Experiencing The Mandala
A Mandala is a symbolic representation of the Universe or a part
of the Universe. A Mandala must also be seen as complete within
itself for every part is holographic and expresses the whole.
Since ancient times it has been recognized that words alone can
not completely describe the vibrational essence of a particular
deity. Generally a Mandala is a picture that describes the universe,
or a part of the Universe, but it can also be a set of statues
(like at Toji), a temple complex (like Koyasan or Borabadur, in
Java) or any three dimensional representation. In Shingon traditionally
there are two Mandalas that were brought back from China to Japan
by Kobo Daishi. These represent the two lineages that combined
to form Shingon. In India Mandala means a perfect circle. In the
Indian tradition a circular altar was formed that become the place
for invoking the spirit of the deity or deities during ritual
In explaining Mandalas, Kobo Daishi distinguished four types:
1. The Maha-Mandala
In Sanskrit Maha-Mandala means the Great Mandala. The Great Mandala
expresses the entire universe in which, viewed broadly, human
beings and all living things maintain harmony and interdependence
with each other. It includes all of the other Mandalas.
2. Samaya Mandala
Samaya is a Sanskrit word that means vow. The buddhas and bodhisattvas
express their respective vows through their hands by forming mudras,
or holding lotus blossoms, swords or other objects. The mudrås
and handheld objects capture and express the essence that is hidden
within that vow.
3. Dharma Mandala
Dharma, in Sanskrit, means teaching or transmission. The methods
for transmitting the mind of the Buddha to people are the sutras,
Sanskrit words, and the names of the buddhas. The essence of the
teaching is contained in bîja or seed mantras. Generally speaking,
this refers to language, words, and written texts.
4. Karma Mandala
Karma, in Sanskrit, means action, and this Mandala refers to the
actions of the Buddha to teach and save people. In a broad sense,
it refers to the actions and functions of everything in the universe,
including the activities of people.
These four Mandalas depict the entire universe of the life force
of the Buddha, but since we cannot easily understand them, the
theory of these four Mandalas have been drawn as iconographic
figures of the buddhas on two Mandalas, the Vajradhatu Mandala
and the Garbhakosa Mandala, which Kobo Daishi received from his
master Hui-kuo. The term Mandala usually refers to these two.
In the main halls of Shingon temples, scrolls of these Mandalas
are enshrined. As one faces them, the one on the left is the
Vajradhatu Mandala and the one on the right is the Garbhakosa
Mandala. They both contain all of the buddhas meditated on in
Shingon Buddhism, and in a real sense the Mandalas can be spoken
of as the main objects of worship in Shingon Buddhism. In the
Vajradhatu Mandala there are 1,461 deities, and in the Garbhakosa
Mandala there are 414 (there are differences according to traditions).
The Vajradhatu is divided into nine sections and is therefore
referred to also as the Mandala of the Nine Assemblies, while
the Garbhakosa is divided and arranged into twelve groups and
is also called the Twelve Divisions of the Garbhakosa. All of
these buddhas work for the salvation of this world.
The Vajradhatu Mandala represents the world of the buddhas explained
in the Vajra Peak Sutra, while the Garbhakosa Mandala expresses
the truth of the buddhas described in the Mahavairocana Sutra
(Great Sun Sutra). Both Mandalas represent the true aspect and
life of the universe explained by Shingon Buddhism.
At first glance, a Mandala may look disorganized, but if we look
carefully and think about it, we see that it moves through a maintained
order and harmony. That order is depicted in the Mandala through
the forms of the many buddhas that praise and make offerings to
Mahavairocana Buddha, the most important deity located in the
center. This is a schematic of the world of the Buddha, which
is called Mitsugon Bukkoku, the Marvelously Splendid Land of the
The Vajradhatu Mandala expresses the function of the Buddha?s
sturdy wisdom existing in all of the universe, and can therefore
be spoken of as the activities of the masculine side of life.
The Garbhakosa Mandala is also referred to by another name, the
Great Compassion Mandala, and it manifests the mind of the Buddha?s
abundant compassion that continually exists in the universe.
Mahavairocana Buddha?s mind of compassion is manifested in the
Garbhakosa Mandala and they manifest in Avalokitesvara (Kannon)
Bodhisattva, Ksitigarbha (Jizo) Bodhisattva, Acala Vidyaraja (Fudo
Myoo), Great Heavenly Saint of Joy (Sho Ten), Vaisravana (Bishamonten),
Sarasvati (Ben Ten), and Mahakala (Daikoku Ten), which are all
deities with whom we are intimate since they bestow upon us compassion
and joy. A central current flowing through life is the caring
mind that gives birth to many things and nurtures them, and we
can speak of these as the activities of the maternal side of life.
The Mandalas represent, first of all, harmony and order; secondly,
offerings and a focus point; and thirdly, wisdom and compassion.
They teach us how the world of the Buddha is created in this
©1998,1999 Shingon Buddhist International Institute