A mandala depicts in two-dimensional form the three-dimensional space inhabited by the deity. The bird’s-eye-view centralises the main deity within concentric squares, circles and borders of his associated lineage and related figures, arranged in order of importance. Mandalas can be created for a variety of reasons such as sanctification or as visual aids to achieving enlightenment. Meticulously constructed, these spiritual maps represented the cosmological realm of a deity. A mandala is a two dimensional visualization of a celestial palace. The four gates are protected by mythological see dragons called „Makara“.
A mandala is easy to recognize at first glance, because it is the representation of a circle that fills almost the entire scroll. A thangka with a "mandala" representation [Sanskrit for "circle", Tibetan: "dKyil 'khor" serves exclusively for meditation. That is, the image serves as a template for a particular visualization to be realized in meditation. The basic form of a mandala consists of a square divided into four isosceles triangles and several concentric circles surrounding it.
The meditator tries during his meditation to advance to the center of the mandala in order to unite in spirit with the deity represented in the center. The closer he gets to the center of the mandala, the more difficult it becomes for him to advance further.
The structure of a mandala is subject to strict geometrical rules, which consist primarily of an interplay of different circle segments and squares. A mandala is at the same time the two-dimensional representation of the Buddhist world view, which finds its correspondence three-dimensionally in the Stupas [Sanskrit] or Tschörten [Tibetan] and/or Dagobas [Sri Lanka] in the Himalaya and Sri Lanka. Very well known is also the huge complex of Borubodur in Central Java near Yogjakarta/Indonesia, which from the bird's eye view has great similarity with the meditation mandalas.
The meditation of a mandala begins with the meditator realizing the emptiness [sunyata] of all appearances. The meditator, with the help of such a mandala, then creates the mandala in his mind's eye and visualizes the various deities in turn. Then he asks the summoned deities to take their place in and around the mandala. Then, progressing from the outside to the inside, he can begin to approach the center of the mandala, which is enclosed by three to four circles. The meditative advance to the center of the mandala is comparable to a peaceful conquest of a fortress or palace, where numerous obstacles are placed in the way of the person.
The outer ring of a mandala usually consists of a wall of flames, [fire segment] which is already the first obstacle on the way to the center. The circle of fire is a symbol of the spiritual purification of the meditator. The circle of light and fire can also be seen as a huge mountain shining in the cosmic colors. Its radiant light dispels all darkness and points the way to the wisdom beyond. The possibly still existing ignorance of a meditator burns up when passing through this first barrier.
A circle follows, in which one clearly recognizes small thunderbolts, [vajra segment] also called diamond scepter, [Sanskrit: "Vajra", Tibetan: "Dorjee"], the symbol of the male principle in Tibetan Buddhism]. One must think of this segment as a dark wall crowned by golden vajras, or a fence with a chain of vajras, representing the final boundary with the outer world. The vajra symbolizes the indestructible diamond nature of pure cosmic consciousness, which is the goal to be reached. The diamond scepters here represent the attainment of knowledge and spiritual clarity. Behind this fence the meditator is at the same time protected from danger.
Only in mandalas with wrathful deities in the center [not in the graphic shown above] one finds a so-called cadaver segment. It consists of eight continuous fields with representations of corpse places, wild animals, stupas and yogis, trees, water sources, clouds, fire and corpses as well as the eight riding deities protecting the earth circle. This detailed depiction of the places of the dead as the haunts of spirits of various kinds and of dangerous, carnivorous animals is intended not only to bring these remote places of horror realistically before the meditator's eyes in order to lead him to overcome fear and to achieve inner equanimity, but also to make him see in these places of the dead a reflection of earthly existence par excellence, like the tantric yogis who meditate there in order to attain liberation.
Man is bound to the illusory world by eight different forms of consciousness, which are to be overcome. These eight forms of consciousness are symbolized by the eight charnel grounds described above. This is all a reference to the eight great mortuary fields that every yogi in India went to meditate on the impermanence of the earthly. However, the deeper symbolism of these eight fields refers to the complete liberation from the sense world that binds man to the sorrowful cycle of rebirths, and ultimately to the transformation of the eight modes of natural consciousness into higher consciousness.
Next, the meditator must cross a moat of lotus flowers [lotus segment, an innermost circle of lotus petals], which symbolizes the higher level of knowledge attained after overcoming the previous obstacles and the moral purity and new consciousness that slowly unfolds as a result - a prerequisite for spiritual progress.
When he has crossed the lotus flower ditch, the meditator has passed a test that brings about transformation. He is now in the park-like forecourt of the palace. The apron of the palace has four gates [= four cardinal points]. The gates are represented as ends of two of the already mentioned crossing diamond scepters, which form the foundation of the Mandala palace.
Two so-called Makaras form with their heads the two spokes of the mandalator. They arch over the ornate, multi-layered gate roofs, making each of the four of them look like giant vajras. A makara is an obscure hybrid creature or sea monster composed of fish [dolphin], elephant seal, and crocodile. It has scaly skin; a red underbelly and a filigree tail.
The gatekeepers may often be followed by other protective circles of flames, diamond scepters, and lotus petals. The first deities may also already appear, who are either other representations [manifestations] of the central deity or their attendants. On the roof of the palace, similar to the monastery roofs in Tibet, there are victory banners, symbols of good fortune, and jewel trees in golden vases, a sign that the meditator is now entering the inner temple realm.
On the apron of the palace, the meditator meets siddhas and yogis, dakinis and arhats, who are granted the sight of the holy of holies because they walk on the path of enlightenment. By joining them, he is asked to attain moral perfection and tantric enlightenment. When he has attained both, the gate of the palace assigned to him by his teacher through the attained initiation opens to him and he enters the inner mandala space, the cella of the temple, where the central deity is enthroned. Once the center of the mandala is reached, he has rid himself of all external impressions, his consciousness is fixed exclusively on the central deity, with whom he unites in meditation.
In contrast to Western tradition, the four cardinal directions in the mandala are in a different order:
|Position||Cardinal direction||Symbol color|