Mandala Technical Glossary

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Mandala Glossary of One Hundred Words

Abhidharmakosha: a Buddhist text of the 4th-5th century composed by the scholar Vasubandhu. Detailed explanations of Buddhist cosmology serve as the basic components for the paintings with subjects such as the Wheel of Life, Mount Meru Offering (mandala) and the Rebirth Game.

Activities: mandalas can be divided by function and appearance into the four basic activities of Tantric Buddhism: peaceful (white), increasing (yellow), powerful (red) and wrathful (blue-black).

Akshobhya Buddha: the Buddha of the Vajra Family of Tantric classification and commonly representing the center or eastern direction in a mandala configuration. Akshobhya is a Buddha associated with many well known deities such as Manjushri, Achala, Mahakala, Chakrasamvara, Hevajra, Vajrabhairava, etc. Wrathful deities and blue deities typically belong to the Vajra Buddha Family.

Amitabha/Amitayus Buddha: the Buddha of the Lotus Family of Tantric classification and commonly representing the western direction in a mandala configuration. Amitabha Buddha is found in both sutra and tantra literature. The Lotus Family is represented in all tantra classification systems. Deities such as Avalokiteshvara and Hayagriva belong to this Buddha Family. Amitabha is considered the nirmanakaya manifestation of Amitayus Buddha.

Amoghasiddhi Buddha: the last of the Five Symbolic or Celestial Buddhas. He is associated with the northern direction, the colour green and a horse supported throne. Typically his right hand is raised in a gesture (mudra) to the heart and the left placed in the lap in meditative equipoise. Deities such as Green Tara and Amritakundali belong to this Buddha Family.

Anuttarayoga: (Tib. ) the fourth and highest classification of the four sets of Buddhist Tantras according to a popular system. The three sub divisions of Anuttarayoga are: [1] Method (Father), [2] Wisdom (Mother) and [3] Non-dual. The term Anuttarayoga is often shortened to Anuttara. The names of the three lower tantra sets in descending order are Yoga, Charya and Kriya. The system presented here with accompanying links is based on a famous 19th century Sakya compilation of Tantric practices known as the Ngor Mandalas. There are minor differences in class and order between all of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions.

Architecture: many large stupa structures in the Himalayan regions and Tibet use a mandala model. Examples of such structures are the Gyantse Stupa and the Jonang Monastery Stupa. In Mongolia there is the Danza Rabja Shambhala Mandala and in Central Java there is the large Borobudur stupa.

Attribute: a symbolic object associated with a particular subject, deity or person, based on well-known examples and textual iconographic references. Examples: hand, family symbol, seat.

Balimta (Torma): dough sculpture, torma are generally cone shaped ritual food offerings made from barley flour, hand sculpted in a variety of shapes and sizes, coloured and then adorned with flat circular 'buttons' made from butter. Elaborate rituals involving a sand or painted mandala require a series of offering substances and objects, including balimta, to be placed around the four sides of the flat horizontal mandala. In more concise initiation rituals the balimta (torma), either on a plate or a tripod, can represent the deity and mandala and no actual sand or painted mandala is used in the ritual.

Bliss Whorl: small circles of swirling lines symbolizing energy concentrations. They are commonly depicted in the mandalas of Vajrayogini at the four outer corners of the double tetrahedron (dharmadayo). They sometimes resemble a svastika in shape.

Bodhi Mandala: a term referring to the geographic location where a bodhisattva attains complete enlightenment and becomes a Buddha. Bodhgaya (vajrasana) in Bihar, India, is regarded as the Bodhi Mandala of Shakyamuni Buddha. The term is sometimes used in a less technical way to describe special locations associated with specific bodhisattvas such as for Manjushri and his relationship with Wutaishan Mountain.

Body Mandala: as the external world is idealized by the Tantric practitioner and re-created to be the pure abode of a deity, so to the internal body with its senses, organs, veins and nervous system are likewise idealized into an internal body mandala. Painted depictions of body mandala systems are found in the Hindu, Buddhist and Bon religions although less common than the outer mandala of a deity and palace.

Borobudur: a 9th century Buddhist stupa structure, resembling a mandala, located in Central Java. This early stupa is similar to later structures built in the Himalayas and Tibet such as the Gyantse and Jonang stupas, also similar to the mandala model.

Buddha Families: methods of organizing and categorizing Tantric practices, texts and deity affiliations. In the Kriya Classification of Tantra there are Three Families: Tatagata Family (Vairochana Buddha, white, wheel), Vajra Family (Akshobhya Buddha, blue, vajra scepter), Lotus Family (Amitabha Buddha, red, padma). In Yoga and Anuttarayoga there are Five Buddha Families: Akshobhya (East, blue, vajra), Ratnasambhava (South, yellow, jewel), Amitabha (West, red, lotus), Amoghasiddhi (North, green, sword) and the center with Vairochana (white, wheel). Depending on the Tantric literature any of these Five Buddhas can occupy the center of a mandala although the directions remain the same.

