Focused exclusively on Tibetan mandalas, this chapter aims to unpack the traditional utilization of the mandala as a spiritual and religious tool, analyzing examples of the visual motif from across the autonomous region of Tibet, a Chinese-run locale. A careful analysis of mandalas’ role in the Eastern religion of Buddhism will be performed, paying careful attention to the divine, educational aspects of this particular mode of Asian art.
Why focus on Tibet?
I became inspired to investigate mandalas after learning of the multicultural breadth of Asian art in AHI 104 this Spring. Coming to learn how and why various visual motifs have diffused cross-culturally and iterated over time by different peoples was highly fascinating to me. As such, exploring the presence of mandala’s across Asia appealed to me immensely, particularly the development of the motif’s design, as well as its adaptability in both different geographic regions and material forms. To me, this seemed to exemplify the ways in which symbolism and created representations are shared within a civilization, evolving upon religious, environmental, and socio-political conditions. Such drew me in further, as despite the array of differences noted across mandalas found in Tibet and greater Asia, the motif collectively depicts deities, icons, and Buddhas, demonstrating inspiring levels of piety via this consistent demonstration of universal supremacy.
What is a Mandala?
Mandalas, at their most basic level, function as arrangements of varied geometric forms and spiritual symbols, unifying into circularly-repeating, geometrically-oriented, elaborate works of art. Mandalas are regularly used for both meditative and educational purposes, depicting miniature universes, religious journey’s, and other spiritual concepts, largely centered around specific deities.
Mandalas help worshippers unpack complex religious notions, emerging as a foundational tool of Tibetan Buddhist practices. Deities detailed throughout mandalas function as both instructors and spiritual, meditative guides, assisting Buddhist devotees on their road to enlightenment. Mandalas are generally created by pious disciples across China, India, and Japan, as both Hindus and Buddhists leverage the visual motif. Although Buddhism and Hinduism operate as distinct religious bodies, each utilizes the mandala in order to commence introspective sessions of worship, selectively evoking idols depicted within their creations. Thus, culturally speaking, mandalas are not inherent to Tibet, China, nor any singular locale, instead they function as multicultural tools of spirituality, providing strength, support, and instruction to monks and religious devotees. Furthermore, mandalas extend religious rituals outwards, tying ceremony and artistic creation together in a broader, more physically-stylized sense. Accordingly, mandalas exemplify the notion of the Axis Mundi, or the use of religious imagery to formulate small-scale universes, which in turn, elucidate deeper connections with heaven.
Sacred Nature & Symbolic Value
Given the popularity of mandalas as a visual motif, as well as the diversity of material forms in which the design can occupy, the motif possess a dynamic spiritualistic and ritualistic role across Asian art, whereby the duty of crafting a mandala is equally important as the meditative processes in which it orchestrates, particularly in Tibet. Practitioners of mandala-aided worship view their works as literal palaces housing god’s. Given this vantage point, the layered, labyrinthine works are believed to emanate a transcendent power, helping Buddhist worshippers in learning and performing acts of religious scholarship and ceremony, helping them undertake bonafide spiritual transformations.
The process of mandala-creation is seen as a divine activity, one which can take weeks to complete, yet is often destroyed in seconds, illuminating the fleeting, impermanent nature of life on Earth. Here, the multifaceted symbolism of the mandala truly begins to emerge. This coded nature demonstrates a variety of ways in which mandalas can be interpreted; aided by color, architectural context, figural representation (e.g. idols, deities), material, time period, and geographic origin. Despite the array of components differentiating or refining mandalas, the motif collectively possesses an aura of spiritual interconnectedness, consistently illustrating miniature universes encompassing religious deities, reflecting the journey’s in which Buddhist devotees must undergo in order to attain spiritual enlightenment, heavenly ascension, and transcendent wisdom.
The Dynamic Tibetan Mandala
For the chapter, I curated a selection of five Tibetan mandalas. This sampling consists of four textile-based works and one sand-based work, respectively hailing from the fourteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth, and twenty-first centuries. Together, the arrangement provides a holistic overview of the diversity of Tibetan mandalas, as the works contrast iconographically, materially, and architecturally. The varied elements composing each mandala help inform us of the genuine breadth of mandalas at-large, however, a noticeable through-line between each work is their spiritually-charged fashion and association with monastic organizations. Thus, the collection illustrates the long-time, heritage status of the mandala as an object created throughout the history of Tibet for religious purposes.
Figure 1: Four Mandalas
Deities depicted in mandalas are typically flanked by an array of smaller figures, denoting their innate power and worshiped stature; this can be observed in our first figure, Four Mandalas, a Vajrayana Mandala. Vajrayana refers to Buddhist traditions associated with tantra, including the use of chants and mandalas. This mode of Buddhism helped birth the sand mandala movement closely associated with Tibet, however this work is constructed from textile, created for tantra-related meditation.
