Signs and Symbols

What is a mandala? Is it the same as a thanka?

Mandala is a Sanskrit word for “circle.” As a two-dimensional design, a mandala is equivalent to the plan of a stupa. Viewed directly from above, a stupa reveals a series of alternating concentric square and circular shapes. From the outside in, you see the square foundation, the circular earth mound, the square “altar” inside its square railing, and finally the circular discs mounted on the shaft of the spire. Some mandalas depict four gates on the sides of the foundation square and add yet another outer circle symbolizing the “eight cemeteries” through which a meditator must first pass, becoming oblivious to the senses and all other distractions before entering the sacred space. Vajrayana and other esoteric Buddhist sects adapted this bird’s eye perspective on the stupa and interpreted it as an image of both the macrocosm (the whole spiritual cosmos) and the microcosm (the individual meditator). Devotees meditate on the sacred design of the spiritual “city” as they move symbolically inward from the gates toward the center and enlightenment. Various “deities” and forms of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are depicted in the different spaces of the mandala, each symbolizing some aspect of spiritual power. Tibetan monks sometimes create large mandalas using grains of colored sand. After many hours of work, they conduct rituals around it and then discard it in a river as a reminder of impermanence and nonattachment.

Thanka is a more generic term for a Tibetan wall hanging depicting a religious theme. Some thankas depict mandalas, and some display sacred imagery of other kinds. Multiple scenes illustrating Jataka tales offer material designed for meditation on essential virtues modeled by the Buddha-to-be.


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