Mandala (曼荼羅)

Mandala (Sanskrit: mandala) means works that express sanctuary, Buddhahood and/or the world view of Buddhism visually and symbolically by means of statutes of Buddha, symbols and characters (especially those of Esoteric Buddhism). Chinese character of 曼陀羅 is also used instead of 曼荼羅 (mandala).

Mandala originated in ancient India and was introduced into central Asia, China, Korean Peninsula and Japan. In the 21st century, a lot of mandala works are being produced in Tibet and Japan, and so on. The uniform name of mandala works designated as important cultural properties is '曼荼羅' in Japan, the word of '曼荼羅' is to be used in this column.

Word Origin

曼荼羅' or '曼陀羅' expresses the Sanskrit pronunciation of मण्डल in Chinese characters and these Chinese Characters themselves have no particular meaning, and ('荼' (da) is a different Chinese character from '茶' (cha)). The meaning of मण्डल is usually explained as follows.
As मण्ड (maṇḍa) means 'real nature, quintessence or essence' and ल (la) means 'have' respectively, मण्डल means 'something that has the essence.'

On the other hand, since मण्डल has the adjective meaning of 'round' and the Chinese character 円 that means round has also the meaning of perfectness and peacefulness, some people assert that this is the word origin of mandala and in China, mandala is sometimes called 円満具足 (peacefulness and content).

When inviting deities, people in ancient India painted round or square magic squares and mandala with colored sand on a dirt mound, and exercised secret arts. Although old works do not exist because they were painted on dirt mounds with colored sand, this practice still remains in Tibet as part of ascetic training on the occasion of rites or festivals.


Although the term 'mandala' is broadly interpreted in English as the cosmology in Hindu and other religions, it usually means paintings, and so on, that express the world view of Buddhism in Japanese.
Mandala' means Esoteric Buddhism mandala in the narrow sense, but in Japan, there are many works called 'mandala' other than those of Esoteric Buddhism, such as 'Jodo Mandala' which expresses Saiho Gokuraku Jodo (Western Pure Land) where Amida Nyorai (Buddha of Paradise) resides and 'Suijaku Mandala' of Shinto Religion, and their contents and styles of expression are also so diversified that it is difficult to define in a word what should be regarded as 'mandala.'
Esoteric Buddhism mandala works have geometric composition and all statues are painted as frontal views but they do not express three dimensional scenery and perspective. However, all mandala works are not necessarily works that express such abstract space since Jodo mandala works express three dimensional space and many of the Shinto Religion mandala works express real scenery from the shrines' holy precinct.

The common characteristics of all mandala works are (1) they are composed of plural elements (Buddhist statutes, and so on) (2) these plural elements are not arranged at random but are arranged based on certain rules an/or meanings. Esoteric Buddhism paintings that express a single Buddhist statute are not called mandala. In a nutshell, 'mandala' is a painting that combines plural elements and express a certain religious world view as a whole.

Variety (forms)

There are a wide variety of mandala works according to their forms and uses. Esoteric Buddhism mandala works are divided into the 4 categories shown below according to their forms (appearances).

Great Mandala - the one that express the statutes of Dainichi Nyorai (Cosmic Buddha) and other Buddha by means of painting.
This is what people usually imagine when they hear the term 'mandala.'

Samaya Mandala - the one that expresses various Buddha by means of the symbols that represent them, instead of painting them directly. Instead of various Buddha, things like Vajra (weapons that defeat worldly desires), renge (lotus flowers), swords and bells are painted. These things are called 'Samayagyo Symbol' and they are the symbols of each Buddha's enlightenment and actions.

Ho Mandala - the one that expresses a Buddha symbolically by means of a single letter (Sanskrit character, bonji (Siddhaṃ script)), instead of painting him directly. It is also called 'Shuji Mandala' (Seed-Syllable Mandala) as a character that represents Buddha, and is called shuji in Buddhism (Esoteric Buddhism).

Katsuma Mandala - 'Katsuma' means 'actions or effects' in Sanskrit. Katsuma Mandala is the one that expresses mandala by means of three dimensional statutes (sculptures), instead of plane paintings or symbols. The mandala enshrined at Lecture Hall of To-ji Temple in Kyoto, which consists of 21 Buddhist statutes with Dainichi Nyorai situated in the center, was produced in accordance with the initiative of Kukai and is regarded as a kind of katsuma mandala.

Variety (contents)

According to the classification of mandala works based on contents, there exist Besson mandala (mandala of individual deities) in Esoteric Buddhism besides Ryokai Mandala (mandala of the two realms) that are the basis, and there are Jodo Mandala, Suijaku Mandala and Miya Mandala (literally Shrine Mandala) in other sects than Esoteric Buddhism.