Canopy Enclosure: for elaborate initiation rituals a cloth canopy, supported by four poles and fastened above, surrounds a horizontal mandala and its attendant ritual objects and offerings.

Cards of Mandalas (tsakali): small paintings, generally the size of a floor tile, created in sets and used in Buddhist and Bon rituals and initiations. The mandala cards are used as the central shrine object for initiations and rituals. They are often made for those occasions when large numbers of initiations are given at one time such as the Vajravali and Mitra Gyatsa collections of initiations. Mandala cards are typically more than twice as large as initiation cards (tsakali).

Ceiling Mandalas: mandalas placed on ceilings of temples for the purpose of blessing, protection and decoration.

Celestial Palace: (see Palace).

Cemeteries: (see Charnel Grounds).

Center & Circumference (Tibetan: dkyil 'khor): the early Tibetan scholars when translating the Sanskrit word 'mandala' chose to be descriptive and decided upon 'center and circumference.' The center refers to the deity inhabiting a palace and the circumference means the palace and entire universe surrounding the deity.

Charnel Ground Circle: (see Charnel Grounds and Eight Great Charnel Grounds).

Charnel Grounds: there are eight charnel grounds that surround the palaces of wrathful mandalas. These charnel grounds can have different names and descriptions depending on the Tantra text used as the source. They can also appear inside the ring of fire or outside of the ring. Basically they are Indian cemeteries where bodies are deposited. The Tantric texts that describe wrathful deities also describe fearsome venues for the practice. Charnel grounds are the most loathsome and abhorrent places in India. Wrathful deities are therefore associated with charnel grounds and likewise peaceful deities are associated with pleasant and beautiful surroundings. In the Kalachakra Tantra they also describe a system of sixteen charnel grounds although only Mahasamvara Kalachakra appears to be depicted in paintings surrounded by these sixteen. (See Eight Great Charnel Grounds).

Charya: the second of the four classifications of Tantra and primarily depicting forms of Manjushri and Vajrapani. [1] Kriya [2] Charya [3] Yoga [4] Anuttarayoga.

Circles of the Mandala: there are three circles surrounding a celestial palace of a peaceful deity mandala and four circles surrounding a wrathful, or semi-wrathful deity, mandala. [1] fire circle (jvalavali), [2] vajra circle (vajravali), [3] lotus circle (padmavali) [4] charnel ground circle (wrathful deity mandalas only).

Classifications of Tantra: there are four principal classes of Tantra; [1] Kriya, [2] Charya, [3] Yoga and [4] Anuttarayoga.

Collections of Mandalas: texts from Indian and Tibetan sources that describe a variety of mandalas and accompanying rituals.
- Vajravali
- Collection of All Tantras
- Sarvadurgati Parishodhana Tantra
- Ocean of Tantras
- The Structural Iconography of Buddhist Mandalas

Colours: used to demarcate the cardinal directions and the Buddha Families inhabiting a mandala. The colours and directions are blue, or white, for the East and the Vajra Family (Akshobhya), yellow for the South and Jewel Family (Ratnasambhava), red for the West and Lotus Family (Amitabha), green for the North and Sword Family (Amoghasiddhi), and white for the center and Wheel Family (Vairochana).

Danza Rabja Shambhala Mandala: an architectural model of the Shambhala pureland several football fields in size and located in the Southern Gobi desert of Mongolia. The mandala is a square shaped enclosure framed by rows of stupas. It was first created in the 19th century by the Danza Rabja incarnate Lama and built from wood. It was destroyed in the 20th century and re-built in the 1990s.

Composition: the arrangement of elements in a painting. In Himalayan style art there are several standard compositions: portrait, mandala, chart, landscape, and narrative.

Decorations and Ornaments: at the center of a mandala circle is a celestial palace. The palace is adorned with various decorations that surround the parapets and roof, the balcony, and inside. "...from various jewels [arises] a celestial palace, square, with four doors, possessing a series of five walls, from the innermost by turn: black, green, red, yellow, white. At the top of the walls is a jeweled ledge, yellow in colour. From this hang looped garlands of jewels with jeweled tassels; above that, adorned by a jeweled balcony and parapet. Outside the walls is a red ledge of the qualities of desire with sixteen offering goddesses, holding aloft offerings... Beside each of the doors are four pillars supporting pediments possessing four graduated steps. Above is a lotus, above is placed a Dharmachakra, umbrella and deer. Furthermore, silk hangings, streamers, flower garlands, banners, jewel-handled fans, etc., and other ornaments adorn the celestial palace." (Ngorchen Konchog Lhundrub, written in 1551).

