Tibetan Art
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Although we most often see a mandala in two dimensions, painted on a wall or thangka or created on a floor or flat surface, it is meant to be visualized as a three-dimensional structure, for which it is effectively a blueprint.

Mandalas are sometimes, although more rarely, created three-dimensionally, sometimes in bronze. The great stupa of Borobodur in Indonesia is a gigantic stone mandala. (The origins of the stupa have been linked to ancient cultures, such as the Mesopotamian Ziggurat, also a cosmogram of the universe, layered into a certain number of terraces with astrological correspondence.) Because of the ancient correlation of the royal and the sacred, of the king endowed with priestly functions, and of gods in royal capacities (e.g., Zeus/Jupiter or Indra), the mandala is thought of as both palace and temple, or even as a royal city, or, in two-dimensional form, as the blueprint for such a palace or temple. Indeed, Shakyamuni is termed Chakravartin, the Universal Monarch. In the center of the mandala, the deity sits in splendor upon a throne, surrounded by supporting divinities, like an earthly king surrounded by his court, in princely dress and ornaments. That a mandala should be thought of as a blueprint is more than an abstract conceit, since liberation is not given by grace, but must be achieved by concentrated effort, by action both mental and spiritual. The participant makes his or her way by a gradation of steps into and through the palace/temple to the presiding deity at the center.

Just as there are deities almost without number, there is a profusion of mandalas, although each conforms to the basic format of symmetry and concentricity. Again, this is not because artists wished to outdo each other in devising and designing new patterns of the form. Rather, each of the five Buddha "families" (the Dhyani-Buddhas) has its own special mandala, as does the presiding deity, and there are other mandalas for the other gods in their multiple manifestations and emanations. Various mandalas are appropriate to particular persons, to the spiritual condition the adherent wishes to achieve, or to the particular obstruction that he/she wishes to overcome -- not by repression but through transfiguration -- such as passion, anger, greed, etc. A neophyte must undergo a tantric initiation during which, with the help of a guru, the person's Buddha family is determined, and a mandala is chosen that corresponds to that family.

Thus we approach the function and the practice of the mandala. Its meaning returns us to yoga, and the tantrist philosophy that underlies Vajrayana or Tibetan Buddhism. The mandala is a yogic painting, and the goal of yoga is union with the supreme essence, the One, the All, the Absolute. And the object of the Buddhist practitioner is to become one with the god of the mandala, the deity at its center. If successful, this is the power conferred by the mandala: transformation into the divine being and thus sublimation into the spiritual state of which that deity is the symbol.

In a further layer of conceptual complexity, the transformation thus achieved is found within the self. In this belief, the microcosm and the macrocosm are held to be one. The human body itself is considered a mandala, and because of this correspondence between the microcosm and the macrocosm, the individual can correspond to a divinity. The Buddha-essence or Buddha-nature is already latent within each person: the task is to reveal it. In serving as a channel for transformation, the mandala offers a means of re-integration into the state of Buddhahood.

None of this happens by simply looking at a mandala; as mentioned above, the process is active, not passive. The practitioner uses a set of mental and spiritual exercises in order to recreate within the mind what the mandala symbolizes and thus to achieve that spiritual condition. Here it is necessary to consider the conventional format of the mandala.

Its outer border is a circle, usually a set of concentric outer rings. Within the innermost ring is, most often, a square, which is itself often dissected by two diagonal lines into four triangles. This inner square corresponds to the palace of the deity, within which is an inner circle, the seat of the divinity. The diagonal lines through it have been interpreted to symbolize the axis mundi, Sumeru -- the cosmic mountain at the center of the universe -- and the human spinal column, the microcosm assimilated to the macrocosm.

The palace (represented by the inner square) has four T-shaped gates or portals, each surmounted by a torana or triumphal arch, Above these gates appear certain conventional images and ornaments, both symbolic and ornamental, as befits a palace both royal and divine. A disk represents the wheel of the law, two gazelles symbolize the deer park in which the Buddha Shakyamuni gave his first teachings, the parasol is the insignia of royalty, as are the ornamental streamers and strings of pearls, etc.

This structure is used to guide the practitioner through the psychic process of the mandala. Through a set of meditations, with the blueprint of the mandala as a structural support, the adept enters the mandala by passing through the outer rings, then enters the palace through one of its portals, and proceeds by stages to the inner sanctum, to the throne itself and the deity upon it, and then, achieving through intense concentration the supreme transformation, becomes one with the divinity and that which the god represents.

The solitary adept may "enter" the mandala and undertake the process independently, in concentrated meditation, but the neophyte requires initiation and the help of a guru. These initiation rituals are complex and elaborate. As they dealt with a rather magical process and the acquisition of powers, they involved secrecy and were reserved for those who were initiated into the tantra through its mandala. There are particular initiation rituals for particular tantras.

With appropriate sacraments, the guru or master prepares the student, who must have the intention of using the powers he will gain not for his own salvation, but to help all other beings, thus following the way of the Bodhisattva. Initiation into the mandala proceeds by stages, including a water initiation, resembling baptism, and another in which the neophyte is crowned, reflecting the correspondence between the sacred and the royal.

Although the Kalachakra Tantra is only one of the many tantras, it has become the best-known because the Dalai Lama has been traveling around the world giving the Kalachakra initiation. Before the ceremony (which lasts for several days), the space on which the mandala will be constructed and the monks who will create it are purified. The monks then construct the Kalachakra mandala according to special rites and in the exact design, proportion, coloration, etc., of this particular mandala.

Since these are mass events, held in theaters, stadiums, or vast outdoor spaces, attracting thousands of people, the rites cannot be performed as they were designed, for the individual supplicant or neophyte who would take part in the ritual. Instead, they are enacted symbolically for the crowd. Many of those who attend simply want to be in the presence of His Holiness (whom they will most likely only glimpse from a great distance), and may have only the vaguest understanding of what is transpiring. But it is worth understanding, if not the entire process and its complex, esoteric symbology, that there is an ordered structure to the initiation, and that the tantra and its mandala are indivisible. Since the crowd cannot pass as individuals through the stages of the initiation, the Dalai Lama uses these events as a mass teaching, stripping away the arcane and esoteric, interpreting the Kalachakra's basic concept and message.

Tucci considered such rites of initiation as being "liturgical dramas," (one may think of medieval mystery plays), during which, at the decisive phase, the divine force descends into the master, who can then confer it upon the student.

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