Ryokai Mandala - It is also called 'Ryobu Mandala' and consists of 2 kinds of mandala, i.e. 'Vajradhatu Mandala' and 'Daihitaizosho Mandala' (mandala born of the womb of great compassion). Vajradhatu mandala' and 'Daihitaizosho Mandala' were created based on 'Kongocho-kyo Sutra' (Vajrasekhara Sutra) and 'Daibirushana Jobutsu Jinbenkaji-kyo Sutra' (Mahavairocana Sutra), and both are the fundamental scriptures of Esoteric Buddhism, respectively and in these 2 kinds of mandala, many statutes of Buddha are arranged in a fixed order with Dainichi Nyorai, the fundamental Buddha of Esoteric Buddhism, situated in the center. It represents Esoteric Buddhism's world view symbolically.
As for details, refer to the column of 'Ryokai Mandala.'

Besson Mandala - Unlike Ryokai Mandala, it is the one in which other statutes of Buddha than Dainichi Nyorai are situated in the center and is used as a principal image in the prayer for particular purposes such as peace of state and recovery from disease. The purposes of prayer are normally categorized into 4 kinds, i.e. prosperity, protection, acquiring love and subduing demons. Prosperity is the prayer for continuation of good things like longevity and/or good health, protection is the prayer for removing or allaying misfortunes like disease and/or disaster, acquiring love is the prayer for a good marital relationship and subduing demons is the prayer for beating back enemies respectively. In this category, there exists Butsugen Mandala (literally Buddha-Eye Mandala), Ichijikinrin Mandala (One-Syllable Golden Wheel Mandala), Sonsho Mandala (Mandala composed of holy spirits of Mahavairocana's parietal region), Hokke Mandala (lotus mandala), Horokaku Mandala (Jeweled Pavilion Mandala) and Ninnogyo Mandala (the Sutra of Benevolent Kings Mandala), and so on.

Jodo Mandala - Jodo (pure land) means the sanctuary or perfect land where each Buddha resides, such as jodo of Miroku Buddha (Maitreya) and jodo of Yakushi Nyorai (the Healing Buddha), but when simply referring to 'jodo,' it usually means Saiho Gokuraku Jodo of Amida Nyorai. Jodo Mandala is the one that concretely expresses the image of Amida jodo which is advocated in 'Kanmuryo Jukyo Sutra' (The Sutra of Visualization of the Buddha of Measureless Life) and other scriptures. While these works are called 'jodo henso-zu' (the picture describing Buddhist Heaven and Pure Land) in China, they are called mandala in Japan. Based on patterns and contents, Jodo mandala works in Japan are categorized into 3 kinds, i.e. Chiko Mandala, Taima Mandala and Seikai Mandala, and these are collectively called Jodo Sanmandala (three Jodo mandala).

Suijaku Mandala - The philosophy which advocates that deities of the Japanese Shinto Religion are various Buddha from Buddhism that appear tentatively in different figures, is called Honji-Suijaku Setsu (Honji-Suijaku thesis). According to this thesis, various Buddha, which are the original figures of Deities, are called 'Honjibutsu' (Honji Buddha) and deities originating from Honjibutsu are called 'Suijakushin' (Suijaku deity). The works that express the deities of a particular shrine in the style of mandala, while assuming them to be Honjibutsu or Suijakushin, are called Suijaku Mandala. There also are many kinds of Suijaku Mandala works such as those expressing only Honjibutsu, those expressing only Suijakushin and those expressing both. Typical examples are Kumano Mandala (Devotional paintings of the three shrines of Kumano), Kasuga Mandala (Mandala form that sprang from Kasuga-Taisha Shrine) and Hie Sanno mandala (Mandala having to do with Hie Sannosha Shrine). Each of them depicts the enshrined deities of Kumano Sanzan (three major shrines, Kumano-Hongu-Taisha, Kumano-Hayatama-Taisha and Kumano-Nachi-Taisha) in Wakayama Prefecture, Kasuga Taisha in Nara Prefecture and Hiyoshi Taisha, which is Chinju (local Shinto deity) of Mt. Hiei, respectively.

Miya Mandala - Some works that depict neither Honjibutsu nor Suijakushin but depict the scenery of a shrine's holy precinct are also called 'Mandala.'
These works are considered to have depicted a shrine's holy precinct as sanctuary or jodo. Other than the above, there exists many kinds of painting works that are called 'mandala' regardless of being those of Buddhism or the Shinto Religion.

Moji Mandala - It was invented by Nichiren and depicts chants and various Buddha by means of letters (Chinese characters) instead of paintings. This is called Ita Mandala (board mandala) or Hige Mandala (beard mandala) because of its distinguishing characteristics of a long line drawn from the title lettering situated in the center. Sects belonging to Fujimon school including the Nichiren Shoshu sect, enshrine Nichiren's mandala as their principal image (Nichiren Shoshu sect calls it Honmon no kaidan no dai gohonzon). In other sects like Icchi school, mandala are not necessarily their principal image.

Tibetan Mandala - A mandala of Tibetan Buddhism. There exist many kinds of mandala works including those that depict various Buddha or rokudo-rinne (Rebirth in the Six Worlds) and Sand mandala which was produced with colored sand is also well known.