Deity Figure: at the center of a deity mandala is a specific principal figure, often surrounded by a retinue of other figures. Deity is a word commonly used in Buddhism to describe meditational deities (Sanskrit: ishtadevata) and protectors (Skt.: Dharmapala). The word deity is not generally used to designate Hindu gods, Buddhas, mountain gods, nature spirits, etc. There are three main types of deity appearance based on mood as described in the Indian Sanskrit literature, [1] Peaceful (Devi), [2] Semi-peaceful and semi-wrathful (Rishi), [3] Wrathful (Rakshasa). In the Bon Religion and generally in the Nyingma Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism deities are classified as either peaceful or wrathful. In the Bon Religion all deities have a peaceful and a wrathful form and each has a unique and generally unrelated name often making it difficult to know which deity is a related form of another deity.

Deity Yoga (Tib. ): the special meditation practice of Vajrayana Buddhism comprising two types of meditation - Generation Stage Yoga (Tib. kye rim gyi nal jor) and Perfection Stage Yoga (Tib. dzog rim gyi nal jor).

Dharmadayo: a tetrahedron, four-sided form, representing the three types of emptiness as described in Buddhist philosophy. Deity mandalas arise out of a tetrahedron form with one of the four sides open and facing upwards with the point directed downwards. (See a Vajrabhairava Mandala example).

Dharmakara: another term for dharmadayo.

Directions: the directions are generally referred to as the Four Directions, or the Ten Directions. Both are common terms when referring to mandalas. The Four Directions refer to East, South, West and North along with the center. These in turn relate to the Five Buddhas, also called the Five Buddha Families: Akshobhya (East, blue, vajra), Ratnasambhava (South, yellow, jewel), Amitabha (West, red, lotus), Amoghasiddhi (North, green, sword) and the center with Vairochana (white, wheel). Any of these Five Buddhas can occupy the center of a mandala although the directions remain the same. The Ten Directions refer to the four cardinal and four intermediate directions along with zenith and nadir (above and below). The Ten Wrathful Deities of a mandala relate to the Ten Directions.

Direction Guardians: the four heavenly kings, according to the Abhidharmakosha, residing on either the innermost ring of islands, or on the lower slopes of the four sided Mount Sumeru, the center of the idealized Buddhist and Hindu worlds. Vaishravana (North), Dhritarashtra (East), Virudhaka (South), Virupaksha (West). In the three lower classes of Tantra the four Direction Guardians are commonly placed as door keepers for mandalas. Sometimes, such as in the Sarvadurgati Parishodhana Tantra, they are found as retinue figures surrounding a central figure. See the example of a Vajrapani Mandala.

Donor: an individual, family, or group of people responsible for commissioning an artwork, ritual, or construction project. In Nepal there is a tradition of creating small donor sculptures to accompany large commissions. It is common in Nepalese and Tibetan paintings to find the donors of the painting depicted at the bottom right or left corner of a painting. Donors are sometimes named in inscriptions on the front or back of paintings. See examples of paintings commissioned by Lhachog Sengge that include both the artist and donor name. The practice of including a donor figure in the lower foreground of a painting originates in the Manjushri Mulakalpa Tantra.

Door Keepers: also known as Door Guardians or Door Protectors. Four deities, either peaceful or wrathful depending on the nature of the central deity, that are placed at the four doors of a mandala palace. There are generic forms and descriptions for these figures that apply to a large number of different mandala configurations but also there are unique figures that only relate to a specific mandala system. All of this is determined by the various Tantric literature that describes the appearances and variations of the different mandalas.

Doors: most mandala palaces are square and have four doors. Some specialized mandalas such as for the activities of Powerful and Wrathful can have different shapes along with only three doors or one single door.

Eight Great Charnel Grounds: according to Tantric literature and the descriptions of wrathful deities and their environments, the eight charnel grounds surround the central palace and deity. There are several different sets of eight names and descriptions for the eight great charnel grounds depending on the Buddhist and Hindu Tantric literature consulted. The Kalachakra Tantra describes a system of sixteen charnel grounds. These charnel grounds also have physical locations in India such as the Laughing charnel ground at Bodhgaya and the Cool Grove charnel ground close by, along with the Frightening charnel ground in the Black Hills of Bihar. ONLY WRATHFUL AND SEMI-WRATHFUL DEITIES HAVE MANDALAS THAT CONTAIN A RING OF CHARNEL GROUNDS. MANDALAS OF PEACEFUL DEITIES ARE SURROUNDED BY BEAUTIFUL GARDENS AND DO NOT HAVE THE CIRCLE OF CHARNEL GROUND CEMETARIES.

From the Hevajra Tantra literature it says: "In the east is the Gruesome charnel ground (chandograkatasi); south Frightful with Skulls (bhairavakapalika); west Adorned with a Blazing Garland (jvalamalalankara); north Dense Jungle (girigahvaronnati); north-east Fiercely Resounding (ugropanyasa); south-east Forest of the Lord (ishvaravana); south-west Dark and Terrible (bhairavandhakara); north-west Resounding with the Cries Kili Kili (Kilikilaghoshanadita). Furthermore, there are headless corpses, hanging corpses, lying corpses, stake-impaled corpses, heads, skeletons, jackals, crows, owls, vultures, and zombies making the sound, "phaim". There are also siddha with clear understanding, yaksha, raksha, preta, flesh eaters, lunatics, bhairava, daka, dakini, ponds, fires, stupa, and sadhaka. All of these fill the charnel grounds." (Konchog Lhundrub 1497-1557, written in 1551). (See painted example). (See Charnel Ground).

