The Mandala - Sacred Geometry and Art

This page last changed on: 20-Dec-2001

These delusions obscure our true nature, but through spiritual practice they can be transformed into the wisdom of these five respective Buddhas.


White Vairocana The delusion of ignorance becomes the wisdom of reality.
Yellow Ratnasambhava The delusion of pride becomes the wisdom of sameness.
Red Amitabha The delusion of attachment becomes the wisdom of discernment.
Green Amoghasiddhi The delusion of jealousy becomes the wisdom of accomplishment.
Blue Akshobhya The delusion of anger becomes the mirror like wisdom.

This article was sent as a newsletter from the website

Perhaps the most admired and discussed symbol of Buddhist religion  and art is the mandala, a word which, like guru and yoga, has become  part of the English language. Its popularity is underscored by the  use of the word mandala as a synonym for sacred space in scholarship  world over, and by its presence in English-language dictionaries and  encyclopedias. Both broadly define mandalas as geometric designs  intended to symbolize the universe, and reference is made to their  use in Buddhist and Hindu practices. 

The mandala idea originated long ago before the idea of history  itself. In the earliest level of India or even Indo-European  religion, in the Rig Veda and its associated literature, mandala is  the term for a chapter, a collection of mantras or verse hymns  chanted in Vedic ceremonies, perhaps coming from the sense of round,  as in a round of songs. The universe was believed to originate from 
these hymns, whose sacred sounds contained the genetic patterns of beings and things, so there is already a clear sense of mandala as world-model. 

The word mandala itself is derived from the root manda, which means essence, to which the suffix la, meaning container, has been added. Thus, one obvious connotation of mandala is that it is a container of essence. As an image, a mandala may symbolize both the mind and the body of the Buddha. In esoteric Buddhism the principle in the mandala is the presence of the Buddha in it, but images of deities are not necessary. They may be presented either as a wheel, a tree, or a jewel, or in any other symbolic manifestation.

Illustration :

Creation of a Mandala

The origin of the mandala is the center, a dot. It is a symbol apparently free of dimensions. It means a 'seed', 'sperm', 'drop', the salient starting point. It is the gathering center in which the outside energies are drawn, and in the act of drawing the forces, the devotee's own energies unfold and are also drawn. Thus it represents the outer and inner spaces. Its purpose is to remove the object-
subject dichotomy. In the process, the mandala is consecrated to a deity.

In its creation, a line materializes out of a dot. Other lines are drawn until they intersect, creating triangular geometrical patterns. The circle drawn around stands for the dynamic consciousness of the initiated. The outlying square symbolizes the physical world bound in four directions, represented by the four gates; and the midmost or central area is the residence of the deity. Thus the center is visualized as the essence and the circumference as grasping, thus in 
its complete picture a mandala means grasping the essence.

Illustration :

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.

In its most common 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.

Illustration :

The series of circles surrounding the central palace follow an intense symbolic structure. Beginning with the outer circles, one often finds a ring of fire, frequently depicted as a stylized scrollwork. This symbolizes the process of transformation which ordinary human beings have to undergo before entering the sacred territory within. This is followed by a ring of thunderbolt or diamond scepters (vajra), indicating the indestructibility and diamond like brilliance of the mandala's spiritual realms.

In the next concentric circle, particularly those mandalas which feature wrathful deities, one finds eight cremation grounds arranged in a wide band. These represent the eight aggregates of human consciousness which tie man to the phenomenal world and to the cycle of birth and rebirth. 

Finally, at the center of the mandala lies the deity, with whom the mandala is identified. It is the power of this deity that the mandala is said to be invested with. Most generally the central deity may be one of the following three:

Peaceful Deities

A peaceful deity symbolizes its own particular existential and spiritual approach. For example, the image of Boddhisattva Avalokiteshvara symbolizes compassion as the central focus of the spiritual experience; that of Manjushri takes wisdom as the central focus; and that of Vajrapani emphasizes the need for courage and strength in the quest for sacred knowledge.

Illustration :

Wrathful Deities

Wrathful deities suggest the mighty struggle involved in overcoming one's alienation. They embody all the inner afflictions which darken our thoughts, our words, and our deeds and which prohibit attainment of the Buddhist goal of full enlightenment. Traditionally, wrathful deities are understood to be aspects of benevolent principles, fearful only to those who perceive them as alien forces. When recognized as aspects of one's self and tamed by spiritual practice, 
they assume a purely benevolent guise.

Illustration :

Sexual Imagery

Sexual imagery suggests the integrative process which lies at the heart of the mandala. Male and female elements are nothing but symbols of the countless pairs of opposites (e.g. love and hate; good and evil etc.) which one experiences in mundane existence. The initiate seeks to curtail his or her alienation, by accepting and enjoying all things as a seamless, interconnected field of experience. Sexual imagery can also be understood as a metaphor for enlightenment, with its qualities of satisfaction, bliss, unity and completion.

