Buddhism has had a tremendous impact on Japan and Tibet, itspeople, its religious affiliations and most importantly, its art. The Sanskritword mandala directly translates to any circle or discoid object and it was notuntil the arrival of Tibetan Buddhism that it acquired a specific meaning.
Indeed the mandala consisted of circle and discoid objects, but it alsocomprised of much more deeper symbols and meanings to it. There are three mains schools of Buddhism and the one thatJapan and Tibet have been most influenced by is the esoteric (vajrayana orTantric) school. The mandala is the main art form for this school and a verygeneral definition of the mandala can be “interpreted broadly asrepresentations of sanctified realms where identification between the human andthe sacred occurs.” (Grotenhuis, 1) Theword Tantra in Sanskrit is defined as a framework or system and it “connotesthe assembling of many different beliefs from diverse religious sects, socialclasses, and geographic regions, combing them into carefully organizedsystems.
” (Grotenhuis, 33) What differentiates esoterism from other Buddhistteachings is that although the ultimate goal of the devotees is to reachnirvana or enlightenment, it focuses more on the teachings that are inliterature that tells of how extensive practice and time is needed for theachievement. Althoughthe same school of Buddhism has influenced both Japan and Tibet, the art that wasbeing made was quite different in both countries. Tibetan mandalas relied heavily on visualizationof the life of the Buddha or the representations of deities whom they worship.Those who follow, “engage in special practices in order to realize the pure inwhat was previously viewed as impure, realizing Buddha’s where before they onlyof ordinary beings.” (Brauen, 26) A mandala is a type of “art” from avisualization perspective; however, it is “a visualization of the nature cosmicreality, as such sometimes called a cosmic diagram, and a means to spiritualtransformation.
” (Lieberman, 9) Mandalasare universally similar in the sense that at the center, there is a depictionof the spiritual deity and other areas of the mandalas support the centeridentity. Although complex, the surrounding aspects all lead the eye back toits central point. This is a controlled rule for all mandalas to follow, butalso allows for the freedom of depicting different stories or narratives ofnumerous deities and gods. Thetraditions and teachings originally spread to China gradually making its way toJapan.
The founder of the Shingon School of Buddhism, Kukai discovered the mandalawhile he was studying in China with a monk Huiguo of the Zhenyan School. A fewyears later Saicho, created the Tendai School who also trained in China andbrought the teachings back to Japan. They are both considered to be the mergersof the Shinto-Buddhist beliefs and fueled the growth of indigenous art andesoteric traditions in Japan.Themost famous mandala in Japan is the Ryokai Mandala. Ryokai directly translatesto “two realms” and incorporates the Taizokai Mandala (Womb World) and theKongokai Mandala (Diamond World). “Womb” is used to in the name of this mandalabecause esoteric Buddhism teaches that to attain reality, it can be reachedthrough internal, physical and sensory experiences rather than externalexperiences.
These two are seen as a set and the pair symbolizes the essentialdevotion to the esoteric religious practice. The Womb world mandala representswisdom, while the Womb represents ultimate principle. Together, they create a world specificallyfor the Cosmic Buddha, also known as Dainichi Nyorai where the Taizokai representsthe transcendental Buddha himself and the Kongokai represents the world itself.The Dainichi Nyorai is the most popular and well-known Buddhist figure in Japanand the he was worshipped as the central Buddha of the universe.
TaizokaiMandala and 3D representation of Mandala TheTaizokai Mandala Genzu version is also distinct because various deity familiesare arranged into groups of twelve sections. Unlike the Kongokai Mandala, thismandala follows the traditional mandala style of starting at a center and panningout. In addition, this mandala is made for being represented as athree-dimensional object and not a painting, where the different sections aremore clearly visible. It has twelve halls and there is a center layer where theremaining eleven sections surround. Being on the wall, it is difficult toreally grasp the differences between the sections, but in addition to the fourlayers, there are three different families of Buddha, lotus, and diamond, whichare representative of Esoteric Buddhism. The Buddha section represents hisbeing and his meditation, the lotus section portrays his passion, and finallythe diamond sect represents his knowledge and wisdom. Each section consists ofnumerous halls that further illustrate the importance of the Buddha.
Tobeing, the central hall is dedicated to the Dainichi where he is sitting on aneight-petal lotus. Although in the image, it appears they are all sitting onthe equal plane, as can be seen in the three-dimensional rendition, Dainichi isactually in the middle and is bigger where the other deities surround him. Thelotus represents compassion and on each petal sits a deity and in the middlesits Dainichi who symbolizes principles and virtues. With these combined, thissection signifies the unity of compassion and virtues, which is the main significanceof many mandalas and specifically the mandala of the Two Worlds. Next, is theHall of Universal Knowledge and this is the section right above the CentralHall (on the wall image).
