a Mandala contains the essence of the real world, as it is.
Buddhas and Bodhisattvas appear in the holy world.
The picture form of that, are the Mandalas we see in Esoteric temples.
Excerpt from “Esoteric Buddhism, Cosmos, and Mandalas” by Yukei Matsunaga.

The above simply answers the simple question, "what is a Mandala ?"

For Esoterics, "all things in nature, in the real world, have infinite value, and that directly becomes the world of the Mandala. Seeing the real world as a holy world."

This is called the “self Mandala”.

On the other hand, "by imagining the holy world, Buddhists and Bodhisattvas appear in the holy world within Esoteric meditation (=mindfulness)”. → This is called the observation Mandala.

"The picture form of that, are the Mandalas we see in Esoteric temples." → This is called the picture Mandala, which is the Mandala that most of us know. From here on out, the term “Mandala” will refer to the picture Mandala.


Next, the Mandala can be divided into four types depending on the expression method.

① Great Mandala = A Mandala in which the Buddha, Bodhisattva, or the Wisdom King are detailedly drawn, and is not about the size of the Mandala. This is the painting of the common Mandala.
② Samaya Mandala = Refers to Buddha, Bodhisattva, swords, jewels, vajras, and lotus flowers. Instead of drawing the Buddha statues themselves on the Mandala, it features Buddhas and Bodhisattvas symbolically holding objects that represent their characteristics. For example, a sword or sutra to represent Manjushri, a lotus flower to represent Guanyin or Amitābha, or a jewel to represent Ratnasambhava.
③ Dharma Mandala = A Mandala with the seeds or mantra of the principal deity. The seeds are said to represent the character of the deity by using a condensed Sanskrit character. For example, “A” is for the Mahavairocana’s Womb, “Ba” is for Mahavairocana’s Diamond Realm, “Kiriku” is for Guanyin, and “Fuhn” is for Acala.
④ Karma Mandala = The action of the previously mentioned three types of Mandalas is said to be the work of the Mandala. The Sanskrit word “Karma” means “action”. Given the perspective that the Mandala is the real world in and of itself, everything from the murmuring of a stream, to the breeze of the wind, to the movement of the stars and the moon, is all the work of Buddhas.


Excerpt from “Esoteric Buddhism, Cosmos, and Mandalas” by Yukei Matsunaga.



This is categorized into ① the Great Mandala.

This is categorized into ③ the Dharma Mandala, due to the visible Tibetan characters.


The Origin of the Mandala

So far we’ve looked into what exactly a Mandala is, and the different types of Mandalas. Now I’ll offer a simple explanation regarding the origin of the Mandala.

"Mandala" is a Sanskrit term. In India, it has several different meanings. Sets, sections, circles, essential things, altars, and dojos are just some of the meanings that are associated with the Mandalas we know today. In the Chinese translation of Buddhist scriptures, it translates as “perfectly endowed”.

An excerpt from “Esoteric Buddhism, Cosmos, and Mandalas” by Yukei Matsunaga explains the origin of Mandalas clearly.

The Mandala is a set of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, divided into several areas and drawn within the shape of a circular ring. As explained in the "Mahavairocana Tantra", if only one definition can be given to the word “Mandala” it is defined as “essential things”. A Mandala is a collection of essential things from the universe within mindfulness or a painting.
A dojo is an example of Bodh Gaya's, the enlightened Buddha’s, diamond seat, Bodhi-manda or Bodhimaṇḍa. It means a place with the essence of enlightenment.
The altar comes from a Brahmin ritual where a prayer, for the descent of deities, takes place upon an alter with a Mandala at the base of it. It was later incorporated into Buddhism, however the Mandala was originally built on the altar.

The above concludes the explanation of the meanings of Mandala, including sets, sections, circles, essential things, altars, and dojos. So many elements and meanings are included in the singular word, “Mandala”.

Next, let’s look into the origin of the shape of the Mandala.

The shape of the Mandala seems to resemble ancient Indian castles. The circle encircling the Mandala is a castle, and the burning flame and vajra drawn on it are barriers that separates the inner, holy world from the outer world. The pattern resembles a castle wall that has stopped the invasion of foreign enemies.
王nstead of guards at the four gates of the castle, the four gates of the Mandala have been protected by the Four Heavenly Kings since ancient times. The four Buddhas appearing in the center of the castle are of the fourth century. In the "Golden Light Sutra" and the "Kanbutsuzan Maikai Sutra", it is said that the ruler of the country of Buddha, the Land of Wonderful Joy, is controlled by Dhṛtarāṣṭra in the east, Virūḍhaka, revered in the Land of Delight, in the south, Virūpākṣa, chief of the Land of Paradise, in the west, and to the north, the delicate voice of faith in the Sacred Country of the Lotus Flower.

The above mandala is a good example, with castles on all four sides.

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