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The Mandala - Tantric Symbol of Integration

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by Sangharakshita

... advice, all mixed up. So it's very difficult to sort out - but we're not concerned with that now. I'm just giving some idea of what the Tantras are like.

Now among the various topics and subjects dealt with in the Tantras, in the Tantric literature in this sort of way there is what we call the Mandala. Mandalas are described, dealt with in the Tantras. So therefore we come back to our first question, "What is a Mandala?" Literally, a Mandala is a circle; the word means just that. Some writers on Buddhism call it a magic circle, but this could be rather misleading - it depends of course on what you mean by the term 'magic'. Perhaps the best short description or definition of the Mandala is "a circle of symbolic forms". There must be, in a complete Mandala, at least five of these forms and they must be arranged in a certain way, in a certain pattern. There must be one of these symbolic forms in the centre, in the middle, and there must be one at each of the four cardinal points. In this way, you get five.

Now the symbolic forms are the forms of various Buddhas, various Enlightened Ones, and various Bodhisattvas - beings on their way to Enlightenment, personifications of various attributes of Enlightenment and so on. In other words, the symbolic forms are, what I described last week as archetypal images. In all these Mandalas, the central symbol, or the central symbolic form, the central archetype, represents Reality Itself, or rather, within _________________________________________________________________________________________________ the context of the Mandala, we may say, it is Reality Itself. And the other four symbolic forms distributed at the four cardinal points represent the four principal aspects of that Reality, or the four principal aspects into which it is, as it were, split up when you try to break it down a little. So this is the basic scheme of the Mandala: five symbolic forms, five archetypes, Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and so on, arranged in this particular pattern; one at the centre and four at the four cardinal points.

There are incidentally, many other features also of the Mandala, for instance, the symbolic forms - whether five, or eight or nine, or twenty-four, as sometimes happens, whatever the number - they're all placed within a square enclosure which has four gates. And this square enclosure is again placed within a series of three concentric circles, circles of flame and so on. What all this means, we shall see a little later on. Meanwhile, let us take a closer look at the symbolic forms, the archetypes, themselves.

As we've already said, these are forms, figures, of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and so on, and there are a number of different sets corresponding to different Mandalas. In fact several hundred different sets, but all obeying, all following, the same basic scheme. Some have got five figures and others more, as I've said. The basic scheme, however, always remains the same: the central point radiating in the four main directions.

Now the Chinese have a saying that one picture is worth a thousand words. So I shall try to 'paint', as it were, a picture of a Mandala. I'm going to take the simplest, in a sense, of all the Mandalas, but also, in a sense, the most important, and this is the Mandala of the Five Buddhas. We've briefly encountered these Five Buddhas before, we encountered them last week when we spoke on the Tibetan Book of the Dead but we had to content ourselves with just a brief reference to them, almost in passing, but today we are going to go into this question of the Five Buddhas and the Mandala of the Five Buddhas in somewhat greater detail and try to get, try to actually paint, a clear and vivid picture of them.

The First of the Five Buddhas is Vairocana, the Illuminator, the White Buddha.

Secondly, Akshobya, the Imperturbable, the Dark Blue Buddha; Thirdly, Ratnasambhava, the Jewel-producing, the Yellow Buddha; Fourthly, Amitabha, the Infinite Light, the Red Buddha; Fifthly and lastly, Amoghasiddhi, the Infallible Success, the Green Buddha.

These five Buddhas represent the five principal aspects of Buddhahood. In conceptual terms, they represent the Five Wisdoms, each Buddha being associated with one particular Wisdom. I'm afraid it's a point which rather adds to the confusion, but one finds that in different schemes, in different contexts, in different traditions, different Buddhas are associated with different Wisdoms, so one Buddha is not invariably associated with a certain Wisdom. It depends upon the general context, the general Mandala, the spiritual tradition and so on. But there are two or three more or less standard patterns and we're following just one of those this evening - but we should realise it's not an invariable one by any means.

Each of the Five Buddhas is also associated with a particular direction, a particular point of the compass, a particular colour, a particular emblem and mudra or gesture of the hands. So let us go into this a little more in detail, a little more systematically.

