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An Intro to Mandala

We parked the car and got all our gear out and arranged it in the warm sun. Japhy put things in my knapsack and told me I had to carry it or jump in the lake. He was being very serious and leaderly and it pleased me more than anything else. Then with the same boyish gravity he went over to the dust of the road with the pickax and drew a big circle and began drawing things in the circle.

"What’s that?"

"I’m doin a magic mandala that’ll not only help us on our climb but after a few more marks and chants I’ll be able to predict the future from it."

"What’s a mandala?"

"They’re the Buddhist designs that are always filled with things, the circle representing the void and the things illusion, see."

-A discussion between Ray Smith and Japhy Ryder prior to their hike up the Matterhorn from Jack Kerouac’s "The Dharma Bums." (Kerouac, p. 53-54)

Mandala has been part of our popular culture longer than most of us remember. Back in 1958, Kerouac shared his first lesson regarding the importance of mandala within Buddhism with a generation that had never heard the term. In the Shingon tradition, mandala has been a central pillar of art, expression, practice and teaching since its inception by the founder Kobo Daishi Kukai.

Likewise, from the earliest days of his teaching in the United States, the idea or concept of "mandala" has been a central theme for Ajari Tanaka. The first centers Ajari founded in New York City then in later in Lincoln, Vermont were called "Mandala Buddhist Center." In Shingon, the complete teachings of this lineage are contained and expressed artistically in the two mandalas, the Kongo-kai (Vajradhatu) and the Taizo-kai (Gharbhadhatu). As students of Shingon and Ajari Tanaka it is important that we explore the meaning of "mandala", develop our understanding of its place in our tradition and allow the teachings about mandala to inspire our practice.

Our own teacher will often say that the original mandala was Shakyamuni’s enlightenment place under the Bodhi Tree. In a teaching session with a small group of his North American students, Ajari Tanaka defined mandala as follows;

"Essence of taste"



Altar, practice place (dojo)

The Bodhi Tree

Yamasaki Sensei, in his book "Shingon, Japanese Esoteric Buddhism" explains, that the "word mandala is composed of the Sanskrit root manda – meaning essence, center, true meaning, the purest of flavor of clarified milk – with the suffix la, meaning accomplishment, possession." (Yamasaki, p. 123) From this we can extract a provisional definition of mandala as, "possessing the essence" or perhaps, "accomplishing the true meaning." Yamasaki Sensei further elaborates the meaning of mandala by exploring the ways it was translated into the Chinese language. The following are the English renderings of the Chinese terms used to indicate mandala:

Perfectly endowed

Highest incomparable flavor, unsurpassable highest flavor



Altar, practice place, temple

(Yamasaki, p. 123)

With just this basic exploration we can see that the term "mandala" is not a simple, one-dimensional expression. In fact it is just the opposite, mandala is one of those expressions that is meant to evoke a complex of associations that brings together vast meaning.

Shingon’s founder, Kobo Daishi Kukai elaborates the idea of mandala, identifying four types of mandala which are "inseparably related to one another" (Hakeda, p. 88). These mandala are;


Samaya mandala

Dharma mandala

Karma mandala

Ajari Tanaka has explained these four types of mandala identified by Kobo Daishi Kukai, using a very simple formula. Using the example of our home country, the United States of America, Ajari clarified the meaning of these four mandala.

"The Mahamandala, or Great Mandala is the painted mandala. This is like a map of the U.S. The Samaya Mandala is expressed as symbols, similar to the flag. The Dharma Mandala is expressed in seed syllables, so it is liken to the abbreviation "USA." And finally the Karma Mandala is expressed in action so it is the culture or behavior of the American people."

This little teaching on the four mandalas by Ajari Tanaka is very typical of his teaching style. It is very common for Ajari Tanaka to make complex topics suddenly very simple and accessible to his students, allowing us a starting point for the development of our understanding.

Prof. Hakeda in "Kukai: Major Works" interprets these types of mandala as follows;

Mahamandala is the "great circle, the universe. Mahavairocana seen in his physical extension."

Samaya mandala is the "same circle seen from the viewpoint of the omnipresence of Mahavairocana’s intention."

Dharma mandala is the same circle viewed as "Mahavairocana’s range of communication."

Karma mandala is the "same circle seen from the viewpoint of his actions."

In summary, The Four Mandalas represent "the extension, intention, communication and action" of Mahavairocana." (Hakeda, p. 90-91)

Another very tangible and vivid expression of mandala is our oqn teacher’s practice of a very simple Shodo form. Ajari Tanaka very often executes the "Enso," in his Shodo practice and teaching. Enso is just a circle, it couldn’t be more simple. But when Ajari Tanaka picks up his great brush, dips into the dark ink and in one big sweeping arch, complete with a sharp yell, he creates a perfectly unique and beautiful mandala. In this one instant the whole meaning of mandala is made clear. Many times after completing the Enso, Ajari will simply say, "perfect."

Mandala is a broad and important topic to both Shingon in general and students of Ajari Tanaka specifically. The Kongo-kai and Taizo-kai mandalas are each vast fields of learning containing a lifetime of Dharma. It is important to our own personal practice and study that we undertake to develop our understanding of mandala in all its vast array of forms and meaning.



Kerouac, Jack The Dharma Bums New York, NY Penguin Books 1976

Hakeda, Yoshito Kukai: Major Works New York Columbia University Press 1972

Yamasaki, Taiko Shingon: Japanese Esoteric Buddhism Boston, MA Shambhala Publications 1988