Mandalas: History & Examples

This lesson introduces the mandala, a form of Buddhist art. Learn when the mandala first appeared, what it represents, common symbols, and how a mandala is used.
If you’ve ever visited a Buddhist temple or admired religious art from Asia, you’ve likely seen mandalas. These complex works of art combine geometric patterns, religious symbolism, and layers of meaning to create a masterpiece that acts as a symbol, prayer, meditation exercise, and holy blessing all in one. The name, mandala, comes from the Sanskrit word for circle and refers to the sense of wholeness created by both circular forms. In Tibet, the mandala is called Khyil-khor, which refers to the center of all creation where a truly awakened being lives, taking the meaning further than the Sanskrit reference.
In Buddhism, mandalas represent the ideal form of the universe. The act of creating a mandala represents the transformation of the universe from a reality of suffering to one of enlightenment. While Tibetan Buddhists see the center of the mandala as an awakened being at the center of the universe, the center also represents the beginning of each person’s journey toward knowledge, wisdom, and enlightenment. Often, mandalas are used as tools to focus the mind during meditation.
The mandala begins with the center, radiating out with symbols and designs as the pattern grows larger. It can be painted, drawn, or even made from colorful sand. Those painted on scrolls are often carried by travelers and pilgrims for a blessing on the road and used a focus for meditation as they journey.
Through meditation and following a path of thought and action, Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, attained enlightenment, freeing himself from the cycle of death and rebirth. He taught this path to his followers who still practice these principles today.
As Buddhist monks traveled the Silk Road, a major trade route through Asia, they brought Buddhism to many other lands. They carried mandalas with them and brought the practice of creating these works of art to other parts of Asia. The earliest evidence of Buddhist mandala art dates to the first century B.C.E. but appeared in other regions, such as Tibet, China, and Japan by the fourth century. Although rooted in Buddhism, mandalas later became present in Hinduism, New Age Spirituality, and other religious practices.
While a finished mandala bears importance as a focus for meditative practice, the creation process remains equally important. There are three basic layers to a mandala’s meaning. The outer meaning represents the divine form of the universe. The inner meaning creates a map to guide the mind to enlightenment. The secret meaning, however, remains between the artist and the creation as far as specific details. Overall, it represents a balance of body and mind infused with clarity.
Often, mandalas include several key symbols of Buddhism. The following symbols are some of those often represented in mandalas.
The circular shape of the wheel with eight spokes works well with the artistic representation of a perfect universe. The eight spokes represent the Eightfold Path of Buddhism, which involves a series of righteous thoughts and actions meant to guide someone to enlightenment. The lotus flower is one of the most sacred symbols in Buddhism. Its symmetry represents balance. The lotus reaches up from its underwater, muddy bed to blossom in the light, much as a human who reaches enlightenment. The bell shape in mandalas represents openness and the emptying of the mind to allow wisdom and clarity to enter.
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