In the Chakrasamvara cycle of Tantra the Eight Great Charnal grounds are: east Gruesome, north Dense Wild Thicket, west Blazing with [the Sound] Ur Ur, south Terrifying, south-east Marvelous Forest, south-west Interminably Gloomy, north-west Resounding with the Sound Kili Kili, north-east Wildly Laughing. (These names are found in a Chakrasamvara ritual text composed by Chogyal Pagpa).

A common Nyingma list is: east Cool Grove, south Perfected in Body, west Lotus Heap, north Lanka Heap, southeast Spontaneously Accomplished Heap, southwest Play of the Great Secret, northwest Pervasive Great Happiness, northeast World Heap.

Eight Mahasiddha: there are different groupings of the Eight Great Adepts that have been depicted in art over the last 1000 years. The earliest are found on metal Lotus Mandalas. In literature, an early description of each of the eight siddha was composed in verse by Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (1292-1361) naming and prioritizing them as: Nagarjuna, Indrabhuti, Dombi Heruka, Saraha, Ghantapa, Kukkuripa, Luipa, and Padmavajra. This grouping is also found in one known painting. Again later in the 18th century, Situ Panchen Chokyi Jungne, based on Dolpopa, designed his own compositions illustrating his selection of the eight siddha and replacing Luipa with Lawapa. According to Situ the siddha are: Saraha, Indrabhuti, Nagarjuna, Padmavajra, Ghantapa, Dombi Heruka, Kukkuripa and Lawapa.

Eight Offerings: a group of eight offerings (sometimes ten, or sixteen), in copper or silver bowls, that are arranged around a flat horizontal mandala during general rituals and initiation ceremonies. These same offerings are commonly arranged on a temple or personal shrine and refreshed regularly. Some older systems such as the Hevajra Tantra have ten offerings. Offering goddesses are personified from these eight offerings. They each have one face and two hands resembling Indian goddesses. Each have their own colour and hand attributes that are primarily explained in the Indian commentarial literature. The offerings are: water for drinking, water for washing, flowers, incense, scented water, food and music.

Element Mandalas: water is represented with a white circle, earth with a yellow square, fire with a red half-circle, and air with a blue triangle. These general shapes also correspond to the four activities.

Empowerment (Tib. ) : a formal and often complex ritual initiation into a specific practice of Deity Yoga, requiring a mandala, and generally lasting anywhere from two to six hours. In some cases these initiations can span two or three days.

Emptiness: represented in the mandala by the three closed sides of a tetrahedron (dharmadayo). The three types of emptiness in Mahayana Buddhism are wishless, signless and emptiness itself.

Enclosure: refers to the the four poles, cloth canopy above and cloth walls, curtains, enclosing a horizontal ritual or initiation mandala.

Fire Circle (jvalavali): surrounding the outer circle of almost all mandalas are the five coloured flames of wisdom fire. The colours correspond to the five main types of pristine awareness (wisdom) which correspond to the the Five Buddha Families. For a painted depiction of a mandala these flames appear as a thin multi-coloured outer circle. However, the flames are meant to represent that the entire mandala envisioned as a three-dimensional structure is completely surrounded by flame, like a sphere of fire, above, to the sides and below. If the envisioned mandala were viewed from outside then all that could be seen is a ball of multi-coloured fire.

Five Symbolic Buddhas: In the Yoga and Anuttarayoga classifications there are Five Buddha Families: Akshobhya (East, blue, vajra, elephant throne), Ratnasambhava (South, yellow, jewel, horse throne), Amitabha (West, red, lotus, peacock throne), Amoghasiddhi (North, green, sword, kinnara throne) and the center with Vairochana (white, wheel, lion throne). Any of these Five Buddhas can occupy the center of a mandala although the directions remain the same.

Flower: the lotus flower is the special symbol of the Lotus Family of Kriya Tantra. The presiding Buddha is Amitabha. Flowers belong to the group of eight offerings that are arranged around a horizontal mandala during general rituals and initiation ceremonies.

Four Activities: peaceful (white), increasing (yellow), powerful (red), wrathful (blue-black). Sometimes described as powers, the Four Activities are special powers achieved through the practice of Tantric Buddhism. These powers are used to skillfully benefit all sentient beings: peaceful activities, increasing, powerful and wrathful. In art, these powers are associated with specific colours and shapes, white, yellow, red, and blue-black along with physical appearance and facial expression such as a smiling face or a fearsome face. The colour green is considered the combination of all the colours and activities.

Four Doors: mandala palaces are generally square and have four doors. Some specialized mandalas such as for the activity types, Powerful and Wrathful, can have different shapes along with three or one door.