This mandala dates to circa 1400, emerging from Central Tibet. It possesses a bold, red-dominant color-way, beset with an abundance of concentric circles and geometric shapes, containing an array of different deities, working in concert to create a rhythmically balanced, spatially-evocative work. Four large deities encircle the mandala’s primary figure, drawing viewers’ eyes inwards, as the miniature universe’s central character is presented in a balanced, circular orientation. The work retains a plethora of flatness, suggestive of its diagram-like functionality as a spiritual guide. According to Robert E. Fisher, a prominent Himalayan-focused Art Historian and author of the Tibetan survey text, Art of Tibet, posits that “The combination of the intricate image and the equally involved literary texts associated with the mandala, as for all Vajrayana ritual, means the task facing the devotee would be overwhelming without the direct involvement of the guru as a guide” (Fisher, p. 164). Fisher’s analysis illuminates how and why mandala’s were created for educational assistance, and by what means these works actually offered support to Buddhist disciples. Furthermore, Fisher points to the unique iconographical focus of Tibetan mandalas, contending that the multi-deity complexity found in many works, such as in Vajrayana Mandala, are best expressed through the geometrically-structured, schematic form of the mandala, stating that “The icon-like quality of much late fourteenth-century Tibetan painting is well-suited to to the mandala… visual and religious complexity of these cosmological diagrams is complemented by the directness…” (Fisher, p. 163).
Figure 2: Vaishravana Guardian Mandala
Hailing from early fifteenth-century Tibet, our second figure, Vaishravana, Guardian of Buddhist and Protector of Riches is an iconographically-oriented mandala, singularly personifying the warrior king, Vaishravana. Typically, Vaishravana is depicted within mandalas housed in monastic settings, classifying the work as a protection mandala, created for sacred, spiritual spaces as a means of maintaining safety and stability. Thus, we observe another purpose of the mandala, with monk’s leveraging the motif for security and safeguarding purposes. This speaks to the Buddhist view of icons and deities, many of whom are held in a celestial esteem, as they are thought to possess the ability to wield heavenly strength and holy wisdom in order to protect their disciples. This use of the mandala, as a shrine-like device of protection, demonstrates the steadfast Buddhist devotion to mandala construction, affirming the inherent connection between the visual motif and religious practices in Tibet.
Figure 3: Mandala of Jnanadakini
Our third figure, Mandala of Jnanadakini, makes use of a wide array of bright colors to present a plethora of encircled deities, looping geometric formations, a thickly-darkened border, and classical elements of Asian art as noted in AHI 104; including both lotus petals’ and allusions to burial grounds. Emerging from late-fourteenth century Tibet, this distemper on cloth mandala depicts Jnanadakini, the female embodiment of the Buddha Vajrasattva who “presides over the five Tathagatas… has three faces and six arms” (The Met, p. 1). The work is indeed focused on Jananadakini, yet the swirling band enclosing this central deity and customary concentric circles, contains numerous depictions of so-called ‘prohibited’ deities as well as off-colored activities, a detail positioning Jananadakini in a protector fashion, as devout Tibetan Buddhists have been known to contemplate these frowned-upon behaviors from off-limits locales such as graveyards. Here, the guide-like, instruction-oriented nature of the Tibetan mandala can be seen coupled with its protective use, showcasing the multifaceted nature of this visual motif. Tying back to mandalas’ educational nature, according to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, this particular mandala originated from the Sakya monastery, cementing the monastically-sponsored use of the mandala by Buddhist devotees in order to extend their religious scholarship and worship outwards.
Figure 4: Tibetan Sand Mandala
Tibetan Sand Mandala, our fourth figure, consists of a sand-constructed mandala, a material permitting for the inclusion of intricate color and complex detail. Given the ephemeral composition of sand mandalas, as well as their exhaustive creation process, this type of mandala represents a more ceremonially-oriented interpretation of the visual motif, as opposed to the guiding nature consistent with permanent, textile mandalas. The process of crafting sand mandalas includes chanting and meditation, followed by the careful insertion of mineral pigment in order to color the work, however, although contrasting in their construction procedures, the final product of a sand mandala shares large intrinsic overlap with painted, textile mandalas. Thus, demonstrating the precision of Tibetan mandala creators (who are all Buddhist monks).
