A temple floor can be seen as a duplicate of this projection. This concretization of an idea is strongly developed in stupa. A stupa is an architectonic, three-dimensional rendering of the universe. By means of spiraling end, if possible, getting closer and closer to the center, the believer will arrive at the essence. The believer walks through galleries that become smaller the higher one goes. Literally and figuratively one rises, in altitude and in understanding, and gradually gets to the core of the matter that, in this, is a stupa on the top. The stupa is the symbol of death, namely of conquering death, thus of escaping samsara. On a two-dimensional mandala the same thing happens, although one takes a visual, rather than physical, walk to the core of understanding. From the outside of the presentation that believer moves by way of the depicted groups of deities toward the center of the mandala where the major deity or symbol is the ultimate.
Mandalas are practically a three-dimensional mansion of the deity. Geometrically it is subdivided into squares and circles. The square within the circle represents the building, in which lives the deity. The building has been constructed to face in four cardinal directions. The square is encircled with circles. It is notably mentioned here that Buddhist mandala is visualized as a sacred space or a pure Buddha world which is separated and protected from the ever-changing and impure outer world of samsara. That is why square is always encircled with circles so that a believer gets inside the mandala only after spiritual transformation
A mandala can be drawn on the ground with meticulously sifted colored sand. After the conclusion of the rite the mandala is removed. In course of time the mandala lost its original function as temporary aid at initiation rites, and merged with the popular thangka paintings. The literally meaning of thangka is an object that can be rolled up. Thus the painted mandala became an everyday object of veneration, meditation, and ritual, and after the completion of the prayer and ritual, one can keep them in the proper place by rolling it.
The Buddha Shakyamuni is seated in the center of the mandala. His right hand is in bhumisparsha-mudra and the left hand, held in meditation position, holds a pindapatra. The bhumisparsha-mudra of the Buddha symbolizes his victory over evil and the attainment of enlightenment at Bodhgaya. Buddhists meditate on this mudra of the Buddha mainly for protection from evil and also for the removal of obstacles in material and spiritual life. Shakyamuni Buddha is surrounded by eight lotus petals, which is filled with the figures of Buddha and Bodhisattvas. It symbolizes eight-fold path of Buddha’s teachings, the way to freedom, consisting of the three spiritual educations – moral, meditative, and intellectual. The area outside the inner circle is filled with stylized designs. The walls of square are decorated with Dharma Chakra and floral motifs. There are four gates in square in cardinal directions. Over the gates are houses in which live the protector deities; lokapalas or guardian deities of all four directions of the universe protect all the four gateways. A Dharma Chakra flanked by deer is depicted in the upper center. Vases with plants in them, treasure vases and banners stand on either side of the gate outside the wall.
The square is surrounded by two circles. The outer one is of fire fence, which is florally rendered here. This circle forms a barrier so that only after transformation a believer can pass through. Thus passing through the purging fire circle means that believers who had crossed this circle are purified, and their ego and illusions burnt. Further, in Esoteric Buddhism fire symbolizes knowledge and without knowledge(prajna) there is no possibility of arriving at supreme understanding. After this comes a circle of lotus petals. Here the spiritual realm begins and one enters the mandala of Shakyamuni Buddha. The lotus represents purity and rebirth on a higher level. Within the circle of lotuses is the divine mansion of Shakyamuni Buddha with a gateway at each of the cardinal directions.
The top center of this thangka depicts the paradise of Amitayus Buddha. Amitayus is the Buddha of eternal life. He is extremely popular in many Northern Buddhist countries, since his special boon is to prolong the life span. Many Buddhists commission images of Amitayus Buddha both in sculpture and painting in order to gain merit and assure a long life for himself or herself or someone else. His color is red and he always holds the long-life vase.
The upper left corner is filled with figure of Chenrezig (Shadakshari Lokeshvara). Shadakshari Lokeshvara, the “Six-Syllabled Lord of the world”, is the manifestation of the compassionate Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara who embodies his six-syllable mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum. Though there are many interpretation of this mantra, one of the most important is that the sacred syllables invoke the Buddhas of the six realms of wheel of life, who are manifestations of Avalokiteshvara as he appears to the beings there to alleviate their suffering. By repeatedly reciting the mantra, Tibetans and many others who do practices centering upon Shadakshari invoke the presence of a Buddha for the benefit of beings in each of those realms, as well as for increasing their own compassion.