There is a represents fire, which is said to burnaway any obstacle – desire, anger, and ignorance that hinders the birth of the Buddha’s.Being that this mandala is called the “Womb” Mandala, many of the symbols thatcan be seen refer to the birth and growth of the Buddha. Specifically, thissection symbolizes “Dainichi’s transcendent knowledge as the generative sourceof Buddhahood” (Grotenhuis, 62) The Hall of Kannon is located on the left sideof the Central Hall and this section, as well as the section on the rightcalled the Hall of Kongoshu include many Bodhisattvas who represent the differentaspects of the Buddha. The Hall of Kannon is part of the lotus family andrepresents the “process of purification in which the mind is unclouded toreveal its inherent purity.” (Grotenhuis, 62) On the other hand, the Hall ofKongoshu is part of the Diamond section and represents “indestructibleknowledge or wisdom.” (Grotenhuis, 63) Under the center hall, is the Hal ofMantra Holders and they are acknowledged as the personification of Dainichi’swisdom. Along with Dainichi, another important Buddha that is portrayed in thismandala is Sakyamuni. This deity has a section dedicated to him and he “representsthe enlightenment that all beings can experience.
” (Grotenhuis, 64) Beside thishall is the Hall of Monju and the deity of Monju is the representation of thewisdom of the great Buddha. This hall teaches the devotee that as long as onecan/begins to understand the crucial unity that is needed for diversity in theworld. Being the representation of wisdom, this hall is dedicated to guidingthe devotee in acceptance and realizing unity is possible. Next to the Hall ofKongoshu is the Hall of Jokaisho and this section consists of the BodhisattvaJokaisho who represents the knowledge and “acts to remove all hindrances toattainment of Buddhahood.” (Grotenhuis, 66) The Hall of Jizo and the Hall ofKokuzo are dedicated to the mandalas name, the idea of the womb. Hall of Jizoportrays the nurture necessary for enlightenment and the Hall of Kokuzorepresents the hindering that occurs but teaches how one must surpass theseobstacles. An extension of the Hal of Kokuzo is the Hall of Soshitsuji and thishall further emphasizes the need for virtues and appreciation of obstacles toobtain the absolute accomplishment of enlightenment. The last hall is the thirdfamily that was mentioned earlier of the Diamond section.
This sectionsurrounds the whole mandala in the outer most layer. It is the “assembly of allbeings who inhabit the three worlds, of desire, form and formlessness” and consistsof the deities and bodhisattvas who guard these teachings of Esoteric Buddhism. KongokaiMandalaTheKongokai Mandala is spectacular because it is divided up into nine sections. Thisversion is called the Kue version, which directly translates to the nine-panelmandala. It is rare because it steers away from the usual mandala style of thecentral piece and the unwinding of it.
Visually, it is very intriguing becausealthough the mandala itself does not follow the usual style, once seen up close,it is apparent that there are mini mandalas in each section. These minimandalas have specific symbols and meanings to them that when seen as a group,transcends the meaning of the image to the audience. This mandala is presumablysupposed to be read from the center, and then move down and then to the leftand then clockwise around the sections. However, since there are no writings orexplanations as to how to read this mandala, observers today do not knowexactly how to comprehend this piece. In the center section, sits the Nyorai-bufamily or the Perfected-Body Assembly where the Dainichi Nyorai is placed inthe center of the mini mandala with four other Buddha’s that represent eachdirection on the compass.
This is to show the full coverage of the knowledgeand spirituality of the great Buddha. In the mini mandalas, the five Buddha’sin total denotes the five dimensions of wisdom that one needs to achieveultimate reality. The surrounding eight mandalas are considered to bevariations of the Perfected-Body assembly and “offer variations on this basicmessage concerning enlightenment.” (Grotenhuis, 40) In addition to the Perfected-Body Assembly,there are the eight other sections that each holds a significant assembly andmeaning. The first assembly, the Sammaya assembly portrays the virtues oraspects of the Dainichi however, unlike the perfected-body assemble, the lotusplant replaces the four deities of the elements and thus only seventy-threefigures are portrayed in this assembly. Next, the Subtle Assembly signifies thelong lasting wisdom of Dainichi that is considered to be “subtle”.