Gardens: beautiful heavenly gardens surround the palace of peaceful mandalas. The environment of a peaceful or wrathful mandala corresponds with the appearance of the central mandala deity. The palace of a Wrathful Deity mandala is surrounded by the Eight Charnel Grounds. The palaces of deities that are neither completely peaceful nor wrathful will have either gardens or charnel grounds depending on the descriptions in the Tantric literature.

Guru (Skt.): religious teacher or preceptor in India and South Asia. For Vajrayana Buddhism the term is specifically used for a qualified Tantric teacher capable of giving initiations and guiding students along the Vajrayana path. The Root Guru ( ) is the individual from whom one has received a major Anuttarayoga empowerment containing all four sections. The Tibetan word lama is a translation of the Sanskrit word guru.

Iconography: the study and identification, often religious, of portraits, deities and symbols along with the context and general subject matter of an artwork.

Iconographic Source Texts: the literature that describes the deity appearance, mandala appearance, function and rituals associated with meditational deities and gods.

Iconometry: the geometric rules, drawing guides and measurements used in the creation of correctly proportioned figures in Indian and Himalayan art.

Imagined Mandala: in some situations imagined mandalas are mentioned in the ritual texts. These however are considered only applicable for use by the best teachers and the best students.

Initiation (Skt. abhisheka): an initiation is the formalized permission and introduction to the practice of Deity Yoga as taught in the Tantra literature of the Buddhists, Hindus and others. According to Vajrayana Buddhism there are three main types of initiation: 'empowerment' (Tib. wangkur), 'blessing' (Tib. jinlap) and 'permission' (Tib. jenang). Each of these requires a mandala or a mandala substitute, such as a balimta (torma).

Ishtadevata: a chosen, or personal meditational deity, the central figure of a mandala. These deities are generally chosen from the inventory of principal meditation practices common to a particular spiritual tradition. Examples: Hindu Shaiva, Bhairava; Hindu Shakta, Durga, Kali. For Buddhism examples might be: Nyingma, Vajrakila; Sakya, Hevajra; Kagyu, Chakrasamvara; Gelugpa, Vajrabhairava; Jonangpa, Kalachakra. For the Bon religion examples are: Walse Ngampa and Magyu.

Jewel: the principle symbol of Ratnasambhava Buddha (Southern direction, yellow, horse supported throne). The jewel, either single or as a group of three, is used as a kind of shorthand in symbol mandalas to represent the full form of Ratnasambhava Buddha.

Kriya Tantra (Skt.): the name of a Buddhist classification of minor, or lower Tantra literature. These texts are considered to be the word of, or inspiration from, the Buddha Vajradhara. There are many different Kriya (Performance) Tantra divided according to the three Buddha Families; Vajra (Akshobhya), Wheel (Vairochana) and Lotus (Amitabha). These are further catagorized according to the Three Great Bodhisattva Manjushri, Vajrapani, and Avalokiteshvara, each with their own consorts, attendants and worldly deities. The vast majority of the deity subjects in Himalayan art arise from either the Kriya or Anuttarayoga Tantra literature. (See Tantra Classification).

Letter Mandala: these mandalas are created in a simplified manner with letters used to substitute for the actual deities.

Lineage of Teachers (Skt. guru sampradaya): the chronological enumeration of religious teachers belonging to a specific family line, academic line, or line of initiation and instruction. The Indian mahasiddhas generally make up the early lineage of teachers for most of the Buddhist religious traditions of the Himalayas, Tibet and Central Asia.

Lintels: (see Decorations and Ornaments).

Lotus: the principle symbol of Amitabha Buddha (occupying the western direction of a mandala, red, peacock supported throne). The lotus is used in symbol mandalas to represent the full form of Amitabha Buddha.

Lotus Circle (padmavali): painted mandalas have three outer circles. The outermost is the circle of fire. Inside of that is the vajra circle and then the lotus circle. The lotus circle, a series of multi-coloured petals in a ring, completely surrounds the inner mandala, deity and palace. The circle of petals represents a giant lotus flower which is flat and situated below the palace, and below the vajra ground. The lotus supports the vajra circle which is envisioned as a three-dimensional pavilion, also known as the Outer Protection Chakra.

Lotus Mandala (Metal): a three dimensional metal sculpture of a lotus blossom and stem (stand). Hinged petals can appear closed or open revealing a central figure and retinue circle of deities.

Mandala (Tib. ): a circular diagram, highly technical and precise, representing the entire universe, the container and contained, animate and inanimate. Mandalas are painted on cloth, on the ceilings of temples, as murals, fashioned from metal, wood or stone, sometimes from coloured threads and also meticulously created from coloured sand.

