In its most common form, the mandala appears as a series of concentric circles, its deities housed in a square structure with four eleaborate gates, sometimes described as a four-sided palace or temple. Beginning with the outer circles, one often finds the following structure: a ring of fire, frequently depticted as a stylized scrollwork, which symbolizes the process of transformation necessary to enter the sacred territory within. This is followed by a ring of thunderbolt or diamond scepters (vajra), indicating the diamond-like, unchangeable nature of the mandala's spiritual realms.
Particularly in mandalas featuring deities in their wrathful (krodha) forms, one finds eight cremation grounds (smasana) arranged in a wide band and marking the next concentric circle of the mandala. Each is associated with one of the cardinal or intermediate points of the compass. Their names vary from text to text, but a standard group includes: Candogra ("Terrible and Frightening"), Gahvara ("Impenetrable Abyss"), Jvalakulakaranka ("Blazing Skull"), Vibhisana ("Terrifying"), Laksmyarama ("Laksmi's Garden"), Ghorandhakara ("Frightening Darkness"), Kilakilarava ("Shrieks of Joy"), and Attattahasa ("Boisterous Laughter").4
Myth associates these eight with Indian sites where ascetics would convene for lengthy periods of meditation. Some texts offer psychological interpretations of the cremation grounds, suggesting they represent the eight aggregates of human consciousness (asta vijnana kaya) which tie man to the phenomenal world and to the cycle of birth and rebirth.5
Each cremation ground has its own mountain, stupa (symbol of the Buddha's teaching and thus, the promise of salvation even in the midst of samsara), river tree, and mendicant. The cremation grounds also symbolize death and the fear of death; in confronting and surpassing this fear, one is free to move into subtler regions of the human psyche. There follows a circle of lotus petals, indicating that the subsequent pure realms exist not in the phenomenal world, but deep within the human heart.
Next appears the mandala's four-walled palace or temple, oriented to the east, its elaborate gates (torana) marking the cardinal points of the compass. The palace walls are golden and encrusted with jewels, each gate surmounted by two gazelles adorned with streamers and facing the wheel of the Buddhist law (dharmacakra). The temple-palace includes sacred and royal symbolism, reflecting ancient ties between sacred and royal societies. Some initiations (abhisekha) into the mandala involve a "coronation," whereby the initiate, wearing a crown and other royal insignia, is baptised with water and accedes to the powers of the mandala.6 A king rules the earth and its inhabitants; the Buddhist hierarch rules himself and exhibits mastery over his own life.
In the temple-palace (kutagara) appear the mandala's various circles of deities.7 This sanctuary, crucial to the mandala plan, bears further consideration. All Indian temples are based on an essential plan known as vastupurusamandala, a diagram arranged as a square surrounded by circles; the proportions of the square and the number of its circles will vary.8 Int he early stages of temple building, this mandala is etched on the earth. The square is oriented to the four cardinal points of the compass, its main entrance ideally facing east.
The essential purpose of the temple's construction is to invoke the divine presence. This occurs through the rite of sacrifice (yajna), whose roots may even be found in the Vedic period (ca. 1500-500 B.C.). Traditionally, the temple's patron is called yajnamana, "sacrificer," though the priest (guru or acarya) performs the sacrifice for him. The earth, the sacrificial ground, is called the altar (vedi); it is also described as the womb (garbha). Upon this altar, many sacrifices are made, but it is clear that the real site of sacrifice is within man.
