mandala: Buddhist Tantric Diagrams


In the Tibetan tradition, all religious works of art are collectively referred to as sku gsun thugs rten. rTen literally means "support," and in religious terminology it signifies a support for one of the three "bodies" of enlightenment. sKu rten are "body supports," or images of the Buddha, deities, or saints in the Buddhist pantheon, such as the images painted in thangkas [see Jackson, Tibetan Thangka Painting, 1984]. gSun rten are "speech supports," or scriptures such as sutras and tantras, or commentaries on these. Thugs rten are "mind supports," of which mchod rten, or "stupas," are examples. Another object in this category of "mind supports", or representations of the spiritual embodiment of the Buddha, are dkyil khor, or mandalas. The word dkyil khor means "center-circumference," and describes both the essential geometric structure and ritual significance of mandalas. As one commentary clarifies [Wayman, Introduction to the Buddhist Tantric Systems, p. 270, n. 1]:

As for the center, that is the essence.
As for the circumference, that is grasping, thus grasping the essence.

This essence is the "heart" of the Buddha. In his enlightened form, the Buddha is no longer in this world. As one of his epithets indicates, the Buddha is tathagata, or "thus-gone," and in the absence of his physical body, the mandala represents his "body of enlightenment."

Nechung Monastery

Mandalas are used in the rituals of tantric initiation. They are constructed at the beginning of the initiation, out of grains of colored sand carefully placed on a specially prepared platform. Thus mandalas, like Vedic altars, are temporary structures built of impermanent materials. But while the mud-bricks of altars are simply abandoned after the ritual sacrifice, mandalas are deliberately destroyed, their sand swept up upon completion of the initiation and and poured into a nearby stream or river.

Mandala base at Nechung Monastery

All monks at Tibetan Buddhist monasteries are required to learn how to construct mandalas as part of their training. The learning process is two-fold, including the memorization of texts that specify the names, lengths, and positions of the primary lines that define the basic structure of mandalas, as well as the manual techniques of drawing and pouring sand. These texts, however, do not describe every line, nor every detail of each mandala, but rather serve as mnemonic guides to the complete forms of mandalas that must be learned from the repeated practice of construction under the guidance of experienced monks.

Monks constructing a mandala at Nechung

The basic structure...[measure and proportion]. The process of construction...[accuracy and precision]

The central square of 8 x 8 proportional units is shown by the gray area in the figure above. Note that in the east-west direction, drawn vertically here, the furthest extent of the construction lines is proportionately equal to that of the Vedic altar. Once the construction lines have been completed, guide-lines for the final representation of the mandala are drawn:

These guide-lines include representations of a square wall, each side of which contains an opening, or 'door' surmounted by a 'gate', and enclosing circles that define the limits of physical space. These guide-lines are traditionally drawn with chalk, and serve as a base for the final rendering of the mandala with colored sand. In the completed mandala, the colored sand completely covers the construction lines, resulting in the following form:

Details of the Guhyasamaja mandala...

fig. 1: walls and doors; fig. 2: central circle; fig. 3: gate.

In addition to their constructional similarities, altars and mandalas share a significant ritual similarity as well: both are impermanent structures. Just as the Vedic altar is abandoned after the completion of the sacrificial ritual, the sand of the mandala is swept away after the completion of the tantric ritual, and then poured into a nearby stream or river.

The mandala represented above is known as Guhyasamaja, one of the five proportional classes of mandalas given in the Vajravali tradition. The iconographic details of mandalas may further vary within each proportional class. In the iconographic study by Loden Sherap Dagyab, for instance, three different iconographic variations are given for the Guhyasamaja mandala:

fig. 4: Mi bskyod pa; fig. 5: Mar lugs mi bskyod pa; fig. 6: Gsan hdus rdor.


  1. What are the geometric implications of rendering mandalas with sand? (Use the concepts of 'accuracy' and 'precision'.)
  2. What is the relationship between the scale of a mandala and the type of iconographic representation that it contains?
  3. What are the primary differences between the Guhyasamaja mandala illustrated above and those given by Dagyab?
  4. If the mandalas shown above are two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional objects, what might those objects look like?

Patrick A. George