Mandala Offering: a symbolic offering made by Buddhist practitioners of the entire universe and presented to the religious teachers, Buddhas and deities, of the past and present. A specific ritual object called a mandala plate is used for this ritual although anything flat and clean is also acceptable. Mandala plates filled with rice and multi-tiered are also commonly kept on a permanent shrine. Shrine mandalas are constructed from a flat metal mandala plate and then three or four rings of metal, often engraved, embossed or repousse worked, and topped with a small replica of a heavenly palace or a Dharma wheel.

Mandala Offering Prayer: there are both standard prayers and specific prayers recited in the various Buddhist traditions when conducting a mandala offering ritual. The longest prayer was composed by Chogyal Pagpa and is used universally throughout Tibet and Mongolia. The prayer describes in detail, based on the Abhidharmakosha, the physical appearance of the Buddhist universe.

Mandala Plates: painted mandalas glued to a flat square piece of wood approximately an inch or more in thickness. These mandala plates are rugged and designed to be used permanently on a shrine, or for regular monthly rituals and initiations. The three most common subjects for mandala plates are Amitayus, Maha Vairochana and Vajrayogini.

Mandala-like: subjects, paintings and objects that are similar to mandalas but are not mandalas, such as the Buddhist and Bon Wheel of Life (Bhavanachakra), the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities of the Bardo, etc.

Mandala Types: according to medium - [1] sand, [2] painted, [3] textile, [4] sculpture, three-dimensional, [5] imagined. According to subject - [1] deity mandala, [2] offering mandala, [3] world mandala, [4] element mandalas.

Mantra (Skt.): a series of sounds believed to embody the nature of a deity. The three doors of action are the body, voice and mind. It is through the actions of these three that good actions and bad actions are produced. Mantra recitation forms part of the Deity Yoga practiced by the Indian siddha. The most well know mantra is that of the deity Avalokiteshvara and the mantra om mani padme hum, an epithet of the deity meaning jewelled lotus. Written mantra are commonly found on the reverse of a painting placed there as a record of the painting having had a brief or lengthy sanctification blessing or ritual (Tib. rabne). (See an example on the back of a painting).

Meditation (Mandala):

Memory: (see Mnemonics).


Mount Sumeru and the Four Continents: a Buddhist world system, also known as One Small Universe. Many of these small universes make a medium universe and many medium universes make a great universe. The precise numbers are carefully worked out by early Abhidharmakosha scholars.

Mudra (Skt.): hand gestures, a highly symbolic and ritualized sign language used both in religion and Indian dance. Mudra can also refer to a sexual consort of a practitioner of Anuttarayoga Tantra.

Nispannayogavali: a famous Buddhist initiation and meditation manual composed by Abhayakaragupta that describes the various forms and function of mandalas along with detailed descriptions of the deities they contain. Also see the Vajravali Sanskrit Text by the same author.

Offering Bowls: containing the eight offerings are arranged on the four sides of a horizontal sand mandala, or painting or textile mandala. In modern times a photograph of a mandala is often used in place of a painting. A square piece of glass is placed over top to protect from liquids and damage. In the past the painted mandala plates would be heavily varnished to protect from frequent use.

Offering Goddesses: there are two general groups of offering goddesses, the Eight Offering Goddesses and the Sixteen Offering Goddesses. The eight are related primarily with the physical substances being offered such as [1] white goddesses offering jeweled cups and vases of water for drinking, [2] red goddesses holding ornate pots of water for washing, [3] white goddesses offering garlands of flowers, [4] blue goddesses holding silver and gold censors offering up the wafting clouds of incense, [5] pink goddesses holding jewel encrusted gold and silver lamps, [6] green goddesses holding fine jars of scented water, [7] red goddesses offering beautiful plates of exquisite foods, [8] blue goddesses playing many different musical instruments, making an offering of pleasant sounds. The sixteen are an elaborate version of the eight and they are also depicted on the patio or balcony of a celestial palace at the center of a mandala painting or a three-dimensional architectural model.

Offering Mandala: (see Mandala Offering).

Offering Mudra: a hand gesture that is used as a simple substitute in place of a complex mandala offering involving a mandala plate and actual physical substances such as rice, etc.

Offering Prayer: (see Mandala Offering Prayer).

Painted Mandalas:


Peaceful Deities:

Plain Mandala: these mandalas are generally plain and unelaborated and depict the basic geometric pattern of a mandala. They can often be used for several different deities. (See the Structural Iconography of Buddhist Mandalas).

Plates: there are two types of mandala plates [1] Deity Mandala and [2] Offering Mandala.

Protection Wheel (raksha chakra, chakra, circle): there are two types of Protection Wheel, [1] the vajra circle is the Outer Protection Chakra and [2] the group of Ten Wrathful Deities inside a three-dimensional ten spoked wheel constitutes the Inner Protection Chakra.

Ratnasambhava: a principal buddha within Vajrayana Buddhism representing the qualities of enlightenment and residing in the southern quarter of a mandala. Wealth deities such as Jambhala and Vasudhara are associated with Ratnasambhava. "Arising in the southern direction is Ratnasambhava on a horse, lotus and sun throne; with a body yellow in colour the right hand is placed in the mudra of supreme generosity." (Dragpa Gyaltsen, 1147-1216).

