A Few Words About Buddhist Beliefs and Mandalas
As a visual representation of a sacred space, mandalas serve several functions in Tibetan Buddhism:
- Mandalas are used in rituals to initiate monks
- Mandalas are meditation tools to focus the mind
- Mandalas are made and destroyed to represent impermanence
- Mandalas are sold to spread awareness of Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy
In Buddhism, all beings are capable of attaining enlightenment, or “Buddhahood.” In this way, most Buddhists believe that the Buddha was not a divine being in the same way that Jesus Christ is usually thought to be the physical incarnation of God. Rather, the Buddha was an ordinary man who achieved a special transcendent state called “nirvana,” or enlightenment.
It is crucially important in studying Buddhist thought to understand that we are all capable of achieving enlightenment in the same manner as the man we call the Buddha. In fact, in the history of the multiverse, there have been many Buddhas. Countless Buddhas. Countless Buddhas in countless worlds in countless realms. Achieving enlightenment, each Buddha generates a special influence on the world he is in. Some Buddhas are known for establishing separate realms, pure and sacred spaces called “Buddha Fields.” One interpretation of mandalas is that they represent these Buddha Fields.
Tibetan Mandalas Today
In the Tibetan tradition, proper mandalas are usually made of sand or painted on heavy paper. They are common souvenirs for foreigners traveling in Tibet, Nepal, Northern India, and other areas with large Tibetan Buddhist populations. They are captivating pieces of art, and you may have encountered one at a friend’s home or a Himalayan restaurant.
The ornate gold and amber hues of thangka paintings often form decorative mandalas. For most Tibetans, these are entirely appropriate ways to view a mandala, and there is no sacrilege in placing such sacred art in secular spaces.
Traditional Mandalas and Initiations
In Tibetan tantric initiation rituals, a spiritual teacher, called a lama or guru, designs a mandala in a sanctified space. The mandala represents a perfect world that the initiates will enter, and is kept hidden from them until the appropriate time. The lama acts the role of the Buddha of the world represented by this mandala and the initiates are to venerate him accordingly.