Althoughthere are seventy-three figures shown, in this assembly the deities are shownin anthropomorphic form. The Offerings Assembly details the offerings that theBodhisattvas are making to the five Buddha’s, Four-Seals Assembly summarizeswhat has happened in the previous four mandalas up to this point. It portraysthe spiritual journey and it allows for the observer to understand easily thejourney of understanding the mandala. The fifth assemble, the One-SealAssembly, is the most unique because it is located in the top center of thegrid and only shows one anthropomorphic image of the Dainichi. This imageallows for the observers to grasp the meaning of the mandala who could notunderstand from the Four-Seals Assembly. Similar to the previous mandala, theRishu Assembly is different from other mandalas because it portrays the maindeity, Kongosatta who is surrounded cardinally by four diamond Bodhisattvas whosymbolize the four aspects of knowledge and in the ordinal direction, by fourmore bodhisattvas who represent the perfections of the Dainichi. In the Gosanze Assembly, Dainichi’s madaspect is portrayed and the name Gosanze means “conqueror of the three worlds”.It depicts how this aspect assumes to destroy the obstacles that hinderenlightenment.
Next to this mandala is the Gosanze-Sammaya Assembly, and asseen from the name it is the mandala that precedes the first one but this onethere is evidence of the state of Sammaya, where virtues and morals are shownwhich are symbols of the Buddha’s and Bodhisattvas. Thesenine mini mandalas make up the larger Kongokai mandala. As noted earlier, thisis a special type of mandala where each dimension to it has a specific meaningand as a whole it can read as something final and definite. It is said thatdevotees were told to stare at the image and meditate towards each of theBuddha renditions. They were to see and try to understand the symbolic meaningthat was being depicted and reflect on the relationships that the Buddha haswith other deities.
Once the devotee was done with the Taizokai mandala, he wasto move onto the Kongokai mandala and it is said that after meditating throughboth visually and symbolically, he would have been unified with the CosmicBuddha. This is another reason as to why these two mandalas are a paired andtypically are seen hanging facing each other’s. “For practitioners, mandalas areembodiments of the sacred, instruments of power that help them realize theiressential Buddha natures, each to become, as Kûkai said, a Buddha in this verybody.” (Grotenhuis, 49) Yamantaka MandalaInTibet, the mandalas are used in Tantric meditation and rituals and it is taughtthat by creating one, it is believed to benefit everyone. The most differentaspect of mandalas in Tibet from the Japanese mandalas is that traditionally,the mandalas are created using sand made from crushed limestone. This is whythere are ritualistic behaviors behind the creation to mandalas in Tibet thatare not seen in Japan.
In Japan, the already-made mandalas are worshipped andsacred; whereas, in Tibet, the ritual itself of the creation process is sacredas well up to the point where they essentially destroy the mandala and give thesand back to nature. The most famous mandala is the Yamantaka Mandala. Thismandala is unlike the Japanese ones mentioned earlier because there is a squareform inside the circular formation. Yamantaka is a deity for conqueror anddeath who is often represented by a blue vajra. A definitive difference withthis mandala and the ones describe above is that this one follows theconventional mandala style where there is an obvious center and is slowly beingopened up to more circles. In particular, this mandala starts off as a square,then a circle, and continues this pattern until it reaches the outer circlethat is closed off with the square shape of the actual image. Anotherdifference is the extensive use of colors in this mandala in contrast to theJapanese ones and that the outer most corners attribute to the five senses. A fewsimilarities; however, is how they are supposed to be seen as three-dimensionalrather than on a wall so the difficulty of communicating is similar amongst thetwo mandalas.
Another similarity is the use of the lotus flower and petals, theborder that consists of Bodhisattvas who protect the teachings, and theinclusion of fire imagery –as seen in the Taizokai mandala, representingwisdom. To compare, similar to the Kongokai Mandala, the middle circle isbroken up into nine sections, giving different deities a specific section. Theusage of primary colors is also distinct because this is considered a “pureexpression” of the wisdom of the Buddha and the purity of him and histeachings. BothJapan and Tibet have been deeply influenced by the teachings of Buddhism andthe esoteric sect of Buddhism.
It is interesting to see how religion andbeliefs can be altered and also stay the same after so many years based on differentcultures. Indeed, Japan and Tibet have overlapping similarities being both Asiancountries with similar traditions, however seeing that the mandala and the Buddhistteachings have altered the way the people of the country have lived is astonishing.Similar, to understand that it was as simple as someone going to china,learning the ways of Buddhist teachings and coming back to the country that changedthe belief system is also something to note. The effect culture, virtues and peoplehave on the evolution of traditions and religion is also important to see herebecause although the meaning and beliefs behind mandalas itself has notchanged, based on the culture of Japan and Tibet, it has gradually changed itsform to match those cultures. Tibet still to this day practices the rituals andfestivities’ revolving around mandala creating but that is not see as prominentin Japan anymore.
Although Buddhism has remained one of the main religions in Japan,Shintoism and Catholicism has also become a followed religion and also it seemsas though religion itself has slowly decreased in respect in Japan. The traditionsand histories of such people and religions are deeply respected and taught;however, not many people in day-to-day society practice the Buddhist teachingsor find the interest in it as well.