Retinue Figures:

Ritual Master: the individual responsible for the creation of the mandala, the shrine and directing the sequence of a ritual.

Sadhana (Tib. drub tab): 'method of accomplishment,' a highly structured Indian technical text focusing on Deity Yoga using various meditation and recitation techniques. A sadhana is the most basic tool for practicing the Two Stages of Yoga - Generation (Tib. kyerim) and Perfection (Tib. dzogrim).

Sand Mandala: the first and most important type of initiation or empowerment mandala, followed by painted mandalas, symbol, letters, and lastly plain mandalas. In some situations imagined mandalas are mentioned in the ritual texts. These however are considered only applicable for use by the best teachers and the best students. Sand mandalas are generally deconstructed after use and the sand removed to a clean location such as a river.

Sixteen Charnel Grounds: In the Kalachakra Tantra system sixteen charnel grounds are described. The 634 Deity Kalachakra Mandala, being only slightly wrathful, generally does not appear with any surrounding charnel grounds. However, the Mahasamvara Kalachakra always appears in paintings surrounded by the sixteen charnel grounds. These eight or sixteen can appear either immediately surrounding the Celestial Palace of the deity and retinue or they can appear as the outer ring of the mandala. The root Tantras are vague on this subject of charnel grounds and it is the Indian Sanskrit commentaries that explain the different ways that the cemeteries can be imagined and subsequently depicted in visual representations.

Sixteen Offering Goddesses: the female figures that stand on the first floor balcony of the celestial palace at the center of a circular mandala. They are placed two goddesses at the sides of each door, four per palace side, sixteen in all.

Skullcup (Skt. kapala): the top of a skull, referring to a bowl made from the top of the human skull and used for specific ritual services related to the wrathful deities of Anuttarayoga Tantra. The skull represents emptiness, the body without a soul - egolessness.

Square Mandalas: are generally mandalas that are depicted by an artist with only the square palace and the deities within. The outer rings of the lotus, vajras and flames are omitted. The Medicine Buddha Mandala is an example of a mandala that is commonly depicted with only the deities and the celestial palace.

Svastika (Tib.: Yungdrung): the Sanskrit and Tibetan words for the bent four-legged cross known as the svastika. When turning to the left it is the principal symbol representing the Bon religion. The yungdrung is the symbol that represents the Eastern quarter of a Bon mandala. The svastika symbol is also commonly found inscribed on wrathful yantra diagrams.

Sword: the principle symbol of Amoghasiddhi Buddha (Northern direction, green, kinnara supported throne). The sword is used in symbol mandalas to represent the full form of Amoghasiddhi Buddha.

Symbol Mandala: these are a simplified mandala where the hand attributes of the deities are used in place of actually drawing and painting the deities themselves. Sometimes only the symbolic attributes of the central deity are used and the retinue figures are filled in with small coloured circles. In other cases there is nothing to indicate the presence of the retinue figures.

Symbols of the Five Families: Akshobhya (East, blue, vajra, elephant supported throne), Ratnasambhava (South, yellow, jewel, horse supported throne), Amitabha (West, red, lotus, peacock supported throne), Amoghasiddhi (North, green, sword, kinnara supported throne) and the center with Vairochana (white, wheel, lion supported throne).

Tantra (Skt.): continuum, a genre of Hindu and Buddhist religious literature. The Tantras are technical manuals presenting the path to reaching enlightenment, or union with God, using expedient methods and techniques.

Tantra Classification: in Vajrayana Buddhism there are different ways of enumerating, cataloguing and catagorizing the many different texts in Tantra literature. Several different systems made their way to the Himalayas and Tibet. At the present time there are two systems in use, the Nyingma (ancient) and the Sarma (new). (Full explanation).

Ten Directions: The Ten Directions refer to the four cardinal and four intermediate directions along with zenith and nadir (above and below). The Ten Wrathful Deities of a mandala relate to the Ten Directions.

Ten Wrathful Deities: a group of ten deity figures that are employed in a preliminary protection ritual in Anuttarayoga class Tantric rituals and meditations. They are related to the Inner Protection Chakra. Different Tantric systems such as Vajrabhairava, Hevajra and Chakrasamvara will describe different names and appearances for these ten deities.

Tetrahedron: a four sided geometric form that represents the three types of emptiness in Buddhist philosophy. It can have different colours depending on the deity mandala it is associated with. The tetrahedron is placed with the point downwards and the upward face is open (making a triangle-like cup shape). All mandalas when visually created are imagined to arise out of the three types of emptiness represented by the tetrahedron. Some female deities, such as Vajrayogini, arise from a double tetrahedron that looks like a six-pointed star when depicted on a flat two-dimensional painted surface. See a Vajrabhairava mandala painting from Buryat with the artists interpretation of the tetrahedron shaped dharmadayo.

