Construction of a Mandala
Before a monk is permitted to work on constructing a mandala he must undergo a long period of technical artistic training and memorization, learning how to draw all the various symbols and studying related philosophical concepts. At the Namgyal monastery (the personal monastery of the Dalai lama), for example, this period is three years.
In the early stages of painting, the monks sit on the outer part of the unpainted mandala base, always facing the center. For larger sized Mandalas, when the mandala is about halfway completed, the monks then stand on the floor, bending forward to apply the colors.
Traditionally, the mandala is divided into four quadrants and one monk is assigned to each. At the point where the monks stand to apply the colors, an assistant joins each of the four. Working co-operatively, the assistants help by filling in areas of color while the primary four monks outline the other details.
The monks memorize each detail of the mandala as part of their monastery's training program. It is important to note that the mandala is explicitly based on the Scriptural texts. At the end of each work session, the monks dedicate any artistic or spiritual merit accumulated from this activity to the benefit of others. This practice prevails in the execution of all ritual arts.
There is good reason for the extreme degree of care and attention that the monks put into their work: they are actually imparting the Buddha's teachings. Since the mandala contains instructions by the Buddha for attaining enlightenment, the purity of their motivation and the perfection of their work allows viewers the maximum benefit.
Each detail in all four quadrants of the mandala faces the center, so that it is facing the resident deity of the mandala. Thus, from the perspective of both the monks and the viewers standing around the mandala, the details in the quadrant closest to the viewer appear upside down, while those in the most distant quadrant appear right side up.
Generally, each monk keeps to his quadrant while painting the square palace. When they are painting the concentric circles, they work in tandem, moving all around the mandala. They wait until an entire cyclic phase or layer is completed before moving outward together. This ensures that balance is maintained, and that no quadrant of the mandala grows faster than another.
The preparation of a mandala is an artistic endeavor, but at the same time it is an act of worship. In this form of worship concepts and form are created in which the deepest intuitions are crystallized and expressed as spiritual art. The design, which is usually meditated upon, is a continuum of spatial experiences, the essence of which precedes its existence, which means that the concept precedes the form.
The mandala appears as a series of concentric circles. Each mandala has its own resident deity housed in the square structure situated concentrically within these circles. Its perfect square shape indicates that the absolute space of wisdom is without aberration. This square structure has four elaborate gates. These four doors symbolize the bringing together of the four boundless thoughts namely loving kindness, compassion, sympathy, and equanimity. Each of these gateways is adorned with bells, garlands and other decorative items. This square form defines the architecture of the mandala described as a four-sided palace or temple. A palace because it is the residence of the presiding deity of the mandala, a temple because it contains the essence of the Buddha.
The resident deity of this mandala is Bhaishajyaguru, the medicine Buddha. There are usually considered to be eight brother Medicine Buddhas, one of whom is Shakyamuni Buddha, who transformed himself into a blue Buddha, sending out healing rays of light.
He wears the monastic robe, and is seated with the legs crossed. His left hand, lying in his lap in 'meditation' mudra, holds a bowl containing medicine nuts, while the right, hand in 'charity' mudra, holds the branch of the myrobalan, a medicinal plant found in India and other tropical countries.
He sits on a moon disk on lotus petals.
The Bhaishajyaguru sutra (written before the sixth century) makes this Buddha far more than a healer of either the body or the spirit. He is conceived, rather, as a supreme and cosmic figure who illuminates the entire world and possesses infinite knowledge. It is also interesting to note that the sutra places considerable importance on the worship of the healing Buddha's image. The worshipper should "bathe, and with a pure mind try to be friendly to all beings. After this he is to circumambulate the image with music " The Chinese translation further states that " if one makes an image of this Buddha, or if one recites the text of the sutra, he will escape from the nine ways of death"
The visualization and concretization of the mandala concept is one of the most significant contributions of Buddhism to religious psychology. Mandalas are seen as sacred places which, by their very presence in the world, remind a viewer of the immanence of sanctity in the universe and its potential in himself. In the context of the Buddhist path the purpose of a mandala is to put an end to human suffering, to attain enlightenment and to attain a correct view of Reality. It is a means to discover divinity by the realization that it resides within one's own self.
This description by Nitin Kumar, Executive Editor, Exotic India.
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Leidy, Denise Patry, and Thurman, Robert A.F. Mandala: The Architecture of Enlightenment. London: Thames and Hudson, 1997.
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Book: Symbols of Art, Religion and Philosophy