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The Mandala in Practice

The mandala is brought to life by rites. Visualization, the inward, mental construction of a mandala, plays a crucial role in esoteric Buddhism. That mandalas are meant to be visualized is made clear by texts such as the Sadhanamala ("A Garland of Means for Attainment"), a ca. eleventh century Sanskrit compendium of iconographic descriptions. Again and again, the Sadhanamala's author tells his readers to "meditate [on] himself as [the deity] ...", iconographic details necessary for the deity's vivid cogitation (e.g. the number of arms, legs and associated symbols) all clearly described.24 During this practice of evoking a deity, known sometimes as sadhana (sgrub-thabs, "means for attainment"), the initiate slowly strengthens (utpannakrama; bskyed-rim) his ability to see the deity within his own mind, the image in all its complexity held firm during long periods of mediation. The initiate thus becomes increasingly identified with the deity and his sacred assembly, and comes to know the powers and the wisdom associated with his deity. The Sadhanamala specifies four stages by which a deity comes into being: 1) the initiate's experience of emptiness (sunyata); 2) his experience of the deity as subtle sound (mantra); 3) the inward vision of the deity; and 4) its external representation as a work of art.25

Citing later Tibetan texts such as dag-yig thon-mi'i dgongs-rgyan ("Reflections on Thonmi Sambhota's Orthography") by Chankya Rolpai Dorje (Icang-skya rol-pa'i rdorje, 1717-1786) and Drukpa Kunlek's ('brug-pa kun-legs, fl. sixteenth century) autobiography, R.A. stein describes a very similar process. The initiate first invokes the deity through a process known as "dakye" (bdag-skyed), literally "production [within] oneself." It begins with experience of emptiness (sunyata; stong-pa-nyid), followed by experience of the deity's mantra. The initiate then feels himself to be identical with the deity whom he has invoked within his own heart. During the next stage, he projects the deity in front of him ("dunkye;" mdun-skyed) and offers worship. In the final stage known as "bumkye" (bum-skyed), literally "production in a vase," he causes the deity to enter a physical object. The object is thereby empowered and considered capable of exerting influence when called upon to do so.26

Thus, deities are not invented; they are revealed. Theoretically, the truest rendering of a deity comes from one who has himself experienced the original mystical vision. But rare is the mystic; rarer still the mystical artist who knows the deity in both its "inner and outer" manifestations. Texts such as the Sadhanamala were intended to guide artists less skilled in the arts of the spirit so they might nevertheless render a work of art which was properly imitative of the original.

One text merits particular attention here because it contains iconographic descriptions of many of the mandalas included in this publication. The Nispannayogavali (hereafter, NSP) was compiled by the Buddhist monk Abhayakaragupta, a Bengali and contemporary of the eastern Indian King Ramapala (ca. A.D. 1087-1141). Although biographical details are scarce, Abhayakaragupta was associated with Vikramasila monastery, a renowned centre of Buddhist Esoteric studies currently being excavated near the modern city of Antichak, Bhagalpur district, Bihar.27 There, Abhayakaragupta translated numerous Sanskrit texts into Tibetan; many are still preserved in the Tibetan canon. The NSP can be found in the Tanjur, along with his translations of twenty-three other texts.28

The NSP contains twenty-six chapters, each describing a different mandala used in Esoteric mediation practices. The text makes clear, first of all, that a deity's iconography and his or her significance are not immutable. Although a deity may serve as the centre of one mandala, he or she may appear in a subsidiary position in another mandala. Of the NSP's twenty-six mandalas, twenty-four different deities serve as their centres. The NSP, however, is not simply an iconographic compendium, for it is rich in iconological information as well. Although the author does not specifiy his audience, the text's most likely readers were monks, who studied the text's mandalas for the purpose of visualization in their mediation practices, and artists, who followed its detailed prescriptions to construct more permanent mandalas in works of art.

The theme of the first chapter is the mystical process by which an individual directly perceives his chosen deity. What is significant for our discussion is the ritual and mystical context within which the mandala unfolds. The chapter begins with a series of rites to be observed by the monk. These include his preparation to receive the vision of the deity.

Adorned with the lord of the families, joined with the heart bija, having the sole sentiment of the compassion of emptiness, (being) the very nature of joy ... let him bring forth ... the countless forms of tathagatas, bodhisattvas, devis and krodhas. And bringing about benevolence as far as possible by means of dharma instruction, may he place before all the supreme good. So doing, the unthinkable form (murti), which is gathering together, arises.29

The text makes clear that one who actually experiences the mystical vision described must be a highly advanced sage (bhagavan) possessing rare skills: "exceedingly wise and whose samadhi is well established ... accomplished in wisdom and in yoga ..."30 Within such a person, established in a deeply introspective state, the form (murti) arises. First, an infinite expanse gives rise to arrangements of light, forming various enclosures. Inside one of these, the vajracage (vajrapanjara), appears a sun-like lotus that supports a wheel spinning in clockwise direction (pradaksina). From each of its ten spokes arises a deity, thus forming the first circle of the mandala. Each deity is described in detail so that in addition to their gestures, postures, colors, and associated symbols, one gains a sense of their actual presence. Thus, it is said with regard to some wrathful deities: "... [they] are horrible, with knitted bushy brows; their hair is raised on end. Wearing tigerskins, their teeth are showing, their tongues move to and fro, and their immense teeth are apparent as they laugh; they are adorned with eight fierce nagas. They are dwarfs, obese and big-bellied." 31 The centre of this wheel contains an inverted triangle, the dharmodaya (lit. "origin of things.")32 Within it, supported by a double lotus, is an altar (vedi) upon which lies another wheel, "made of five colored jewels, the mandala of the chiefs of sages, pervaded with excellent various rays extending in all directions." This is called the kutagara.33

There follows a wealth of information intended to make more explicit the vision already outlined - e.g. the mantras and the heads of the families (kula) of deities are listed, as are more details about their postures (asana) and gestures (mudra). Some of this information is clearly intended to provide the reader with the information necessary to visualize - mentally or artistically - the original, mystical vision. If a stage necessary to the vision is omitted, the author states as much, sometimes indicating where such information can otherwise be obtained. Some remarks seem specifically directed to the artist: certain features of the mandala are not detailed (e.g. the plans [sucakam likhanam] of the kutagara), but the reader is encouraged to consult another of his works, the Vajravali text, where they are said to be recorded.34 The author also explains why he has omitted certain features of the mandala and included others: "... in the mandalas that are to be contemplated, the protective circle (raksacakra) does not exist and is thus not written since, having entered into emptiness (sunyata), the obstacles are [already] destroyed."35

The NSP's description makes clear that ontologically, deities are meant to be understood as states of being within man, perceptible on an extremely subtle level of introspection. Few possess the innate or cultivated skills necessary to experience the deities on this intuitive level. Others must resort to ritual observances which provide man with a vision approximate to the original. This is where a work of art, such as a painting - in imitation of the original, mystical vision - plays a crucial role. As the NSP notes, the mandalas it describes are both "within and without."36 The outer mandala is intended to act as a contemplative support, awakening our higher senses so that we might eventually perceive the inner, mystical vision.

Jane Casey Singer

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