Textile Mandala: the same as painted mandalas, textiles function in the same manner. In some cases textiles are used horizontally for permanent mandala shrines, with a canopy above and offerings around the perimeter.

Thirty-seven Factors of Enlightenment: as an insight into the symbolic nature of mandalas, the palace represents the Thirty-seven Factors of Enlightenment. Each of these factors relates specifically to an aspect of the architecture of the palace, such as the doors, four steps leading up to the doors, lintels, roof decorations, etc. As an essential part of Tantric practice it is necessary to understand the symbolic meanings and mnemonics in all mandala visualizations. (Explanation).

Thread-cross Mandala Constructions (Tibetan: namka): made from thin pieces of wood as a frame wrapped with variously coloured threads into geometric patterns, circular, square and triangular. They are generally flat objects, displayed vertically. For elaborate rituals they are constructed into large three-dimensional palaces placed at the center of a mandala.

Triangle: in mandala composition the two-dimensional triangle shape represents Wrathful Activity, one of the four types of activity described in Tantric ritual.

Tripod: a three legged stand placed in the middle of a mandala and generally supporting an empowerment vase or a vase of long-life. In some cases the tripod supports a skullcup with another small mandala plate above, such as with Vajrayogini. (See other tripod examples).

Vajra (Tibetan: dor je. English: the best stone): [1] from the Vedic literature, the scepter of the Hindu god Indra namely a lightening bolt, [2] from the Puranic literature, a weapon made from the bones of a rishi, and [3] a word representing Tantric Buddhism - Vajrayana. [4] the special symbol of Akshobhya Buddha belonging to the Vajra Family of the Five Buddha Families. As a Buddhist scepter it is a small object made of metal generally having five or nine prongs at each end that bend inward to form two rounded shapes. As a ritual object it is usually accompanied by a bell with a half vajra handle (Sanskrit: ghanta).

Vajra Circle (vajravali): inside of the outer ring of a two-dimensional mandala, painting or textile, is a circle of fire and then a vajra circle. This vajra circle is often difficult to see and easy to dismiss as simply decorative. The circle is a series of gold or yellow vajras, painted against a dark blue or black background, lined up end to end and circling around the entire mandala, deity and palace. The vajra circle is not envisioned as flat or horizontal like the lotus circle. The vajras are seen as a three dimensional pavilion, without doors or windows, completely enclosing the mandala. It is made entirely of vajras, small and large with all of the openings filled with ever smaller vajras. It is a three-dimensional structure and impenetrable. It is also called the Vajra Pavilion or the Outer Protection Chakra.

Vajra Pavilion: (see Vajra Circle).

Vajracharya: the individual responsible for the creation of the mandala, the shrine and directing the sequence of a ritual.

Vajravali Sanskrit Text: a famous Buddhist initiation and meditation manual composed by Abhayakaragupta that describes the various forms and function of mandalas along with detailed descriptions of the deities they contain.

Vajrayana (Skt.): Tantric Buddhism, the form of Northern Buddhism that relies primarily on the Tantric literature, technical manuals said to have been taught by the Buddha, and believed to offer complete enlightenment in one, seven or twenty-one lifetimes.

Vase: an essential ritual object in the performance of initiation and empowerment rituals. It is commonly depicted in decorative motifs in many styles of painting. There are two types of vases, the empowerment vase and the long-life vase.

Veins and Airs: (see Body Mandala).

Vishvavajra: a double vajra scepter with twenty prongs, or points. The standard vajra has five points. In some Tantric systems this double vajra is used as the symbol for Amoghasiddhi Buddha.


Wheel: the principle symbol of Vairochana Buddha (occupying the center or Eastern direction, white, lion supported throne). The wheel is used in symbol mandalas to represent the full form of Vairochana Buddha.

World or Universe Mandala:

Wrathful Deities:

Yantra (Skt.): diagram, device, also referring to the very active and dynamic yogic postures and routines in Vajrayana Buddhism.

Yoga (Skt.): [1] an ancient philosophical system of India included under the broad designation of Hinduism. [2] Yoga is also a form of gentle physical training, Hatha Yoga, associated with Hindu and Buddhist Tantra. [3] Yoga also refers to the two types of meditation practice in Tantric Buddhism, Generation Stage and Perfection Stage. [4] Yantra Yoga refers to the physically aggressive training in Tantric Buddhism and [5] Karma Yoga refers to the path using esoteric sexual practices as a path to enlightenment. [6] Yoga Tantra is the 3rd of the four Tantra classifications of Vajrayana Buddhism.

Yoga Tantra: the 3rd of the four Tantra classifications of Vajrayana Buddhism. "The Secret Mantra Yoga Tantras are the Tattvasamgraha, Vajra Shikhara, Shri Paramadya, Trailokyavijaya, [etc.], the Sarvadurgati Parishodhana Tantra, Sarvarahasyo, [etc.]."

[Jeff Watt, July 11th, 2009]