Illustration :

Color Symbolism of the Mandala

If form is crucial to the mandala, so too is color. The quadrants of the mandala-palace are typically divided into isosceles triangles of color, including four of the following five: white, yellow, red, green and dark blue. Each of these colors is associated with one of the five transcendental Buddhas, further associated with the five  delusions of human nature. These delusions obscure our true nature,  but through spiritual practice they can be transformed into the  wisdom of these five respective Buddhas.


White - Vairocana: The delusion of ignorance becomes the wisdom of reality. 

Yellow - Ratnasambhava: The delusion of pride becomes the wisdom of sameness. 

Red - Amitabha: The delusion of attachment becomes the wisdom of discernment. 

Green - Amoghasiddhi: The delusion of jealousy becomes the wisdom of accomplishment. 

Blue - Akshobhya: The delusion of anger becomes the mirror like wisdom. 

The Mandala as a Sacred Offering

In addition to decorating and sanctifying temples and homes, in  Tibetan life the mandala is traditionally offered to one's lama or guru when a request has been made for teachings or an initiation - where the entire offering of the universe (represented by the mandala) symbolizes the most appropriate payment for the preciousness of the teachings. Once in a desolate Indian landscape the Mahasiddha Tilopa requested a mandala offering from his disciple Naropa, and 
there being no readily available materials with which to construct a mandala, Naropa urinated on the sand and formed an offering of a wet-sand mandala. On another occasion Naropa used his blood, head, and limbs to create a mandala offering for his guru, who was delighted with these spontaneous offerings.


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.


Question: A crafts person wished to use the HUM syllable in a craft piece, and for a good example thereof. What are the proper colours for the five elements of it? I believe the place where I once saw these described was at the back of Lama Govinda's Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism. As I recall, the bindu at the top was blue, the crescent yellow, the elements below that white, red and green, but I'm not sure about the order.

Answer (by Christa): Within seconds I received a message to turn to pages 334-340 in 'Tibetan Yoga & Secret Doctrines' edited by W.Y. Evans-Wentz, a book my Teacher (Rama) emphasized a great deal.

Since i'm gonna type all sorts of excerpts now (given the excuse to do so), you'll need to scroll down for the short answer. :)

The colors of the Long Hum mantra correspond to the Five Dhyani Buddhas which correspond to the Five Wisdoms.

"As in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, to which serious readers should refer for further explication, the Essential, or Foundation, Wisdom is the All-Pervading Wisdom of the Dharma-Dhatu ('Seed, or Potentiality, of Truth'), or the Wisdom born of the Dharma-Kaya ('Divine Body of Truth'), in its aspect as the All-Pervading Voidness. The Dharma-Dhatu is symbolized by the Aggregate of Matter, whence spring all physical forms, animate and inanimate, visible and invisible. The Dharma-Dhatu, being the Thatness constituting the Dharma-Kaya, is personified by the Chief of the Dhyani Buddhas, Vairchana.

In this context, the Aggregate of Matter may be looked upon as being Nature, or the Sandsara, characterized by interminable change, or transitoriness, wherein, as a result of karmic actions, man is enslaved by the incessant round of birth and death. When, in virtue of Right Knowledge, the fruit of yoga, man breaks his bondage to the Sangsara, there shines forth in his inner consciousness the symbolic blue divine radiance of the Dharma-Dhatu Wisdom. Then, having conquered life itself, the yogin rejoices in utter 
Freedom, for his is nevermore to return to the Kingdom of Ignorance and Illusion save as a Bodhisattva, vowed to selflessness, to guide those who still dwell in the Darkness of the Cave to the Light of Day.

The Mirror-like Wisdom, personified by the Dhyani Buddha Akshobhya, of whom the Dhyani Buddha Vajra-Sattva is the Sambhoga-Kaya reflex, confers the siddhi (or yogic power) of seeing clairvoyantly the innate reality reflected, as in a mirror, in all phenomenal or apparent things, organic and inorganic. As with a telescope or microscope men of science study the Universe externally in its unreality, so with the yogic insight conferred by the Mirror-like Wisdom the master of this yoga studies the Universe internally in its True State. Through having realized the Wisdom of Equality, personified by the Dhyani Buddha Ratna-Sambhava, the yogin sees all things with divine impartiality, invirtue of the yoga of equal-mindedness. The Discriminating Wisdom, personified by the Dhyani Buddha Amitabha, confers the yogic power of knowing each thing by itself and, also, all things as the One. The fifth, the All-Perfecting Wisdom, personified by the Dhyani Buddha Amogha-Siddhi, confers power of perseverance, essential to success in all yogas, and infallible judgement with consequent unerring action.

