The mandala as a term is difficult to define, because it holds many different meanings in many cultures. However, it is essentially a geometrically-balanced, circular design or piece of artwork holding symbols used for clarifying one's thoughts or purpose. It comes from the root word "manda," meaning essence, and "la," meaning container. Many believe that it is just that-a container of the essence. The essence of life, of spirit, of meaning, of self.
This depiction has been used as a sacred symbol for many different religious practices and faiths, including Native American, Christian, Islam, aboriginal Australians, Hinduism, and more.
Carl Jung used them in his psychoanalysis research, as a tool for self-exploration, and a representation of the connection to the collective unconscious. Various therapeutic practices still employ them, often created by patients as a spiritual guided journey or to balance out the two sides of the brain.
Vajrayana Buddhists have a special affinity to mandalas. Most of them created and studied by these Buddhists contain many things within them - a symbolic map, or microcosm of the universe, representations of the particular doctrine practiced by the sect, interpretations of the important deities, and a central temple-often in the center of the artwork.
What this object primarily represents is the sanctified place inhabited by the deities. By meditating on this sacred space, one can find a haven from the ordinary world in oneself; or one can find a sacred space within, which can then be carried throughout their life.
In addition, the mission of meditating on any particular space of this kind is to not simply memorize it, but to internalize it into one's own being so that it can be called to the mind in minute detail at any time. Each sacred piece carries with it a set of guidelines for living, and when one can internalize it, its guidance is carried within as well.
One aspect of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhist practice that has received worldwide attention is the sand mandala. Made by Tibetan monks with very small metal tubes producing a fine stream of sand-like grains of different colors, they are usually created on stone temple floors. Like others they depict symbols of deities and Buddhist concepts.
To represent the Buddhist idea of impermanence, the beautiful creations are then brushed away and offered to a stream of water. While other sects of Vajrayana Buddhism apply the use of these creations, only the Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhists create the sand ones.
Nichiren Buddhists use the moji-mandala, or Gohonzon, which is usually a scroll containing Chinese characters that depict the words Nam Myoho Renge Kyo in the center, but the other elements of deities and various doctrines are there also.
Shingon Buddhists, the Japanese version of Vajrayana, focus on two types of this craftmanship, reportedly brought by the founder of Shingon from China. They are often used in initiation rites for new followers. The rite involves blindfolding the students and having them toss a flower onto the design. Wherever the flower lands on the design indicates where the initiate should focus his studies.
Regardless of the slight variations in which they are constructed, the mandala in Buddhist practice is a central facet. Believers feel that through the self-discovery of the sacred space within every soul, aided by the practice of meditating on this sacred depiction, enlightenment is possible.