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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 ceremonies.

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 Buddha.

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 world.

©1998,1999 Shingon Buddhist International Institute