Given that the sand mandalas are not continually displayed, and thus, unable to be leveraged for consistent meditative and spiritual instruction, only able to be viewed via photographs, the practice of creating and subsequently destroying sand mandalas carries significant weight in Tibetan Buddhist tradition. The ritualistic act of destruction, wherein mandalas are entirely disintegrated and forever lost, highlights the transitory structure of human existence. Given that these works pair expert craftsmanship with patience, intricacy and religious ceremony, one could contend that this form of the mandala evokes the highest degree of emotionality, as the joint processes of creation and annihilation conjoin in this ultimate ceremony.
Figure 5: Four Mandalas of the Guhyasamaja Cycle
Our final figure, Four Mandalas of the Guhyasamaja Cycle, is a distemper and ink on cloth mandala hailing from sixteenth-century Tibet. The green-dominant, four-quadrant painted mandala features muted, repeating red-and-green patterns alluding to Earth’s natural elements. These components encircle the work’s primary deity, Guhyasamaja. According to New York’s Rubin Museum of Art, “This mandala is focused on the meditational deity Guhyasamaja… a form of the Buddha Akshobhyavajra… they represent the enlightened qualities and wisdom of the skandhas of the human body and mind” (Rubin, p. 2). Thus, Four Mandalas of the Guhyasamaja Cycle was created as a visual aid for meditation rituals undertaken by Buddhist disciples, again displaying the educational function of the mandala via its chart-like design. This encapsulates how monks would often depict specific deities with the intention of performing particular ceremonies and meditations in their spatial company and/or relating to their religious purview, working to progress on their spiritual transformations. As a result, Four Mandalas of the Guhyasamaja Cycle provides further evidence of Buddhist disciples creating mandalas flanked with specific deities, seeking to distill transcendental enlightenment from these idols.
Closing Analysis: What is Asian Art?
Embarking on my investigation of Tibetan mandalas helped me to further contemplate AHI 104’s guiding question; what is Asian art? To me, Asian art consists of a far-reaching breadth of stylistically-oriented, religiously-conscious, highly-ornamented imagery and created objects. Differentiating this range of works are the elements of size, color, detail, medium, origin location, and purpose. Tying these components further together is the use of religious iconography; regal-looking figures representative of divinity, safety, transcendence, spirituality and tradition dot the gambit of Asian craftsmanship aiding elements of religious worship. The range of works discussed in AHI 104 exemplified all of the above intrinsic qualities, demonstrating the genuinely cross-bordered, collaborative mode of creation found within Asian society at-large, as visual motifs and symbolism are repeatedly morphed across new cultures, religions, regions, and peoples, forming into societally-molded emblems of culture.
To me, the mandala functions as a principle example of these cultural processes, as pious imagery extends into non-intrinsic devices of worship. This denotes another foundational element of Asian art, elements naturalism, which serves as highly allegorical details, frequently juxtaposed to disseminate certain messages. Given that mandalas first emerged as altars, I contend that Asian art is forever intertwined with organized Asian religion, thus bearing a significant cultural status, as societal developments influence a given civilization’s created objects. Because created objects serve as historical markers of bygone era’s, the study of art history is a pivotal means of understanding our past.
Recommended Reading List
- Art of Tibet by Robert E. Fisher
- Mandala – In Search of Enlightenment: Sacred Geometry in the World’s Spiritual Arts by Peter Van Ham
- Himalayan Art Resources (https://www.himalayanart.org)
- Metropolitan Museum of Art Helibrunn Timeline (https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/tibu/hd_tibu.htm)
- Columbia University’s East Asian Library (https://library.columbia.edu/libraries/eastasian/tibetan/links1.html)
Fisher, Robert E. Art of Tibet. Thames and Hudson. London, U.K., 1997.
Four Mandalas of the Guhyasamaja Cycle: Tibet. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/37814.
Mandala of Jnanadakini. AsianArt.com. Arts of Tibet, 1999. https://www.asianart.com/exhibitions/svision/i46.html.
Mandala of Guhyasamaja-Akshobhyavajra. The Rubin Museum of Art. https://collection.rubinmuseum.org/objects/1495/mandala-of-guhyasamajaakshobhyavajra.
Mandala of Jnanadakini: Tibet. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/37802.
Tibetan Sand Mandalas. Venerable Tenzin Yignyen. Hobart and William Smith Colleges. http://people.hws.edu/yignyen/mandalas.html.
Tibetan Monk Creates Sand Mandala at Bard. Bard College, 2007. https://www.bard.edu/news/releases/pr/fstory.php?id=1228.
Vaishravana, Guardian of Buddhism and Protector of Riches: Tibet. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/854908.
Van Ham, Peter. Mandala – In Search of Enlightenment: Sacred Geometry in the World’s Spiritual Arts. Arnoldsche Art Publishers. Stuttgart, D.E., 2022.