Whereas the Dharma-Dhatu Wisdom, following The Tibetan Book of the Dead, is symbolized by, or illusorily manifests itself as, the Aggregate of Matter, as Nature, producing all physical forms, the Mirror-like Wiscom is symbolized by the Element Water, whence originates the life-stream, represented by the sap in trees and plants and the blood in man and animals. The Wisdom of Equality, in like manner, manifests itself through the Element Earth, and thus produces the chief solid constituents of man's body and of organic and inorganic forms. The Discriminating Wisdom, by manifesting itself through the Element Fire, produces the vital heat of embodied human and lower animal beings; and the All-Performing Wisdom, using as its vehicle 
of manifestation the Element Air, is the source of the breath of life.

The Element Ether is not included in this category, for it symbolizes the sum-total of all the Wisdoms, namely, the Supramundane Wisdom, which is purely Nirvanic, beyond the range of the mundane consciousness. Only a Fully Enlightened Buddha can comprehend it. Esoterically, the Element Ether is 
personified by the Dhyani Buddha Vajrasattva, and related, in a comparative way, with the Mirror-like Wisdom. Vajra-Sattva, in this esoteric relation, is synonymous with Samanta-Bhadra, the Adi (i.e. Primordial) Buddha, personification of the Unborn, Unshaped, Unmodified Dharma-Kaya, or Nirvana. 
Samanta-Bhadra, in turn, is frequently personified in Vairochana, the Chief of the Five Dhyani Buddhas.

Again, as in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, with each of the Five Wisdoms there is related an obscuring passion, corresponding to the Five Poisons of our text, and a sangsaric aggregate and world, and also a mystic color, as follows:

With the Dharma-Dhatu Wisdom, Stupidity (or Sloth, or Delusion), the Aggregate of Matter, the deva world (or worlds), and the colour blue; with the Mirror-like Wisdom, Anger, the Aggregate of Consciousness, the hell world (or worlds), and the colour white; with the Wisdom of Equality, Egotism (or Pride, or, as in the quaotation on the page facing the Preface herein, Selfishness,) the Aggregate of Touch, the human world, and the colour yellow; with the Discriminating Wisdom, Lust (or Greed), the Aggregate of Feelings (or Attachment), the ghost world, and the colour red; and with the All-Perfecting (or All-Performing) Wisdom, Jealousy, the Aggregate of Volition, the titan world, and the colour green.

The Symbolic Significance of the Long Hum:

1) The Acuminated Circle [tapering in flame into Space, symbolizeth] Vairochana, [as personifying] the Dharma-Dhatu Wisdom.

2) The Crescent [symbolizeth] Akshobhya, [as personifying] the Mirror-like Wisdom.

3)The Top-Portion (the single horizontal stroke the crescent rests upon) [symbolizeth] Ratna-Sambhava, [as personifying] the Wisdom of Equality.

4)The [Aspirated] HA (part resembling a letter 5, between the Top-Portion immediately below the crescent) and the Silent HA which looks like stick-drawing of a bird tilted sideways) [symbolizeth] Amithaba, [as 
personifying] the Discriminating Wisdom.

5) The [Silent] HA together with the Vowel-Sign are Amogha-Siddhi, [as personifying] the All-Perfecting Wisdom.

6) The HUM [thus] compriseth [in its symbolism] the Nature [or Essence] of the Five Orders [of the Buddhas of Meditation].

footnote: In the Shri-Chakra-Sambhara Tantra (cf. Arthur Avalon, Tantrik Texts, vol. vii, pp.4-6) there is a set forth a similar analysis of the HUM as follows: 'Of this HUM, the letter U standeth for the knowledge [or 
wisdom] which accomplisheth all works; the body of the letter H, for the knowledge which distinguisheth; the top of the letter H, for the equalizing knowledge; the Crescent [Chandra, the Moon], for the mirror-like knowledge; and the Bindu [Thigle, the Acuminated Circle], above that, for the changless knowledge. Mental concentration upon these various parts of the Mantra, symbolizing Mind, is the means whereby mind [in its unenlightened condition] is fitted for contemplation on the Bliss of the Divine [or Supramundane] Mind.'"

[Homage to the Enlightened Ones throughout the three times & ten directions!!]

in short,

1. Bindu = blue
(Vairochana/Dharma-Dhatu Wisdom: Aggregate of Matter/Wisdom-Stupidity, the world of devas.)

2. Crescent = white
(Akshobhya/Mirror-like Wisdom: Aggregate of Consciousness/Wisdom-Anger, the hell worlds.)

3. horizontal stroke = yellow
(Ratna-Sambhava/Wisdom of Equality: Aggregate of Touch/Wisdom-Pride/Selfishness, the human world.)

4. part resembling the # '5' (aspirated HA) = red 
(Amitabha/Discriminating Wisdom: Aggregate of Feelings (attachment)/wisom-lust/greed, the hungry 
ghost world.)

5. two curves like stick-figure bird or broken #3 (silent HA) = green
(Amogha-Siddhi/All-Perfecting Wisdom: Aggregate of Volition/wisdom-jealousy, the titan world.)

Each of the Five Wisdoms/Aggregates are inherently empty, self-liberated and pure, which is why they're each identified with both a wisdom & a poison.