Guru Padmasambhava is shown seated in upper left corner. Padmasambhava was a great yogi, originally from Swat Valley of Northwest region of modern Pakistan. He was invited to Tibet by the Tibetan king Trisong Detsen (8th century A.D.) and the famous Buddhist acharya, Shantirakshita to help in the establishment of Buddhism in Tibet. Padmasambhava initiated Tantric Buddhist teachings in Tibet and assimilated parts of local Bon religion into Vajrayana Buddhism. Padmasambhava claimed to have received from the Dakini the books from which he acquired his miraculous powers. Padmasambhava is regarded as a major spiritual ancestor of all Tibetan Buddhists in general and the father of the Nyingma sect in particular. Tibetans usually call him Guru Rinpoche, or Precious Teacher with reverence and consider him as a second Buddha. He founded Lamaism in Tibet.
The bottom left corner depicts the figure of goddess White Tara who grants long life to her devotees and helps practitioner overcome obstacles. Moreover she grants wishes to her devotees and protects them from danger and distress. The worship of this form of Tara is commonly found throughout Tibet and in other Northern Buddhist countries. Her popularity and fortune was ever on the increase as a merciful and benevolent comforter and helper of every soul in torment. She is invoked to save from perils threatening mankind. Tara, kinetic power of compassion (karuna) saves (tarayati) suffering creatures. The ceremonies of Tara are an integral part of Karmpa rituals. Her mandalas are worshipped from third to ninth of every month. On auspicious days there are special services to White Tara. In the daily ritual practices of the most important monasteries, at seven in the morning takes place the meditation on the mandala of Tara, which includes the recitation of her sadhana texts. The Tibetans pray to her for long life, for human life is infinitely precious. The ultimate goal of Buddhahood can be attained by striving in this human body.
The bottom center depicts Winged Hayagriva in yab yum. This is a ‘super secret’ form of Hayagriva as he is in terrific union with his consort and dancing ecstatically on human figures on a lotus throne, representing obstacles. Hayagriva, a wrathful manifestation of Avalokiteshvara, was created originally to conquer a demon named Matong Rudra who had horse head in his hair. Hayagriva is able to destroy the massive hindrances of samsara with awesome power, without regard for his own life. He cuts away all the evil realms, completely destroys the six gatis, the four births, and the four-sufferings of births, old age, disease and death. Like a hungry horse that thinks only of water and grass, he thinks with profound compassion of the sufferings of beings and of consuming their passions and ignorance. A special ability of Hayagriva is to cure diseases, especially skin disease even as serious as leprosy caused by the nagas (malignant water spirits having the body of a serpent). He is very popular among all four Tibetan sects, especially in Nyingma Order.
Goddess Green Tara is depicted in bottom right corner. She is a meditational deity and is the most popular goddess in Buddhist pantheon. The green color points to the power of performing every kind of action. She is considered by Tibetans to be the original Tara as her green complexion signifies her association with the Buddha clan of Amoghasiddhi, the Dhyani Buddha of the North. She is honored as the “Mother of the Buddhas of all three times”. She reincarnated in the Nepalese queen of great Tibetan king sRong-tsan-sgam-po. She is the active power of the compassion look diffused over all the points of space to save suffering creatures. She is the force of compassion that saves the afflicted. Her manifold refractions are epiphanies of the serene strength of compassionate intuition. The goddess emerged as a merciful and benevolent helper of every soul in torment. She takes an active part in the lives of her devotees, and is ever ready to save them from disasters as they invoke her with faith.
A Winged flying Garuda is depicted just below the Chenrezig. Garuda, the mythic solar bird, possesses talismanic properties associated with his being a natural enemy of serpents. He is popular both in Buddhist and Brahmanical pantheon. Half-bird and half-man, the winged Garuda, holds a serpent in his beak with outstretched arms. He is supposed to protect against diseases associated with water and illnesses connected with serpents.
A Dragon is shown below the figure of Padmasambhava. Dragon generally represents the strong male yang principle of heaven, change, energy and creativity. In Buddhism dragon is the vehicle of Vairochana Buddha. Chinese Buddhism depicts different types of dragon. Dragon is also the vehicle of many protective deities and guardians of treasure.
The landscape of this painting depicts pancha mahabhuta. The pancha Mahabhuta or five great elements are earth, water, fire, space and air. The universe is supposed to compose of from pancha mahabhutas. The element earth is depicted here by rock formations, and mountainous landscape; the element water by waterfalls and lakes; fire by aureole’s wisdom fire; air by cloud formation and space by sky.
The border of this painting depicts auspicious symbols, Dragons, Garudas and flowers. The extended brocade is decorated with good luck symbol bats and stylized flowers.
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.)”.