What is sacrificed, and to whom? The sacerdotal rite determines on which level the sacrifice occurs. On its most superficial level, sacrifice is imbued with dualism, the sacrificer perceiving himself as relinquishing a possession in order to gain communion with his chosen deity. At its highest level, however, sacrifice is entirely non-dualistic, a subtle rite which occurs within the heart of the sacrificiant. Man then sacrifices his own ignorance so that it might be replaced with wisdom. The medieval Sanskrit text, Vijnana Bhairava, states: "When into the fire of Supreme Reality ... the five elements, the senses, the objects of the senses and the min are poured, with the heart acting as sacrificial spoon, this is true sacrifice."9 And the eight-century Bengali saint, Laksmikara, wrote, "... with concentration offer worship only to your body where all the gods reside."10
Some mandalas house hundreds of deities, others far fewer. Regardless of number, deities are arranged symmetrically, marking the four cardinal points of the compass, the intermediate points (e.g. NE, NW, and, occasionally, the nadir and zenith as well. A group of deities confronted early in the sanctuary are its guardians, associated with the mandala's "protective sphere" (raksacakra). Sometimes known as vighnantaka, "those who put an end to impediments," these deities both block entrance to all who would defile the sacred realms within, and vanquish those qualities in the initiate which hinder his or her movement towards enlightenment. They may be four, eight or ten in number, marking the four cardinal points of the compass, the intermediate points, and the mandala's zenith and nadir. They vary, but a common group are yamantaka, Prajnantaka, Padmantaka, Vighnantaka, Takkiraja, Niladanda, Mahabala, Acala, Usnisacakravartin, and Sumbharaja.11
At this point in the mandala, one may find four "offering goddesses," embodiments of offerings made to the mandala's central deity. They mark the intermediate points of the compass: Vajramala (SW; garland), Vajragita (NW; song), Vajranrtya (NE; dance), and Vajralasya (SE; amorous dance). A further circle of "offering goddesses" may also appear; Vajrapuspa (SW; flower), Vajradipa (NW; lamp, Vajragandha (NE;l perfume), and Vajradhupa (SE; incense). Another group commonly represented among the mandala's assemblies of deities are the sixteen "vajra bodhisattvas," peaceful bodhisattvas who surround the central deity of the mandala. The deities vary, but a standard group includes: Vajrasattva, Vajraraja, Vajraraga, Vajrasadhu, Vajraratna, Vajratejas, Vajraketu, Vajrahasa, Vajradharma, Vajratiksna, Vajrahetu, Vajrabhasa, Vajrakamara, Vajraksa, Vajrayaksa, and Vajrasandhi.12 A second group of bodhisattvas known as "Bodhisattvas of the Bhadrakalpa (Fourteen Aeon) include: Maitreya, Manjusri, Gandhahasti, Jnanaketu, Bhadrapala, Amoghadarsi, Akasagarbha, Aksayamati, Pratibhanakuta, Mahasthamaprapta, Sarvapayanjaha, Sarvasokatamonirghatamati, Jaliniprabha, Candraprabha, Amrtaprabha, Samantabhadra.13
Finally, at the centre of the mandala lies the deity with whom the initiate identifies and whose characteristics he or she hopes to share.14 The central deity may be peaceful in appearance; it is often not. Sexual imagery suggests the integrative process which lies at the heart of the mandala, male and female being symbols of the countless pairs of opposites (e.g. love and hate, good and evil) which one experiences in mundane existence. The initiate seeks to curtail his or her alienation, instead 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, completion.
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. They no longer control man; they are at man's behest.
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, dark blue. Each color is associated with one of the five families (kula) of deities, each of these governed by a celestial Buddha (tathagata): Vairocana (white), Aksobhya (blue), Amitabha (red), Ratnasambhava (yellow), and Amoghasiddhi (green). Each color is also associated with one of the five afflictions (pancaklesia) of the human personality: confusion (moha), pride (mana), envy (irsya), hatred (dvesa), and desire (raga).15 These characteristics obscure our true nature, but through spiritual practice, they can be transformed into the wisdom of the tathagata with whom they are associated: confusion becomes wisdom of the expanse of reality (dharmadhatujnana); hatred becomes mirror-like wisdom (adarsajnana); pride becomes wisdom of sameness (samatajnana); desire becomes wisdom of discernment (pratyaveksanajnana); envy becomes wisdom of accomplishment (krtyanusthanajnana).16