In esoteric Buddhism mandala is not merely squares and circles, rather a sacred diagram that is used as an object of meditation and practices. Mandalas are really three-dimensional and represent the residence of the Buddha or other deity whose mandala it is. Geometrically it is subdivided into squares and circles. Early Buddhists used to draw a mandala on the ground with meticulously sifted colored sand and after the conclusion of the rite the mandala is removed. But in course of time, mandala lost its original function as temporary aid at initiation rites, and merged with the painted thangka. Thus the painted mandala became an everyday object of veneration, meditation, and ritual, and after the completion of the prayer, or ritual rites, one can keep them in the proper place by rolling it.
Dakinis or Yoginis are skywalkers (a witch or fairy who wanders in the sky), in some cases celestial female beings, and sometimes, earthly women who possess supernatural wisdom and powers. They have initiated, taught, and assisted many great Indian and Tibetan yogis in performing esoteric rituals. She is the guardian of teachings and is considered the supreme embodiments of wisdom. Moreover she can change human weaknesses into wisdom and understanding, or the concept of self into enlightenment energy. The present form of Vajrayogini or Dakini is the preeminent form of Yogini in the Chakrasamvara and Vajravarahi Tantras. The cult of Vajrayogini is very much popular in Buddhist tantric world, especially in Tibet, Nepal, and other regions that are following Tibetan tradition of Buddhism. Mahasiddha Naropa received teachings from the Vajrayogini around eleventh century A.D., and his disciples began calling this aspect of Vajrayogini Naro kha chod, according to the vision of and teachings of Naropa. Her attributes have symbolic meaning in Buddhist tantra. She is shown with slightly open mouth ready to drink the contents of the blood-filled skull-cup. Symbolic of the Tantric images, the blood represents the purifying nectar of emptiness while the mouth of the goddess signifies wisdom. The khatavanga staff she bears symbolizes her non-dual union with Chakrasamvara.
The teaching of Vajrayogini Naro kha chod is mentioned in the Heruka and Vajravarahi Tantras. She insists that all female beings in the universe are her embodiments or manifestations and thus should be respected, honored and served without exception. She takes form so that women, seeing enlightenment in female form will recognize their innate divinity and potential for enlightenment. Devotion to her should be expressed as respect for women, while respect for women provides a way of measuring devotion to the goddess. She also promising her blessing to a man who worship her as per instructions mentioned in the Vajrayogini Sadhana.
Red complexioned dakini Naro Kha Chod is standing in alidha on two personages on a lotus throne in the center of this mandala. She is very youthful looking and is untamed. Her face shows the same grimness as her Yogini figure. With her three eyes she can see past, present, and future. Her hair is partly upswept in a knot and partly falls in loose on her back. She is wearing a crown of skulls with jewels and bone ornaments on her arms and feet and bone apron on her body. Moreover she is wearing gold necklaces. She is naked except her ornaments, which helps to concentrate one’s attention on the expressiveness of her movement. There is an arch-shaped aureole behind her with protective fire fence. Sarvabuddhadakini is holding a vajra chopper in her right hand, there is a skull cup filled with blood that she is bringing to her lips. On her left shoulder, rests, a magic stick or khatavanga staff. The chopper, which has half vajra for handle and curved iron blade, is actually a butcher’s knife. It is also used to cut up corpses that will receive what is called a ‘skyburial’, in which the cut-up flesh is eaten by vultures and other birds. The ritual meaning in Tantricism lies in the extension of this. It signifies cutting the earthly ties and thus crossing into the liberated state. The skull cup with blood symbolizes a similar breaking of ties with samsara and also the acceptance of this sacrifice by the Yogini who thereby positive indication that will work with yogi.
The area outside the inner circle is filled with stylized designs. The walls of the square are decorated with lotus petals, vajras and chaityas. There are four gates in the square in cardinal direction and in which live protective deities. Over the gates are houses with decorations. The upper centre depicts stupa with wisdom-fire fence and over it, is a parasol. Stupa symbolizes enlightenment’s power to transform death into eternal life. There is a protective deity either with victory banner or khatavanga either side of the gateway and each corner of square outside the wall. Moreover the area outside square is filled with the figures of stylized design, flowers, clouds and dragons. The dragon generally represents the strong male yang principle of heaven, change, energy and creativity. Chinese Buddhism depicts different types of dragon. Dragon is also the vehicle of many protective deities and guardians of treasure.
The perimeter of this mandala consists of four concentric circles. The outermost is a circle of eight cremation grounds with eight auspicious symbols. These eight cremation grounds, in which lurk beasts of prey, are symbols of the dangers of samsara and the need for renunciation of attachment to its uncertain pleasures. Moreover cremation grounds are places of death avoided by most people, but sought out by yogins and yoginis, who go to cemeteries and cremation grounds to confront fear, to challenge death to appear. In facing up to the existential facts of life – which are also the facts of death – they bring about a radical revolution in their view of the world. Through contemplating impermanence they realize that seeing everything in terms of ‘i’ and ‘mine’, ‘self’ and ‘other’, is false. With this they undergo a spiritual death by abandoning the egotistical interpretations of the manas. Thus the cremation grounds represent the next stage in the initiatory process of entering the mandala. Now one has to pass through the circle of flames, which is florally rendered here. This forms a barrier that prevents anything from passing through. However one can pass through this circle only after transformation. Fire changes the nature of things, so for Buddhism it is a symbol of wisdom. The circle of flames, thus symbolizes the transforming power of wisdom. By crossing this circle, sadhaka’s ego and illusion will burn away. This circle is represented in five colours – the colours associated with the Wisdom of the five cosmic Buddhas. The circle is followed by the circle of vajras or thunderbolts, which is one of the most important tantric Buddhist symbols. It has the nature of both diamond – which can cut anything but cannot be cut; and the irresistible power of a thunderbolt. In Buddhism it becomes a symbol for reality itself. In another way we may say that it is a symbol for energy, which cannot be stopped. Hence it represents the unshakeable determination and commitment, which is needed to arrive at the center of the mandala. Then there is a circle of lotus petals, symbolizes beginning of spiritual realm. The lotus symbolizes purity and renunciation. It renounces first the mud in which it was born and then the water in which it has grown, to open its petals to the sunlight – petals which are unstained by its earthly birth. Thus the lotus represents purity and rebirth on a higher level. Within the circle of lotuses is the divine mansion of Naro Dakini with a gateway at each of the cardinal directions. It is usual to enter a mandala from the east, which is the direction in which the sun rises to light the world anew. For this reason, in thangka paintings of mandalas, the bottom is always the eastern direction or gateway.
The four corners outside the circles are filled with the figures of dancing Dakinis, holding skull cup filled with blood and Khatavanga and offering deities in cloud. The upper and bottom panels depicts series of peaceful and wrathful deities. Though it is difficult to identify each of them, however it seems that the upper panel depicts from the left – a Sakyapa lama followed by Lokeshavara Padmapani, red-complexioned Vajrayogini, preaching Bodhisattva, Red Tara Kurukulla, Vajradakini and Lamas, respectively, while the bottom panel from the left depicts, goddess White Tara, seated Mahakala, Palden Lhamo, goddess Tara, Vajrapani, Green Tara in white complexion, white complexioned goddess with lotus and Prajnaparamita. There are flowerpots with manuscripts between the aureoles of these deities. The borders of the painting are decorated with flowers and geometric designs. This thangka painting is very much suitable for those seeking enlightenment through esoteric way.
This description is by Dr. Shailendra K. Verma, whose Doctorate thesis is on “Emergence and Evolution of the Buddha Image (From its inception to 8th century A.D.)”.