1. Vairocana, the White Buddha The name Vairocana means the Illuminator, The One Who Lights Up. And originally in Vedic times and later, Vairocana was one of the names of the sun, or even of the sun god, so quite evidently there's a considerable amount of symbolism here. It's as though Buddhahood or Reality was conceived of as a sort of spiritual sun.

Just as the material sun illumines the material world, so Vairocana, the Illuminator, as the spiritual sun, the sun of Buddhahood, the sun of Enlightenment, illumines the whole of the spiritual world. In fact in Japan, in the Shingon Sect, Vairocana, who is their principal Buddha, is known in Japanese as the "Great Sun Buddha", the idea being of a sort of spiritual sun of Buddhahood illuminating the whole of the spiritual cosmos.

_________________________________________________________________________________________________ Quite appropriately the emblem or symbol of Vairocana is a golden Dharmachakra, that is to say a golden Wheel of the Law, very often highly ornamented, with eight spokes, beautifully decorated, and in art, in iconography, Vairocana is usually represented as holding this eight-spoked golden wheel in his hands. And his mudra, his gesture of the hands, is what is called the Wheel-Turning, the Dharmacakrapravartana mudra, which is associated in historical terms with the Buddha's first sermon at Sarnath, the title of the first sermon in fact is "Dharmacakrapravartana Sutra", the Discourse of the Turning of the Wheel of the Doctrine. Turning the Wheel of the Doctrine being a sort of idiom in Buddhism for preaching, for propagating the Buddha's teaching. So this mudra which Vairocana has or the mudra in which his hands are arranged, is this Wheel- turning mudra, turning the Wheel of the Doctrine, preaching the doctrine, or shedding the light of the doctrine on all living beings.

Vairocana, the Illuminator, is especially associated with, represents or embodies, the Wisdom of the Dharmadhatu. Out of the Five Wisdoms he represents or he embodies, if you like, the Wisdom of the Dharmadhatu, this is the basic Wisdom - in a sense, Enlightenment Itself. The other four Wisdoms are aspects of this Wisdom, just as the other four Buddhas, in a sense, are aspects of Vairocana himself. This is the reason why Vairocana occupies the centre of the Mandala, because he is associated with the Wisdom of the Dharmadhatu, which is the central Wisdom amongst all the five Wisdoms. This is also the reason why his colour is white. In Buddhist tradition white is the colour of the Absolute. White is, as it were, the union, the unity of all the colours of the rainbow. The colours are a sort of decomposition of the purity of the white light, so Vairocana representing the Absolute, Reality Itself in its central aspect, undifferentiated, is represented as white. And if in Buddhist iconography, you get any Buddha or any Bodhisattva represented in a white colour (you sometimes get a white Tara, or white Avalokitesvara), this means that they're represented in their Absolute aspect. Regardless of their conventional place in the pantheon, when they become white, they are, as it were, invested with all the attributes of Absoluteness, and become a symbol of the Absolute itself, of Buddhahood itself, in its perfection, in its Supreme state. So Vairocana is white because he is the central Buddha, the main Buddha, associated with the main Wisdom, the central Wisdom, the Wisdom of the Dharmadhatu.

Dharmadhatu is a very difficult term indeed. It's one, I would say, of the most difficult terms in the whole of Buddhism. Dhatu means a sphere, or a field, or a realm, or even a kingdom, and Dharma represents here Reality. Sometimes dharma means the teaching, the doctrine, sometimes a mental state, a characteristic - but here it means Reality. So Dharmadhatu means the whole Universe - the whole of the cosmos, the whole of existence conceived of as the sphere of manifestation, as it were, of Reality. The Field of Manifestation of Reality; this is the Dharmadhatu.

In other words the whole Universe as pervaded by Reality. This is what Dharmadhatu means. So the Wisdom of the Dharmadhatu is the Wisdom which sees directly that the whole universe, in all its heights, in all its depths, on all sides, in all directions, to infinity as it were, is pervaded by one sole Reality, which penetrates everywhere, just as the whole of space, as it were, is penetrated by the beams, by the light of the sun. So this is the Wisdom of the Dharmadhatu, ...

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